When things get busy and the 24 hours in the day seem to be filled with work and activities, you still have to feed yourself or your family. Often busy folks opt for fast food or prepackaged meals that are far less healthy and nutritious than a home cooked meal. Convenience often trumps quality when time is of the essence.
Food can be cooked when convenient, but the question of how you will heat it up when it is time to eat always arises. Devices like slow cookers allow you to cook foods throughout the day with little supervision, but can you use them to keep your food warm for an extended period of time?
How does a slow cooker work?
A typical slow cooker is made with two parts that are perfectly produced to cook foods at low temperatures over long periods of time. The first part is the mechanism that actually gets hot. The outer shell of a slow cooker uses energy to heat up, much like an electric pot. The second part is the cookware container that holds the food.
Through a process called conduction the outer shell pumps out heat directly to the cookware container that sits within it. The cookware , being a great conductor of heat, holds the high temperature for an extended amount of time. This allows the slow cooker to keep food at a very consistent temperature for long periods of time. These features are what makes slow cookers great for cooking stews, soups, and particularly tough pieces of meat.
The Danger Zone
When cooking, warming, and storing food you must always be aware of what health professionals call “The Danger Zone”. The danger zone in food is between 40- and 140- degrees Fahrenheit (5- and 60- degrees Celsius). This is the range where dangerous bacteria can grow and multiply very quickly within your food. Food should never sit in the danger zone for more than 20 minutes at a time.
All food most be kept warmer than 140 degrees or stored at below 40 degrees as quickly as possible directly after being cooked. Food that is left in the danger zone for too long can cause food poisoning, botulism, and death.
For the safety of you and your family you should do your best to keep food out of the danger zone for extended periods of time.
Your Slow Cooker’s Settings
Most modern slow cookers come with three settings that can be used for a variety of different meals. The high setting on most slow cookers reaches upwards of 300 degrees. This setting is most often used for cooking meals within a 4-hour time span. It can be used for soups or stews and will keep your dish at a consistent 300 degrees for the length of time that you use it for.
The low setting on most slow cookers heats the interior of the cookware to about 190 degrees. This setting is often used for dishes that take over 4 hours to cook. Tough pieces of meat are often cooked on this setting because they will become tender after an extended time at 190 degrees.
Most modern slow cookers also have the option to keep your food warm. This setting usually sits at around 165 degrees and is used to keep the contents of the slow cooker at an enjoyable temperature for mealtime. The warm setting is just hot enough to keep the contents warm without actually cooking the food inside the cookware .
Is a slow cooker the best way to keep food warm?
If used correctly, a slow cooker could be used to keep food at a consistent temperature for a very long period of time. If you were to cook food and leave it in a slow cooker on the warm setting, it would keep your food out of the danger zone.
Since the lowest setting on a slow cooker is around 165 degrees, a fully functioning slow cooker, with lid kept on will keep your food at a safe and warm temperature for as long as the machine runs. A properly functioning slow cooker very well may be the best way to keep your food warm and safe if you plan to consume it hours after you have cooked it.
However, there may be a few downsides of using a slow cooker for longer than a couple of hours when it comes to the quality of your food. If the food you are keeping warm is not mostly liquid, an extended stay in a warm slow cooker could dry the meal out considerably. If you are keeping a soup or stew warm, the contents may be come mushy if left in the slow cooker for a while.
Alternative ways you can use to keep your food warm
Although a slow cooker seems to be the best way to keep food warm for long periods of time, there are some other methods you could use to keep your food warm if you do not have access to a slow cooker. These ways are not as efficient and should be replaced with a slow cooker if you are able.
If you have access to an oven, setting it to about 165 degrees would do the same job as your slow cooker. However, because of its use of conduction and the intelligent use of cookware, your slow cooker will be far more energy efficient. The cookware in your slow cooker will hold heat extremely well. This allows the slow cooker to heat up in cycles.
Your oven, on the other hand, must produce enough heat to raise the temperature of all the air in your oven to the desired degree. This uses way more energy and could end up costing you quite a bit more money in the long run.
Another option is to use liquid fuel chaffing candles (like these highly rates ones) to keep your food warm. These candles use a food safe flammable liquid that will burn for 4 hours. You can place them underneath your food dishes, and they will heat them with a direct flame. These candles are often used in catering and are not always recommended for indoor use.
These candles are nowhere as safe as your slow cooker as they work with open flame. The flame from these candles could also damage your dishes. The other downside is that most of these candles only work for a maximum of 4 hours. They are not recommended for use unless you are using a chaffing dish to hold your food.
Liquid fuel candles are not efficient at keeping the entirety of your food warm as the only heat the container from the bottom. If your food container is uncovered, the food near the top may be reaching dangerously low temperature levels. If you do not have access to electricity, these candles may do the trick. If you have the choice between liquid fuel chaffing candles and your slow cooker, your slow cooker is by far the safer and more efficient choice.
When it comes to keeping food warm for long periods of time, the slow cooker was directly designed to do the job. With efficient heating and container that holds in the heat, there is no better way to keep your food out of the danger zone, and at an enjoyable eating temperature, as a slow cooker. If the health of your family is on the line you should never rush, just use your slow cooker.