How long can you leave food in the slow cooker?

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Today’s programmable slow cookers often offer the ability to cook food for up to 24 hours, as well as automatic reheat settings that can stay on for that long. However, the phrase “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” comes into play here.

When preparing a meal in a slow cooker, there are a number of (often unspoken) limitations on how long you should leave food in the appliance, both when cooking and keeping warm.

If you’ve ever been stuck at work for a few more hours than you expected, you may have come home with mashed veggies, chalky meat, or rather bland soup in your slow cooker. Although slow cooker recipes are designed to cook for long periods of time, they can still get overcooked if left on the wrong setting for too long.

In general, it is best to stick to the cooking time indicated on the recipe you are following. Most slow cooker meals take eight to 12 hours on low or four to six hours on high, but there are also slow cooking meat recipes that take up to 24 hours. If you want to avoid overcooking your dish, follow the instructions as closely as possible.

Worried about getting home on time to turn off the slow cooker? While older slow cookers often require manual switching between settings, today’s programmable slow cookers include a digital timer that automatically switches the unit to the reheat setting after the set amount of time. That way it will be cooked to perfection no matter when you get home.

Even the most sophisticated models, such as the Hamilton Beach Temp Tracker Programmable Slow Cooker, come with a temperature-tracking probe to insert into the pan. You can then set the slow cooker to the appropriate cooking temperature, and when it reaches that point, it will either switch to warming or maintain the temperature, depending on your preference. Cool, right?

There’s also the question of how long you can leave your slow cooker on its reheat setting – after all, it’s tempting to leave the device on during vacation gatherings or other events. Most appliances will turn off automatically after about 20 hours with this setting, but you shouldn’t leave food in a slow cooker for an extended period of time.

The general rule of thumb is that two to four hours is the maximum amount of time you can leave food in a hot slow cooker. After that, it should be transferred to the refrigerator.

Why? Most reheat settings keep food around 145 degrees Fahrenheit, which is extremely close to what the USDA calls the “danger zone.” Between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria grow extremely quickly, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. So if you open the lid frequently or if the slow cooker does not maintain the temperature accurately, your food can spoil if you leave it too long.

Besides limiting the amount of time you leave food in the slow cooker, there are a few other ways to make sure meals are cooked safely and stay fresh for as long as possible.

  • Thaw meat before cooking
    It may be tempting to put a frozen piece of meat in your slow cooker, but when you do, the meat takes longer to cook and the inside may not reach a safe temperature during the standard cooking time.
  • Keep the cover
    The University of Minnesota notes that the internal temperature of a slow cooker drops 10 to 15 degrees each time the lid is opened, slowing the cooking process by 30 minutes. So resist the urge to take a look!
  • Don’t overfill the jar
    You should never put so much food in your slow cooker that it is full more than ⅔ of the way. Not only can this cause overflow, but it can also lead to undercooked food as it takes longer for the contents to reach temperature.
  • Check with a thermometer
    When in doubt, don’t be afraid to check the temperature of your meal with a kitchen thermometer. If it is not at the recommended temperature, let the dish cook longer.

Although slow cookers are known to be a hands-off appliance, it’s important to follow these safety precautions every time you take them out.


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