Slow cookers have long been a source of worry for home cooks, but after Tuesday night’s episode of “This Is Us,” America is shook.
The show featured an unsettling scene in which an old slow cooker malfunctions and sets the Pearson family’s entire house ablaze. Earlier that night, Jack Pearson turns off the machine’s power switch before going to bed, but he doesn’t unplug it from the outlet. Later, the cooker’s red light flickers, sparks fly, and flames engulf the kitchen and quickly spread throughout the house.
And now, of course, we’re all concerned about the safety of our slow cookers.
For the record, the brand of the Pearsons’ slow cooker wasn’t shown. Though many people refer to slow cookers as Crock-Pots, that’s actually a specific brand name.
Responding to the episode, Crock-Pot said, “Our Crock-Pot slow cookers are low current, low wattage (typically no more than 200 or 300 watts) appliances with self-regulating, heating elements. The product is designed to cook foods over a longer period of time at low temperatures and the switches connect to only 1 side of the power line voltage, so there is never a high voltage applied directly across our switches. The switches within our slow cookers are subjected to additional internal testing … and constructed of self-extinguishing, flame resistant material.”
The New York City Fire Department, which issues a fact sheet about home cooking safety, told HuffPost how you can avoid cooking disasters in your own home.
Here’s what you should know:
Cooking is the leading cause of home fires.
According to the FDNY’s kitchen fire safety fact sheet, “The preparation of the home cooked meal is the leading cause of home fires and fire injuries. Unattended cooking accounts for 33 percent of these fires. Other leading causes are placing combustible items too close to the heat source and various electrical defects.”
In the fictional case of “This Is Us,” an electrical defect was most likely to blame. But what about those of us who like to turn on the slow cooker and let it do its thing, unsupervised, while we’re away from the house?
“Always have eyes on the appliance.”
Jim Long, director of public information for the New York Fire Department, told HuffPost it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
“We recommend that any cooking appliances being used should always be attended to,” Long told HuffPost. “Someone should always have eyes on the appliance.”
Of course, that negates one of the biggest benefits of the slow cooker ― that it makes your dinner while you’re at work all day. If you’re willing to take the risk of leaving your appliance on while you’re away from home, you should be certain to follow the manufacturer’s instructions or UL guidelines.
Check your cords regularly.
Another FDNY fact sheet says that “two-thirds of all electrical fires begin in plugs or cords on appliances … Frayed cords expose the electrical wires that spark on contact with each other or anything that can ground the electrical current.”
It’s always a good idea to regularly check your appliances to make sure all the cords are intact, from the base of the appliance to the plug.
If an appliance does begin to emit a different smell when it operates, or it feels hotter than usual, the FDNY recommends unplugging it and discontinuing use.
Be extra cautious if your slow cooker is old.
Believe it or not, the Crock-Pot brand has been around since 1940. The Pearsons’ fictional slow cooker was a used one that came with a warning from the previous owner that it had a tricky switch. And since the show is set in the 1990s, the slow cooker was presumably even older than that.
Slow cooker technology has improved in the past few decades, so it’s an even greater risk to leave an older slow cooker unattended.
One sure way to know if your slow cooker is old is to look at the insert.
“If you were handed down a vintage pot from the ’70s that has the insert firmly attached to the heating element instead of a removable insert, then it’s time to upgrade,” Stephanie O’Dea, New York Times best-selling cookbook author and slow-cooking expert, told NBC in 2015.
Your best bet is to use complete caution.
Long suggests taking the extra precaution of unplugging appliances when you’re not using them, even for items with an “off” switch, such as toaster ovens, coffee pots, and of course, slow cookers.
“We would recommend that any appliance that is not in use should be unplugged,” Long said.
All fires are preventable, so do what you can by following these rules.
This story has been updated with a statement from Crock-Pot.