Using a timer with your slow cooker might be a great convenience when you spend 10 hours away from home and want to cook an 8-hour slow cooker meal. However, for food safety and maintaining the quality of your dish, there are guidelines you must follow.
Slow Cooker Timers
Some slow cookers have timers for low, high, and warm settings, and there are even Wifi-enabled slow cookers that let you manage the time with your mobile phone. Those models with programmable settings are the best for allowing you to be flexible in when you start the cooking cycle and when the meal is ready to serve.
To program the timer, be sure to thoroughly read the instructions for your slow cooker. You don't want to come home to a meal that is undercooked or that has been boiling for hours longer than desired.
There are also delay timers available at the hardware store that you can attach to your slow cooker. A timer will allow you to cook a dish requiring six to seven hours even though you will be away for eight to nine hours.
However, these timers have some significant safety concerns. A slow cooker heating element draws a lot of power. Depending on your home's wiring and the quality of the timer itself, you may have a short circuit. A tripped circuit breaker could mean no power to other important appliances in your kitchen (such as your refrigerator or freezer), as well as coming home to an uncooked (and unsafe) dish in your slow cooker. If you choose to try a delay timer, be sure to test it with your slow cooker to ensure you don't have this issue.
Safely Using a Slow Cooker Timer
If you are using a timer to start and/or end the cooking time, here are a few safety guidelines.
Make sure all ingredients are chilled before you put the dish together. Depending on the recipe, you can even prepare the ingredients the night before and refrigerate the food right in the crockery insert until you're ready to begin timing or cooking.
Set the cooking to begin no longer than two hours after assembling the chilled ingredients in the crock and setting the timer. But for poultry, it should begin cooking no longer than one hour after placing it in the crock.
Hot cooked food should not stand for longer than two hours after the cooking time ends, and if the room temperature is above 90 F (32.2 C), no longer than one hour. The "danger zone" for food is between 40 F and 140 F. Harmful bacteria can grow between those temperatures.
The "warm" setting should be sufficient to keep the dish well above 140 F for longer than one to two hours, but a long period of time on warm could affect the taste and texture of the food. Follow the manufacturer's instructions if your slow cooker includes a timer and/or a "keep warm" setting. If you're in doubt, check the food with a reliable instant-read thermometer.
Another alternative for a dish requiring a short cooking time is to cook it the night before, cool it as quickly as possible in shallow containers and refrigerate. Heat the food in the oven or microwave the next day.