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How does one know if slow cookers are holding foods in the danger zone too long? I cooked chicken stock on high (a bit too full, water one inch from the top) but it wouldn't simmer, it seemed like 2-3 hours before it got to 140 F and then it eventually went to closer to 180 degrees F at about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. I realize that bacteria will be killed but will toxins build up in that time? I'm thinking that I should throw it out. My cooker is relatively new. Thanks!

  • Being at 100 degrees in a slow cooker seems more of a danger zone to me than sitting on the counter at 65 degrees. – padma Feb 6 '15 at 5:02
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It sounds like something is wrong with your slow cooker. On low, it should hit somewhere in the 190s, on high in the low 200s. On high, I'd expect it to get there fairly quickly—within two hours. Both should get you to 140 within an hour.

That said, the actual safety temperature (with a good thermometer) is 130 or 131F. 135 or 140F leave some safety margin for not completely accurate thermometers, maybe missing the coldest part of the food by a little bit, etc. And the standard is you have 2 hours to get there (used to be 4).

So, unfortunately, "it seemed like 2–3 hours" makes it really hard to answer if you exceeded that. I'm not qualified to tell you exactly how much risk (if any) you'd be taking if it took 3h.

But I can make some suggestions for keeping the time to 140F down:

  1. Start with warmer water. There is a trade-off; hot water is supposed to make a more cloudy stock. If you simmered the water on the stove first (or in a tea kettle, etc.), then your time to 140 will be very short. Even starting with room temperature water instead of cold water is ten or twenty degrees closer. You could also, as Joe suggests, start with less water and add hot water later on to bring it up to the desired quantity (but don't underfill the slow cooker).

  2. Make sure your ingredients are defrosted (in the fridge). Melting something takes extra energy; this is known as the enthalpy or heat of fusion. For ice, it's a lot of energy—going from ≈32°F ice to ≈32°F water is about as much energy as it'll take to get it from there to 175°F.

  3. If nothing else works, bring it to a simmer in a stock pot then transfer it over. Unfortunately you'll have to wash a second pot.

Or, finally, you can make very good chicken stock in a pressure cooker, in under an hour total cook time. But of course you need to keep an eye on that.

  • Alternately, start with less water, get it up to temperature, then add hot water to bring it up to the level you want. – Joe Feb 6 '15 at 15:19
  • @Joe indeed. I figured the reason to use a slow cooker was for the "set it up and ignore it" thing. Also, many slow cookers want to be at least ⅔ full. – derobert Feb 6 '15 at 15:22
  • I have recipes that you start in only an inch or two of liquid, and the meat exudes enough liquid that its's swimming by the time it's done ... I'm guessing that the issue is placement of the heating element; if it's in the sides, it may need higher liquid levels than if it's just in the bottom. As for the 'set it and forget it' style cooking -- it's not that much of a departure, you just need to come back in 15-20 minutes. (I set it up, then put my 4c. pyrex measuring cup in the microwave. Once I'm finished getting read for work, pour in the water. Electric kettles work, too) – Joe Feb 6 '15 at 15:30

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