Q: How do I test my crockpot for accuracy?
A: First, let's call this small appliance a "slow cooker" instead of a crockpot. Crock-Pot is the brand name for the Rival slow cooker. It's easy to make the mistake of calling all slow cookers "crockpots" because they've been around so long - since 1971. It's kind of like calling all facial tissues by the name "Kleenex," which is the actually the name of just one brand of tissue.
OK, now that we're clear on that, let me get back to the question. A safe slow cooker cooks slowly enough for unattended cooking, yet fast enough to keep food out of the bacterial danger zone (above 40 degrees to below 140 degrees). In the danger zone, bacteria grows very rapidly. Food left in the danger zone too long can cause food-borne illness. To determine whether a slow cooker is safe to use:
¢ Fill the slow cooker one-half to two-thirds full with water.
¢ Heat on a low setting for eight hours with the lid on.
¢ Check the water temperature with an accurate food thermometer. Do this quickly, because the temperature drops 10 -15 degrees when the lid is raised or removed.
¢ The temperature of the water should be 185 degrees. Temperatures below this would indicate the slow cooker does not heat food high enough or fast enough to avoid potential food safety problems; the slow cooker is unsafe and should be replaced.
Here are some additional food safety tips to remember when using a slow cooker:
¢ Begin with a clean slow cooker, utensils and work area. Wash hands well before and during cooking.
¢ Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time.
What to read
¢ "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook," by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (Harvard Common Press, 2005, $16.95). ¢ "The Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World," by Lynn Alley (Ten Speed Press, 2003, $18.95). ¢ "Slow Cooker Recipe Book: Over 60 Mouthwatering Meals Cooked with Minimum Effort but Maximum Flavor," by Catherine Atkinson (Southwater, 2005, $15.99). ¢ "The Healthy Slow Cooker: More than 100 Recipes for Health and Wellness," by Judith Finlayson (Robert Rose, 2006, $22.95). Source: The Associated Press
¢ Refrigeration assures that bacteria, which multiply rapidly at room temperature, will not get a "head start" in the first few hours of slow cooking.
¢ If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator.
¢ Thaw frozen meat, poultry and other ingredients in the refrigerator before adding to the slow cooker.
¢ Do not use the slow cooker to cook large pieces of food like a whole chicken or roast because the food will remain in the bacterial "danger zone" too long. Cut meat, poultry and vegetables into medium-to-small uniform pieces to ensure rapid heat transfer.
¢ Preheat the slow cooker before adding ingredients, or cook on the highest setting for the first hour.
¢ When cooking meat or poultry, the water or stock level should almost cover the ingredients to ensure effective heat transfer throughout the slow cooker.
¢ Since vegetables cook the slowest, place them near the heat, at the bottom and sides of the slow cooker.
¢ Do not overload. Fill to a minimum of half-full and a maximum of two-thirds full.
¢ Do not lift the lid or cover during the cooking cycle. Each time the lid is raised, the internal temperature drops 10 -15 degrees, and the cooking process is slowed by 30 minutes.
¢ Use an accurate food thermometer to test for doneness: Beef steaks and roasts, 145 degrees; fish, 145 degrees; pork or ground beef, 160 degrees, and chicken breasts, 170 degrees.
¢ Do not leave cooked food to cool down in the slow cooker. Either consume it immediately or place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate immediately. Never reheat leftovers in the slow cooker.
Q: Do you have any slow cooker recipes?
A: Because there are so many slow cooker recipes available on the Internet, I don't try to keep a file on them. But a multitude of recipes, including appetizers, beverages, soups, stews, main dishes and desserts, can be found on the Rival Web site at www.crockpot.com. Here's one that sounds yummy:
2 tablespoons oil
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large green pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can Mexican-style diced tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
Heat oil in skillet. Cook chicken pieces until browned. Remove and drain. Place onion, green pepper, garlic and jalapeno pepper in skillet and saute until slightly cooked. Add all ingredients to slow cooker and stir to combine. Cover and cook on low 7-9 hours or on high 3-4 hours. Serve on flour tortillas.