It seems on social media everyone either has a sourdough starter or a slow cooker during lockdown. But do you actually know how to use a slow cooker safely? Because I am clutching my pearls, trying not to faint and fearing for a lot of people during a time when toilet paper is in short supply.
People, you are risking serious ill health because you do not know how to use your slow cooker safely. They are kitchen tools, not toys like a pretend oven and there require some common sense and food safety or you risk genuine harm such as food poisoning. This is incredibly important when we have just asked all the immuno-compromised people in the country to stay indoors and then you decide to make salmonella slow cooker stew to ‘help out’.
We are going to cover the basics of safety. You can buy my book Slow Cooked to learn the slow cooker basics of tasty. But right now we really need a word because you lot thought the advisory booklet with the slow cooker was optional and it shows. We are scared of a virus and yet you are breeding bacteria in the house.
1. Put it somewhere safe: well away from water and without the flex hanging down. You probably have bored kids in the house right now and leaving the slow cooker full of hot liquid near the edge of sinks, worktops, fridge tops and tables with the cable hanging down will maim a child or pet that pulls it down. It will also heat up your fridge and make it less safe or electrocute you if it falls in water. Put it well back on your surfaces or on a higher shelf. It doesn’t have to be in the kitchen if you are short of space but please god, not the bathroom. Keep it away from anything flammable or that can absorb its residual heat from it to minimise impact. Check the cable and plug if you dug out an old one from the 3 day week like half the internet is doing.
2. Slow cookers must not be filled full: NEVER fill it more than two thirds full. A 3.5 litre crock should only ever hold 2 litres of food. The top third must be empty to allow the steam to circulate. Slow cookers work by circulating steam to create a steam seal around the lid that allows the pressure and temperature to rise slowly, steadily and safely to between 104 and 110 degrees Celsius over a set time frame and insuring a safe consistent internal temperature to your food.
When you over fill it you lower the temperature by preventing it working as designed and make your food more likely to cook too slowly to be safe or not be hot enough to kill bacteria. It can make particularly dried beans and meat unsafe to eat especially for children and the immuno-compromised. Do not over fill. For your health and my blood pressure, please stop filling it to the brim like a bucket.
3: Leave your knob alone: do not change the high-low-medium setting part way through the cooking unless the food is actively boiling and likely to be damaged by too much heat. The setting on the slow cooker is not about how hot it gets but how long it takes to get to the heat. It’s the tortoise of cooking and turning it up and down puts the tortoise on its back in a spin. Recipes are tested to certain settings to achieve the correct length of time for taste and safety. If you want speed, get a pressure cooker instead. This up and down game does nothing except put you at risk by playing temperature roulette.
4. Don’t lift the lid. Every time you lift the lid a fairy dies or in scientific speak, you drop the time it takes for the food to reach a safe temperature by 20 minutes per litre of food. So that sneak peek to see how the pulled pork is doing? You just added an hour to the cooking time right there and made a big lump of meat less safe to use as leftovers. Slow cookers are really really slow. Nothing happens while you watch. It is like watching paint dry. Leave it alone in a safe place and make sure that lid stays on.
5. Avoid extremes of temperature: don’t chill the food overnight in the crock and then heat it up. This is likely to crack the crock glazing or the structure and make it less safe or actually break. Don’t put the hot crock into the fridge to cool or you risk the same thing in reverse. Don’t sear meat and then chill it to cook next day. This is how you give the whole house food poisoning. It’s also how you give yourself that woolly tasteless food people associate with the slow cooker. The only time you need to sear the meat is to avoid the look of a pale dead man’s finger of a sausage or a flabby pale chicken wing.
It’s purely aesthetic these days when almost no slow cookers advise preheating the crock. It’s risky searing meat and then adding it partly warmed to a very cold crock to slowly heat up again. Hygiene wise this is a bad idea and in my taste testing people always preferred the non seared meat’s texture. The slow cooker steams and braises the meat. Frying it first is overkill. It’s already dead. Too many methods spoil the broth.
6. But do add hot liquid to the slow cooker. You’ll be here until Christmas making tonight’s dinner if you use cold water to make stock. The only time you should add cold water to the crock is if you are cooking unsoaked pulses to allow them to soak and cook. Remember this is perfectly safe for all beans except red kidney beans. These should be soaked and boiled before adding or just use tinned ones to save yourself.
These are the basic safety tips you need to know how to use a slow cooker safely. One tip I can share since I wrote Slow Cooked is that a ceramic crock is perfectly dishwasher safe. I didn’t have a dishwasher in those days and few things in my house were safe from me swearing as I scrubbed the sixth crock of a day’s recipe testing. Give the lid the good clean too in the dishwasher or soak in hot water and vinegar for 10 minutes to be sure there is nothing in the crevices.
Stay safe. Enjoy slow cooking. Share your photos with me on Instagram at @miss_south_food and in the next day or so I’ll be sharing a couple more slow cooker recipes on heavy rotation at my house during the lockdown.