Linda Geist

CLINTON, Mo.– Baby, it’s cold outside. And there’s no better way to warm up after the workday than to come home to a hot meal.

Your slow cooker can be an economical, timesaving way to feed your family, says Susan Mills-Gray, University of Missouri Extension nutritionist. Less expensive cuts of meat shrink less and become tender in slow cookers.

She gives tips to make your slow cooker easier to use and clean.

• If you have an older slow cooker, cleanup may be more difficult. To make cleaning easier, use a removable cooking bag to line the crock part of the cooker.

• Use a nonstick spray on the liner for easier cleanup.

• Fill your cooker half to three-fourths of the way to the brim for best results. The cooker will not cook well if too full. If you do not fill at least half of the way, foods overcook.

• One hour on the high setting equals two hours on the low setting. The high setting is approximately 300 degrees while the low setting is 200 degrees.

• Resist the temptation to peek. You add 20 minutes to the cooking time every time you lift the lid. Instead, spin the lid around until the condensation falls off so you can see the food better.

• Use the high setting the first hour that your food is cooking. This reduces the chance of bacterial contamination.

• Start with thawed food. Frozen foods take too long to get to 140 degrees. The bacterial danger zone is 40 to 140 degrees.  The extreme temperature difference between frozen food and the slow cooker can cause breakage. If you choose to use frozen food, pour a cup of warm water into the pot before adding your food.

• Root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots take longer to cook than meat and other vegetables. Place them on the bottom or side of the cooker so they are closest to the heat source. Cut in pieces smaller than 1 inch. Tender vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini and squash overcook easily. Add them during the last two hours of cooking. High-fat food cook quickly, so place them on top of vegetables when loading the cooker.

• Brown meat before placing in the slow cooker. This adds color and flavor and reduces fat.

• Fish and seafood cook quickly. Add them late in the process.

• Soak dried beans overnight before cooking in a slow cooker.

• Milk curdles during long cooking periods. Add sour cream or cream late in the cooking process. Condensed cream soups are a good substitute.

• Ground herbs and spices tend to lose their flavor during long cooking times. Cayenne pepper and Tabasco tend to get bitter.

• Don’t leave cooked food to cool in the slow cooker. Move to another container to refrigerate. Do not use your slow cooker to reheat leftovers.

Cooking/baking times

Conventional recipe

Slow cooker, low setting

Slow cooker, high setting

15 to 30 minutes

4 to 6 hours

1½ to 2 hours

30 to 45 minutes

6 to 10 hours

3 to 4 hours

45 minutes to 3 hours

8 to 18 hours

4 to 6 hours

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