Slow Cooker: 8 Steps for Success & Safety

— By Kathy Savoie, Extension Educator, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

As a working mom I’ve come to rely on the slow cooker as my ally in the weeknight frenzy of feeding a hearty and healthy meal to my busy family. The slow cooker is an electric countertop appliance that comes in several sizes and uses slow and low (generally between 170˚ – 280˚ F) heat to cook food. Since slow and low cooking is the best approach to making less-expensive cuts of meat more tender, the slow cooker is also an ally in keeping my grocery bill low! Let’s cover some basic steps for success and food safety when using a slow cooker:

  1. Remember to fill the slow cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. A slow cooker that is too full may not be able to heat foods quickly. This raises the concern for food safety since foods that spend more than 2 hours in the temperature danger zone of 40˚ – 140˚F allow food pathogens to grow rapidly.
  2. Make sure your meat or poultry is completely thawed before putting it in the slow cooker. If you are short on time, you can use the defrost cycle in the microwave to quickly thaw food before adding it to the slow cooker.
  3. Turn the heat to “high” for the first hour of cooking and then lower (if needed) to the setting called for in your recipe. Using the high setting for the first hour of cooking helps to raise the temperature of your food quickly through the temperature danger zone. This step is important when cooking poultry or meat.
  4. For food safety reasons, keep the lid on at all times and resist the temptation to lift the lid during the cooking cycle. Each time the lid is lifted, the temperature drops and it takes time to recover the lost heat.
  5. Use a reliable food thermometer to check that the food has reached a minimum safe temperature. Use the chart below to determine the temperature for the type of food you are cooking:
    Product Minimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time
    Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb
    Steak, chops, roasts
    145˚F and allow to rest for 3 minutes
    Ground Meats 160˚F
    Ham, fresh or smoked
    All Poultry
    (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, wings, ground, giblets, and stuffing)
    Leftovers & Casseroles 165˚F
  6. If you have any leftovers, remove them from your slow cooker and refrigerate them promptly. Shallow, covered containers are great for leftovers.
  7. A slow cooker should not be used for reheating leftovers. Use your oven, stovetop or microwave to reheat foods to 165˚F and then add to the pre-heated slow cooker. Hot foods should be held at 140˚F or above. Use a calibrated food thermometer to check the temperature. Adjust the setting as needed.
  8. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for specific information on how to use and care for your appliance.