If there is a time of year that begs for multicookers — Crockpots, air fryers and Instant Pots — it’s fall. The season is synonymous with slow cooker chilis and dips for football games, soups for cold days and batch-cooking meals for school lunches. And multicookers make it easy to do.
“They really are wonderful pieces of cooking equipment that we need to keep properly maintained as well as properly cleaned,” said Angela Anandappa, the CEO and founding executive director of Alliance for Advanced Sanitation.
When multicookers aren’t used properly, they can create cleanliness and health issues, food experts say. In fact, on the popular television show “This Is Us,” a slow cooker malfunctioned and set the family’s home on fire, scaring many avid users of the appliance.
While fires aren’t the No. 1 concern of the food safety experts we spoke to, there are other problems that could cause you trouble, and specific behaviors and habits that contribute to those problems. Here’s what they are:
Not Checking The Temperature Of Meat
“I am primarily concerned about home cooks that will just trust that a given recipe is sufficient for food safety without checking food internal temperatures (of meats specifically) at the end of cooking,” Donald Schaffner, the department chair and extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University, told HuffPost.
Even after cooking for hours, meat still may not be at the temperature necessary for a safe meal.
Schaffner suggests that you use a tip-sensitive digital meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of your meat before you start eating.
You can find the proper cooking temperatures for food on the USDA website, he said.
Eating undercooked meat is the most dangerous mistake that can occur when you prepare food with a slow cooker, said Kali Kniel, the associate chair of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Delaware.
“If chicken is undercooked, then there is a potential risk of a person getting sick from salmonella,” Kniel told HuffPost.
Kniel added that the food temperature danger zone — from 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit — should always be avoided. In this range, “bacteria are likely to multiply,” she said.
“If foods are not kept hot, then bacteria like [staphylococcus] aureus, which can be on human hands, can grow in the food product and then produce a toxin that can be ingested with the food and make people sick,” Kniel said.
Washing your hands before cooking or eating can be one way to reduce this risk, she said.
Not Following The Machine’s Rules
How many times have you gotten a new gadget and immediately cast aside the direction booklet? Probably too many to count.
In the case of multicookers, it’s crucial that you read and follow the directions every time you use them, according to Kniel.
“It is important to [use] your machine according to instructions of the machine. If you don’t have the instructions that came with the appliance, look for the guide online,” Kniel said.
This is especially true for the Instant Pot (or other brands of electric pressure cookers), she said.
“With an Instant Pot ... foods are cooked at high temperatures under pressure. It is important that the [Instant Pot] be allowed to reach temperature under pressure and then when finished cooking, the [Instant Pot] must be vented properly,” Kniel said.
If the Instant Pot isn’t properly vented, it can be dangerous, she noted. In some instances, electric pressure cookers have exploded, and the hot steam can burn your skin if you hover over it.
It’s also important to follow any food or liquid limits in your appliance’s manual, said Trevor Craig, the corporate director of technical training and consulting at Microbac Laboratories.
“Sometimes I see people overfill air fryers because of a party [and] they’re trying to make a lot of food at once ... you can actually affect the way it cooks, so [your] food might not be cooked all the way through,” Craig said.
This again highlights the importance of using a meat thermometer before chowing down.
Not Following Legit Recipes
Beyond following the machine’s manual, it’s important to follow recommended recipes, too.
“One of the things that happens is that if you don’t follow those recommended instructions and you try to be creative, you may make a change that you didn’t know is going to be hazardous to you,” Anandappa said.
Specifically, a lot of people turn to social media for recipes, which isn’t always a great idea for machines that require specific steps.
“Sometimes they are recommending things that aren’t safe for people — one of those things is cooking time and temperature,” Anandappa said.
In other words, if you cut the cook time down, you could end up with a meal that’s raw in the middle. Or, if you put too many items in your multicooker, you could change what is needed for the machine to reach the necessary temperature when it’s turned on.
So be sure to use recipes vetted by professionals to ensure you’re not eating something that is undercooked or using your machine in an unsafe way. You can look at your multicooker’s brand website for recipes; Instant Pot has a range of recipes online, and Ninja has a variety of air fryer recipes on its site. Or visit trusted resources like Bon Appétit or Real Simple.
Using Plastic Bags In The Pot
Anandappa said she would also warn about “plastic bags that can be put into various types of cookers.”
This is specifically true for slow cookers, she said.
“Some of these plastic bags are not supposed to be used for very long, but people are using them, particularly in things like Crockpot cooking, for 8, 10, 12 hours sometimes,” Anandappa said.
Why is it dangerous? According to Anandappa, the plastic can migrate into the food, “which is not a safe thing.”
There is some debate surrounding the safety of plastic slow cooker liners, according to EatingWell, which points to the potential additives in these products, while TastingTable points to the environmental impact of single-use plastics. If you do use a plastic liner, it’s important that you use liners that are FDA-approved, according to EatingWell.
Additionally, Craig said, if you do use a plastic liner, you should still wash your slow cooker.
“Those liners aren’t going to prevent any bacteria from getting underneath it, or tiny food particles,” Craig said.
This is true even if your multicooker looks totally clean.
“You can’t see bacteria, [and] you might not be able to see all the food particles — clean it anyway,” Craig added.
Not Using Appropriate Utensils
According to Craig, if you’re serving food for a multicooker at a gathering, it’s important to have a designated utensil for folks to use. It’s not safe to have people dipping in various spoons and forks.
“You’re just leading to an area where you’re going to introduce cross-contamination, and that’s a big concern,” Craig said.
It’s particularly concerning if someone has an allergy to another food that’s being served, or if someone with a cold puts their dirty spoon in a big serving of crock pot chili.
If you’re using a cooker with a nonstick lining, you should also be careful not to scratch the inner pot with a metal appliance. Take care to use food-safe utensils that won’t scratch the nonstick liner, remnants of which could end up in your food.
Not Cleaning Your Appliance
You wouldn’t put a pot away without properly cleaning it first, and the same goes for multicookers.
“[Make] sure that you treat these as items that you have to clean regularly. You wouldn’t reuse the same utensil over and over and over again without cleaning it,” Craig said, “but, for some reason, when people use air fryers, they don’t want to clean up that basket.”
And, as mentioned above, having a liner in your slow cooker does not negate the need to wash it with soap and water.
“I’m a big proponent of making sure you have a clean kitchen. Treat it like you would want to see the inside of a restaurant,” Craig said.