Help me not poison myself
March 3, 2013 6:45 AM   Subscribe

I just made this recipe. It's been cooking for about 2 hours now. I went back on the site to check and see what the comments were like out of curiosity, and saw that the first comment directly recommended against using frozen chicken breast, as that can give bacteria the opportunity to build up as the crock-pot warms to temperature. I checked a few other places and they seem to agree that frozen meat in a crock-pot is a bad idea. I've already committed the ingredients to this meal, and I'd prefer not to waste them. Is there anything I can do to make this safe to eat?
posted by codacorolla to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Almost 1,500 reviews and nobody died - I think you will be fine.

P.S. I will be making this recipe next week - sounds delicious!
posted by pamspanda at 6:51 AM on March 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

We have regularly made frozen meat recipes in a crock pot. Not once has anyone been ill and I'm almost certain I didn't die.

I'm not certain but doesn't the heat of the fully cooked temperature for chicken not kill the bacteria anyway?
posted by Brockles at 7:05 AM on March 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have made that recipe and I did not die or even get sick from it. The chicken cooked perfectly, and it tasted great, but I never made it again. What turned me off was the weird pinkish color -- the tradeoff for the convenience of just tossing all the ingredients in the crockpot and cooking them together.

I think you'll be fine. Just have some fresh cilantro or something to give it some visual appeal. (I think that probably explains the broccoli in the picture).
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:10 AM on March 3, 2013

From the article Are hotter cooking crockpots...

I've been noticing more and more complaints about food burning and overcooking in the crockpot. It has been established that newer crockpots, those manufactured in the past five or six years, are cooking at temperatures significantly higher than in the past. Due to concerns about food safety and bacterial growth in the danger zone of 40 degrees F to 140 degrees F, slow cooker manufacturers have increased the cooking temperatures in these appliances.

I remember my old Rival crockpot booklet reassuring me that since their 'low' setting was 185 degrees F, there was no worry about food safety, since the highest temperature required, for dark poultry meat, was and is 170 degrees F. Now 'low' is 200 degrees. At least. And 'high' cooks at 300 degrees F.

You should be fine,
posted by JujuB at 7:22 AM on March 3, 2013

Frozen food always has to pass through the ideal temperature for bacteria growth on the way to the cooking temperature, the trick is to minimize the time. The only way to get real problems is to have a very large solid block of frozen meat.
posted by 445supermag at 7:25 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Yummy! I make a Mexican Soup very similar to this. BUT, I recently took a food safety certification course, and you should never put frozen meat into a crock pot. With the low heat, the bacteria can build up during the slow thawing to cooking time. Just thought I'd share that info!"

IAMAMicrobiologist, IAMYMicrobiologist, and this does not constitute food microbiology advice.

The USDA recommends always thawing meat before cooking it in a slow cooker for a very good reason. The concern is that as frozen meat slowly thaws with frozen meat towards the center keeping it cool, the bacteria present in just about all meat will have enough time to grow in the danger zone (between 46 and 146 degrees Fahrenheit). Even if the bacteria die in later cooking, and spore forming organisms will not necessarily, their growth will still produce all kinds of toxic primary and secondary metabolites as well as cell components that your immune system will freak out over in very unpleasant ways. This is not worth fucking with.

However, if these are not especially thick chicken breasts and you have indeed cooked it at a high temperature like the recipe recommends, I would not worry about it so much, where bacteria need at least two hours or so in the danger zone to start doing damage and that would come to temperature relatively quickly.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:34 AM on March 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The number of deaths isn't a good measure of food safety. Salmonella and campylobacter, the two most likely culprits in causing problems in chicken, don't actually kill that many people. In 2009, only 23 people in the US actually died from all food-borne diseases (I'm sure more felt like they were dying). But there were 29,000 reported cases of disease and 1,184 hospitalizations. And the number of cases is under-reported.

Can you make it safer? At 2 hours in, the answer is not really. The main problem is that you're cooking at low temperatures, and since the meat was frozen, it was sitting in the Danger Zone (40 - 140 F) for a while as it thawed in the pot. That means bacteria can grow while different parts of the chicken heat up. It also depends on the shape and thickness of the meat. Blasdelb brings up a good point because we don't know how quickly the chicken came up to temperature.

The second part is can you kill the bacteria? Yes, once you get above 165 F, you start to kill bacteria. Thing is, even the dead bacteria can make you sick. For example, pathogenic Salmonella makes toxins that can survive high temperatures. In the crockpot the bacteria can grow, get killed by the eventual heat, and still leave these toxins behind for you to eat. Think of it as a parting gift.

Finally, what're the odds that the chicken was contaminated in the first place? Hard to tell. We eat a lot of chicken, and it surprises me how few outbreaks there are. But the risk is still there.

TL;DR: Food pathogens don't kill that many Americans. The chicken in the crockpot was probably in the range of dangerous temps for a while. Killing the bacteria with heat still leaves their toxins behind. There's still a risk from chicken, but you are (probably) a healthy young person with a healthy immune system.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:35 AM on March 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

The USDA recommends always thawing meat before cooking it in a slow cooker for a very good reason which they mean thawing to refrigerator temperature (35ºF or so), not to room temperature. Keep 35ºF as your danger zone crossing staging area whenever working with meat, especially poultry.

I wouldn't hesitate to eat this meal, but I would insist on fully thawing chicken in the fridge in the future before slow-cooking. It's best practice.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 7:45 AM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're fine. The standards are there for the worst of the worst case scenarios, as guidelines for commercial food prep. In those cases the spores will be formed already so there's really no protection to be had, in my opinion.

Your immune system will handle all the normal critters that are always on your meat. Sure, There is always an tiny outside chance any meal will have something bad in it, but there's nothing you can do about that...thanks FDA!

I give this advice with the caveat that I will and have eaten anything, in many questionable locations and countries, and in my never-ending quest to build character, I have contracted nearly all communicable stomach problems without any lasting damage.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 8:43 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

The bacteria risk for the center of whole cuts of meat is negligible; ground meat is different, because the whole mass is exposed to cutting surfaces, and blended together, but for cuts of meat, you mainly need to worry about the exterior.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:15 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Alright, I'm going to go ahead and eat it mostly because I'm poor and can't afford to waste food and the risk seems relatively small. For what it's worth, they were individually packaged chicken breast from Wegman's, and they were all pretty typical sizes. Thanks for the advice.

It also seems somewhat irresponsible for to have that up as a featured recipe without even attaching a warning to it...
posted by codacorolla at 9:55 AM on March 3, 2013

I have cooked chicken breasts from frozen in the slow cooker without any problems. It never even occurred to me that it would be a problem. If it's relevant, the recipe called for a large amount of water and vegetables too.

I think it's important to remember that not following the guidelines doesn't guarantee that your food will make you ill.
posted by Solomon at 10:43 AM on March 3, 2013

I just cooked white beans, sausage, chicken and wine in my slow cooker on high – like your recipe – with a frozen chicken quarter (my lazy "cassoulet"; it just finished!), and I'm not worried at all because high on my slow cooker is really, really high, as it seems most (all?) of them are these days. It cooked in three hours and the beans were not canned but dried. If your slow cooker is relatively new, I'm thinking the high temperature should be sufficient. I make this dish pretty frequently, and we've never had any problem... I wouldn't do it with an older slow cooker or at a lower setting, though.
posted by taz at 10:58 AM on March 3, 2013

codacorolla, it's hardly irresponsible if there's no real risk. Even the FDA agrees that whole cuts are fairly bacteria-free inside, when compared to ground meats. The FDA must err on the super-duper-safe side; the vast majority of recipes in the world only offer bare outlines to food safety.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:11 AM on March 3, 2013

I agree there is not much risk here. But your food would taste better if you thawed any meat before cooking. Just put it in the refridgerator before you leave for work, or before you go to sleep at night. Very easy and a huge improvement.
posted by mumimor at 12:51 PM on March 3, 2013

As has been pointed out, frozen meat in the crock-pot goes against USDA food-safety recommendations. If an individual is willing to take their chances, that's one thing. A company that publishes unsafe recipes to a large, unsuspecting audience: irresponsible.
posted by Dimpy at 1:44 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I ate it and it was delicious. I put it over a bed of quinoa with some freshly steamed brocoloi - yum. Thanks for the advice. In the future I'll probably defrost stuff just to be on the safe side.
posted by codacorolla at 5:11 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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