Elisa Shackelton: Use your crockpot safely

— Opening the front door on a cold evening and being greeted by the inviting smell of beef stew or chicken enchiladas wafting from a slow cooker/crockpot can be a dream come true at the end of a long work day. Slow cookers can make life a little more convenient because, by planning ahead, you save time later. They also take less electricity than an oven.

Did you know?

Slow cookers should be filled no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full.

Avoid the temptation to lift the lid while a slow cooker is operating. Each time the lid is lifted, the cooking seal is broken, necessitating an additional 20 minutes of cooking time.

A slow cooker is a safe, energy-efficient countertop appliance that enables you to cook less expensive, leaner cuts of meat by helping them become tender and shrink less. The direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking and steam created with the tightly-covered container combine to destroy bacteria. Be sure to load your crockpot properly. Since vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry, put vegetables in first, at the bottom and around the sides. Then add meat and cover the food with liquid such as broth, water or barbecue sauce.

Always defrost meat or poultry before putting them into a slow cooker. Since the temperature in a slow cooker is low (between 170 and 280 F) and the container starts out at room temperature, as food thaws, it stays in the temperature danger zone for too long, allowing harmful bacteria to become established. Most slow cookers have two settings. If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking, and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. If using a commercially frozen slow cooker meal, prepare according to manufacturer's instructions. Store leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate within two hours after cooking is finished. Reheating in a slow cooker is not recommended.

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