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Slow cookers make healthy eating easier

While a slow cooker can make life a little easier any time of year, the hint of cooler temperatures is often when cooks pull them out of storage. These small appliances, popular in the 1970’s, have seen a resurgence in popularity with our busy lifestyles and desire for healthier meals at home.

A slow cooker is convenient, saves time and money. Less expensive and less tender cuts of meat can be used and by preparing homemade soups, stews, casseroles, or desserts you are not paying the price for pre-prepared convenience foods. The slow cooker uses less electricity than an oven and introduces less heat into the kitchen. Since foods are cooked slowly at a low temperature vitamins and minerals in foods are retained. You determine what and how much salt, fat and sugar is added to the food thus improving the nutritional content. A meal prepared in a slow cooker is delicious since the flavors in the food have time to develop. Vegetables absorb the flavors of the stock and herbs and meats are fork tender due to moist heat cooking.

From a food safety point of view, these appliances are safe when properly used. The cooker cooks foods between 170 and 280 degrees F, temperatures above the temperature danger zone. The direct heat from the cooker, lengthy cooking time and steam created within the tightly covered container, combine to destroy bacteria and make the slow cooker a safe method of food preparation. To test your cooker to be sure it is operating at the proper temperature fill the cooker one-half to two-thirds full of water, heat on a low setting for 8 hours with the lid on. Check the temperature with a calibrated food thermometer. Do this quickly as once the lid is removed the temperature drops 10 to 15 degrees. The water temperature should be at least 185 degrees F, indicating the cooker is heating foods high enough and fast enough to destroy harmful bacteria. If the temperature is below this then discard the cooker.

Other tips for using your slow cooker to prepare healthy and safe meals:

¯ Always begin with a clean cooker and wash hands before and during food preparation.

¯ For easy cleanup rub the inside of the stoneware with oil or spray it with a non-stick spray before use. Consider using a slow cooker liner if appropriate.

¯ Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation.

¯ Thaw frozen meat and poultry under refrigeration before placing in the cooker. DO NOT put frozen meat in the cooker as it will take too long to come up to temperature.

¯ The cooker does not brown meats or vegetables so if the recipe calls for this be sure to do it.

¯ Pre-heat the cooker before adding ingredients or cook on the highest setting for the first hour.

¯ When cooking meat or poultry, add liquid (water, broth, or sauces) to almost cover the ingredients ensuring effective heat transfer.

¯ Vegetables cook slower so place them on the bottom or sides of the cooker.

¯ Add milk cheese and cream during the last hour of cooking to prevent curdling. Very soft vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini can be added during the last 45 minutes of cooking. Consider cooking pasta or rice separately and adding just before serving to keep it from becoming to mushy.

¯ Fill to a minimum one-half full and a maximum of two-thirds full, do not overload.

¯ Do not lift the lid during the cooking cycle. Each time the lid is raised the temperature of the food will drop 10 to 15 degrees and about 15-20 minutes of cooking time is lost.

¯ Check final doneness of food with a calibrated food thermometer.

¯ Refrigerate any leftovers within two hours.

¯ Do not reheat foods in the cooker. Foods should be reheated on the stove or in a microwave to proper temperature and can then be held in a cooker to maintain temperature above 140 degrees F.

¯ If you are not at home during the entire cooking process and the power goes out, throw the food away. If you are home, finish cooking the ingredients by some other means.

Not sure how to get started? There are many cookbooks devoted to slow cookers as well as hundreds of websites that offer recipes. In many cases you can simply take your favorite recipe and cook it in the slow cooker rather than on the stove or in the oven. While most people use a slow cooker for meats, soups or stews, it can also be used to cook side dishes, desserts and pasta. If your goal is to have more home prepared meals, then this method of cooking can easily fit into a busy schedule.

One last thing, there is nothing better than coming home from work or school to the delicious smells of a home cooked meal!

Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Slow Cookers and Food Safety.

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