Keep it hot, keep it safe

Electric pressure cookers and slow cookers can save a lot of time in the kitchen. But don't take shortcuts on food safety.
Electric pressure cookers and slow cookers can save a lot of time in the kitchen. But don't take shortcuts on food safety.

It seems like everyone I know got an Instapot, or electric pressure cooker, as a Christmas gift this year. At my niece’s recent birthday party, all the parents were sharing Instapot tips and recipes. (Did you know you can make cheesecake in it?)

Yet my sister admitted the Instapot scared her sometimes, with its pres­sure cooker function that shoots steam out the top.

So I asked Marianne Gravely, a food safety specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Meat & Poultry Hotline, to share tips on how to use electric pressure cookers and slow cookers safely and how to ensure the food you cook is safe to eat.

Gravely said her best advice is to “do the unthinkable” — and actually read the directions that come with the device.

While the Instapot is the most-recognized model, there are many different types of electric pressure cookers on the market, and they can do so many different things — such as cook rice, sauté meat and make yogurt, Gravely said. You can also use some electric pressure cookers as slow cookers.

“If you look at them, there are a lot of buttons, a lot of confusing labels, like some have a button that says fish and a button that says chicken,” Gravely said. “Basically, it means a different amount of time that the pressure cooker will cook, but you have to read the directions to know what it means. Because while you want to take advantage of all the features, it’s not like the old-fashioned (slow) cooker that says off, high, low, warm.”

When you use the pressure cooker function, be careful when releasing the steam, Gravely said. Make sure the steam isn’t shooting into a cabinet or at people.

And don’t use your hands to manually release the steam, Gravely explained. Instead, use a wooden spoon or a towel to avoid burns.

“It’s a good idea maybe the first time you use it to give it a run through,” Gravely said. “Just put water in it and turn it on. Let it cook for a couple minutes, and then release the steam to see how it’s going to work before you try to make dinner with it.”

As far as food safety, Gravely said pressure cookers don’t keep foods warm after they are cooked like a slow cooker does. “When it’s finished, dinner is ready,” she said.

She recommends keeping a food thermometer handy when using an electric pressure cooker or a slow cooker.

“We get a lot of calls on the (USDA Meat & Poultry) hotline where people put something in the slow cooker, went to work and the power went out,” Gravely said.

“Having a food thermometer is not only great because you can tell when your food is cooked, but it also keeps you from overcooking your food. And if you have a little mishap, you can take the temperature and say it’s above 140 degrees, so it’s still safe to eat,” she added.

Whole cuts of beef and pork are safe when cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 3-minute rest before serving, according to the USDA. Ground meats should be cooked to 160 degrees. All poultry, including ground turkey and chicken, should be cooked to 165 degrees.

When using a slow cooker, you should thaw meats and poultry before placing them in the cooker, Gravely said. Never use frozen meats, because it takes too much time to reach a safe cooking temperature.

If you forget to turn your slow cooker on, then return in a couple hours to find that the meat isn’t cooked, you need to throw the meat out — no exceptions, Gravely said. You can’t cook meat that’s been sitting out at room temperature to make it safe.

“There are some bacteria that if they are allowed to multiply can produce toxins that can’t be killed by cooking,” Gravely said. “So if (the slow cooker) was off for more than two hours, it’s not safe to eat. That applies to the soup that you cook the night before but forgot to refrigerate before going to bed.

“Unfortunately, food-poisoning bacteria don’t affect the taste, appearance or the smell of food. Nobody would get food poisoning if you could tell that it is dangerous,” Gravely added.

Gravely and her team at the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline (1-888-MPHotline) are available to answer your food safety questions. The hotline is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Central Time.