Can I Leave Food in Slow Cooker Overnight?

In my experience, the convenience of slow cookers provides a tempting option to us moms – leaving food to basically cook itself overnight while we get some rest. But can we (and should we) leave food in the slow cooker overnight? And if so, what precautions should we take to keep our homes and families safe from fire and foodborne illnesses

Food can be left in the slow cooker overnight as long as you use a well functioning cooker and leave the food cooking during the overnight hours. However, if the goal during overnight hours is to merely keep the food on the warming setting, then do not leave the food in the slow cooker overnight. Below, I’ll talk in more detail about the reasons why and how to avoid food poisoning and other risks of overnight slow cooking.

Can I Leave Food in the Slow Cooker Overnight Turned On?

You can leave food in the slow cooker overnight as long as it is turned on for cooking and not set to “warm”. The warming setting unfortunately won’t keep food safe to eat for more than 3 or 4 hours. 

You should also note that the longer you keep food in a slow cooker, the mushier and soggy it can get, due to the closed lid and steam. This could result in a potentially good meal gone to waste!

Make sure that if you cook food in a slow cooker overnight, you properly seal it and store it in the fridge by morning so that it can maintain optimal freshness. 

Can I Leave Food in the Slow Cooker Overnight Turned Off?

You should not in any case leave food in your slow cooker overnight turned off. This is especially true for meat, which is prone to growing bacteria if not kept well. 

Even though the slow cooker will still provide some heat if you keep the lid closed, it is not warm enough to continue cooking the food like this. 

If you have to store slow cooker food at night, you’re better off just sealing the food and putting it in the refrigerator until you can safely reheat it. Aside from these factors, read on to understand other potential health and safety risks of cooking in slow cookers overnight. 

Can Slow Cookers Catch on Fire?

Fire is one of the main fears people have when cooking in a slow cooker overnight, since something electrical is plugged in during our sleep. Eight to 12 hours is a long time to leave a hot appliance plugged in, and we certainly wouldn’t leave an oven on that long unattended. 

But, as it turns out, you are more likely to start a fire by leaving a microwave plugged in or running for too long than you are with a slow cooker. 

The National Fire Protection Association actually reports as of 2020 that there were an average of 172,900 home fires per year started by cooking activities from 2014-2018. Of these, 61% were caused by ranges or cooktop surfaces. And further, only 4% were caused by portable cooking or warming devices.

How to Protect Against a Slow Cooker Fire

Slow cookers nowadays typically have a low wattage (maximum of 300 watts in most cases). They aren’t like your mother’s crockpots from back in the 20th century, which had a host of safety issues, like lead contamination and fabric cord coverings. 

The only time you’re really likely to have an issue with malfunctioning of the slow cooker itself is when your slow cooker is outdated or has a bad electrical cord (more than 10 years old). 

Slow cookers now are manufactured to be as safe as possible. Therefore, you are relatively safe as long as your slow cooker is in good condition (the wire looks good), the wiring in your home is in good condition, and your slow cooker isn’t currently recalled. 

The above factors are the main reasons that a slow cooker would even overheat or cause an electrical fire overnight, and the chances are slim. The chances of food poisoning are a bit higher, though, which brings me to my next point.

Can You Get Food Poisoning from Food Left Overnight?

Any time you cook meat, you need to thoroughly cook it so you don’t ingest harmful bacteria. If you undercook meat, you run the risk of getting foodborne illnesses such as trichinosis, which occurs when the animal you’re eating has gotten worms from eating other animals.  

Foodborne Illnesses from Other Bacteria

The last thing we want as mothers is to put our children in harm’s way. So we definitely don’t want to put our families at risk of foodborne illnesses such as poisoning from Salmonella or Clostridium perfringens in undercooked poultry meats. 

Additionally, raw meat carries E. coli, Salmonella, Yersinia, and other bacteria that you could ingest if your meat is undercooked in your slow cooker. 

How Can I Avoid Food Poisoning from Overnight Slow Cooking?

Beef must reach an internal temperature of 145 °F. Poultry must reach an internal temperature of 165 °F (when checking the inner thigh, wing, or breast). And all ground meat must reach an internal temperature of 160 °F. 

Reaching these temperatures takes much longer in a slow cooker than it does in the oven or over direct flame. While it may take just minutes to fully cook a steak on a grill, it could take up to 10-12 hours to cook beef overnight in a slow cooker. 

So, if you have slow-cooked your meat overnight, you still need to check it with a meat thermometer in the morning before setting it to “warm” or storing. 

What’s the Longest Time I Can Leave Food in a Slow Cooker?

One good rule of thumb is to never leave food in the slower cooker on the “warm” setting all day. 

You should only leave the food cooking in the slow cooker for as long as the recipe requires (or as long as it takes for meat to reach its acceptable internal temperature). 

After this point, it should be warmed for 3-4 hours maximum then stored in the fridge immediately.

Why Can’t Food Be Warmed in a Slow Cooker Very Long?

The reason we can’t leave food on the warm setting for very long is that this slow cooker setting generally doesn’t get higher than 145 °F. Below this temperature (well, technically below 140 °F), your food is technically in the “danger zone” – a term coined by the United States Department of Agriculture

In this zone, bacteria will start to multiply quickly, thriving on warm moisture. If you want to avoid bacteria growth and foodborne illnesses, you will avoid this slow cooker predicament, which essentially spoils your food. As a basic rule of thumb, keep your cold food cold (40 °F or lower) and your hot food hot (more than 140 °F) when you’re not actively eating it. 

Can I Leave Meats in the Slow Cooker Overnight?

Many people also want to know if you can roast meat overnight. You absolutely can as long as the slow cooker is set to a cooking setting. 

Family dinners like beef stew and roast cook up amazingly in slow cookers, and doing it overnight makes the task much simpler for working and non-working moms alike. Let’s take a look at the types of meats that you should use in slow cookers.

What Types of Meat Are Acceptable?

Do not cook frozen meats in your slow cooker. Even though the slow cooker cooks over a long period of time, it also cooks at lower temperatures. This means it’s not equipped to fully cook and thaw the meat in time (you’d need an Instant Pot for this).

You also may want to stray away from cooking lean meats (chicken and pork) in your slow cooker because of the taste value. While these things can be slow cooked, they might not turn out juicy and tender the same way a roast beef slab would. 

What Are Some of the Best Overnight Slow Cooker Foods?

Now that we’ve established the safest conditions for slow cooking foods overnight, it’s worth it to find a few options. Letting food practically cook itself overnight is a treat for busy moms. 

Try out an overnight chicken and bean soup (roughly 10 hours), chili soup (6-8 hours), or roast beef (8 hours). 

Are There Any Foods I Shouldn’t Cook in a Slow Cooker Overnight?

There are certain foods that just don’t need to be slow-cooked for more than a few hours, and you shouldn’t leave them in your slow cooker overnight. 

Starchy staple foods like pasta, rice, quinoa, and other grain-based foods won’t last a full night in a slow cooker because they’ll first over soak and get mushy, then dry out from the heat. 

Stray away from overnight fish, as well, as it has relatively short cooking times and will overcook. And finally, don’t put dairy in a slow cooker overnight, or at all if you can avoid it, since it can curdle from being heated too slowly.

Conclusion

Leaving food in the slow cooker overnight is a great and safe way to save time by cooking while you sleep. But, you always have to make sure to use a well-working slow-cooker, avoid using the warming setting for more than 3-4 hours, and properly store your food as soon as it’s done cooking. 

You should also ensure that overnight slow cooker meat always reaches the appropriate internal temperature. Follow these precautions to ensure the safest and best overnight slow cooking experience! You may be interested in our guide on How To Reheat Fettuccine Alfredo

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