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Slow cookers are one way to streamline cooking. While it’s true you have to plan and prepare the food ahead of time, a delicious meal awaits you when you arrive home.

Slow cookers allow you to use less tender cuts of meat. The moist, slow cooking tenderizes the meat, and there’s less shrinkage. Slow cookers work well to hold food hot at parties.

Slow cookers are handy kitchen devices, but there are some rules to ensure safety and good quality. The USDA does not recommend the use of slow cookers for whole roasts or whole chickens because the meat may spend too much time at a low temperature, allowing bacteria to grow and potentially produce toxins that can cause foodborne illness.

Here are some tips to ensure a safe, tasty meal using a slow cooker:

• After thawing, cut food into chunks or small pieces to make sure they are cooked thoroughly.

• To reduce calories and fat, trim excess fat from meats and remove the skin from poultry.

• Keep perishable ingredients refrigerated until you’re ready to use them.

• For easier cleanup, spray the inside of the slow cooker with cooking spray.

• For safety and flavor, brown and drain ground beef before adding to the slow cooker. Browning also adds flavor to other meats, including pieces of poultry or stew meat.

• Keep the lid in place. To avoid losing heat, only open the crockpot to stir or check doneness.

• When preparing menu items containing vegetables, thaw or rinse the vegetables with warm water before placing them in the slow cooker. Frozen vegetables will cool the mixture and increase the cooking time. Put vegetables in first, then add meat and cover with liquid such as broth, water or sauces.

• Fill the cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full to allow for adequate heating.

• It’s a good idea to turn the slow cooker to the highest setting for the first hour of cooking time, then reduce the setting to low, although it is safe to cook on the lower setting all day.

• Reheat leftovers in a microwave oven or pan on the stove to at least 165 F before placing in a slow cooker for hot holding. Slow cookers should not be used to reheat foods.

• After enjoying your slow-cooked meal, refrigerate the leftovers promptly in shallow containers.

If you haven’t used your slow cooker in a while, try this hearty, healthy soup recipe.

Crockpot Beef Minestrone Soup

1 lb. ground beef, browned

1 large onion, chopped

2 small potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 carrots, pared and sliced

2 stalks celery, sliced

1 can (28 oz.) whole tomatoes

1 cup shredded cabbage

1 small bay leaf

¼ teaspoon thyme

¼ teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Water

Parmesan cheese

Brown ground beef and drain well. Place all ingredients except cheese in the slow cooker; stir well. Add water to cover ingredients. Cover and cook on low setting for 8 to 12 hours or on high setting for 3 to 5 hours. Stir well. Sprinkle with cheese prior to serving.

Makes 6 servings. Each serving contains 250 calories, 11 g of fat, a full day’s supply of vitamin A and 67 percent of the daily recommendation for vitamin C.

For more information, see the NDSU Extension publication “Now Serving: Slow Cooker Meals.”

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Vanessa Hoines is an extension agent with NDSU Extension/Morton County. She holds a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer science education and food and nutrition and a master’s degree in child development and family science.

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