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Slow cooker meals save time, money
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Slow cooker season is here, when cool weather and longer nights make coming home to a ready-made meal the perfect end to a busy day.
Using a slow cooker has many advantages, especially during the busy holiday season, said Natasha Haynes, a Mississippi State University Extension Service agent in Rankin County.
“When you use a slow cooker, it’s a one-dish meal. Slow cooker meals are easy to put together and free you up to do other things while supper is cooking,” Haynes said. “You can even make the meal the night before and let it cook all day the next day. Plus, clean-up is simple.”
Haynes said in addition to convenience, using a slow cooker is budget-friendly.
“Look at the meat and vegetables in the recipe,” Haynes said. “You can get cheaper cuts of meat because they will get tender as they cook slowly, which means you can save money. Slow cookers also use less electricity than conventional ovens.”
Slow cookers cook food at a low temperature for a long period of time, which helps retain vitamins and nutrients for healthier meals. Fast food and restaurant meals are notorious for being high in calories, sodium and fat.
“You have more control over the ingredients when you prepare meals at home,” Haynes said. “Choosing low-sodium broths and adding more whole grains and vegetables to slow cooker meals increases the healthiness of the food. To decrease fat in slow cooker meals, trim fat, remove skin from poultry and drain fat from meats you sear or brown.”
Haynes offered some basic tips for using slow cookers.
“Spray the slow cooker with a cooking spray to make clean-up easier. Thaw whole cuts of meat,” she said. “Always cook ground meat before putting it in the slow cooker. Put vegetables on the bottom of the slow cooker because they take longer to cook than meats. Be sure to cut up root vegetables into small pieces so they will cook at the same rate as other vegetables.”
Soft vegetables, such as mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes, can be added during the last hour of cooking time to keep them from becoming overly soft. Spices should be added toward the end of the cooking time so they don’t lose their flavor, Haynes said.
In addition to soups, stews, chili and casseroles, numerous appetizer and dessert recipes can be made in the slow cooker. Slow cookers are also a great way to cook and keep side dishes hot when other parts of a holiday feast are taking up all of the oven and stovetop space.
Alma Harris, an Extension agent in Washington County, said using a slow cooker is safe if home chefs follow proper food safety protocols.
“Meat, poultry and vegetables should be cut up in small pieces so they heat up quickly,” Harris said. “If you put a whole chicken or cold roast in the slow cooker, it will not heat up fast enough to keep bacteria from growing.”
Harris said overloading the slow cooker can also be a problem.
“It should be at least half full, but no more than two-thirds full for everything to come to the proper temperature in a timely fashion,” she said. “Water or stock should almost cover the ingredients to make sure heat is transferred evenly throughout the slow cooker. Before serving, check meat with a food thermometer to be sure it has been cooked to the proper temperature.”
Safe temperatures vary by type of meat: beef steaks and roasts should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees; pork to 160 degrees; poultry to 165 degrees.
Once the meal is finished, Harris advised home cooks to eat it immediately or transfer it to shallow containers and refrigerate promptly.
“Never leave food in the slow cooker to use it for reheating leftovers,” she said.
Though it may be tempting to remove the lid of the slow cooker to check on the progress of the meal filling the house with delicious aromas, doing so will delay the cooking process.
“Each time you take the lid off of your slow cooker, you let out enough heat and steam that you’ll add about 20 to 30 minutes to the cooking time,” Harris said. “It’s tough to resist, but it’s worth it in the long run.”
For slow cooker recipes, visit the MSU Extension Service’s Pinterest board at http://www.pinterest.com/msuextservice/slow-cooker-recipes.