Extension Connection: Slow cooking just as easy the safe way

Home cooks are discovering many sophisticated dishes can be prepared in a slow cooker. While many people long for the inviting smells of classics like beef stew, chicken noodle soup and casseroles, there is a vast collection of slow cooker recipes for everything from regional and ethnic dishes to low-carb and vegetarian dinners.

While slow cooking is a great way to prepare a home-cooked meal and have it ready at the end of a busy working day, don&8217;t take any food safety shortcuts in the process.

The following recommendations are easy to follow and help reduce the threat of foodborne illness from slow cookers.

– Always defrost meat and poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. Choose to make foods with high moisture content, such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce. Cut food into chunks or small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Do not use the slow cooker for large pieces like a roast or a whole chicken because the food will cook so slowly it could remain in the bacterial &8220;danger zone&8221; between 40 &161;F and 140 &161;F for too long.

– Fill the slow cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in a slow cooker so if using them, put vegetables in first, at the bottom and around sides of the appliance. Then add meat and cover the food with liquid such as broth, water or barbecue sauce. Keep the lid in place.

– Most cookers have two or more settings. Foods take different times to cook depending upon the setting used. Certainly, foods will cook faster on high than on low. However, for all-day cooking or for less-tender cuts, you may want to use the low setting. If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking time and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. It is safe to cook foods on low the entire time &8212; if you&8217;re leaving for work, for example, and preparation time is limited. While food is cooking and once it&8217;s done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating.

– Store leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate within two hours after cooking is finished. Reheating leftovers in a slow cooker is not recommended. However, cooked food can be brought to steaming on the stovetop or in a microwave oven and then put into a preheated slow cooker to keep hot for serving.