How long can you leave food in a Slow Cooker?

In this brief guide, we will answer the question ‘How long can you leave food in a Slow Cooker?’ We will also discuss how safe it is to leave food in a slow cooker, and what factors affect how long you can keep the food in it. 

How long can you leave food in a Slow Cooker?

For cooking 

Most slow cookers take 4-6 hours on high and 8-12 hours on low for cooking meals, but some recipes may take up to 24 hours. The proper length of time will depend on the type of food you are cooking.

Thick red meat pieces may take longer than thin, soft vegetables, for example. To be successful and avoid undercooking or overcooking, stick to the guidelines indicated on your recipe, following the cooking time as closely as possible.

If you are using a warm setting 

If the appliance changes over to the warm setting after cooking is finished, the temperature will be constant at around 73 °C. 

Foods can be safely maintained at this temperature for 2 to 4 hours because it is enough to inhibit the growth of most of the harmful microbes to our health [1].

You must ensure that the temperature indicated on the display matches the real one reaching your food. For this, use a thermometer.

Besides food safety issues, one should also consider that many dishes will lose quality by being exposed to long heating periods and may suffer the loss of texture and juiciness. 

For example, some food such as vegetables and chicken could become mushy if you leave them in the slow cooker for a long. 

If the slow cooker has been turned off 

If the slow cooker has been turned off, you can leave the food in the slow cooker for up to 2 hours, as recommended by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) [2]. 

Past this period, the temperature becomes favorable for the development of spoilage and dangerous microorganisms. For this reason, you should place your food immediately in the refrigerator [2].

In case of power out

According to the instructions from USDA [2], if you are not at home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done.

If the power goes out after cooking has finished, food will be safe for no more than 2 hours without refrigeration.

Is it safe to leave food in the slow cooker?

While cooking, it is completely safe to leave your food in the slow cooker (8-12 or even 24 hours if required by the recipe) because the temperatures here hit between 77 and 130 °C. 

The direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking, and steam created within the tightly-covered container combine to destroy bacteria and make the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods [2].

After cooking is finished, It is generally safe to leave foods in the slow cooker for 2 to 4 hours only if your appliance has a warm setting that can maintain food above 60 °C over this period of time. 

Bacteria can be reintroduced to food after it is safely cooked, and keeping this or higher temperatures inhibits the growth of spoilage and harmful microorganisms, as highlighted by USDA [1]. 

If your slow cooker does not have a warm setting, it is recommended to transfer the food into the refrigerator within 2 hours after the cooking is finished. 

What are the risks of leaving food in the slow cooker for extended periods? 

After your meal is ready, with the appliance turned off, foods start to cool down until they hit the Danger Zone, which comprises temperatures between 60 and 4 °C [1].

Dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella ssp., Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus may develop easily under this perfect combination of mild heat and nutrients. Studies reveal that under ideal conditions bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes [3]. 

The longer your food remains in this temperature zone, the higher the risk of bad outcomes, like the development of harmful microorganisms or the appearance of undesirable tastes and odors due to spoilage microbes [2]. 

If the slow cooker changes over the warming setting, it is generally not risky to leave food for 2 to 4 hours if the temperature is maintained over 63 °C. Do not use the slow cooker to store food.

 What factors affect how long food can stay in a slow cooker?

The factors that affect how long foods can stay in a slow cooker include:

  • Slow cooker model: slow cookers have different specifications, with some models showing a more powerful heating element or better insulation, allowing them to maintain a warm temperature for longer periods.
  • Temperature setting: The “warm” setting on slow cookers is typically between 73-79°C, but depending on the model, this range may be higher or lower. Do not forget to check it before using a warm setting.
  • Type of food: soups and stews with a higher liquid content may stay warm and keep quality for longer periods than thicker, drier dishes.
  • Ambient temperature: If the room where the slow cooker is placed is particularly cold, it may need to stay on warm for longer periods to maintain the desired temperature.
  • Manipulation: If the lid of the slow cooker on warm is frequently opened, for example, during family gatherings, this will disturb the temperature stability and reduce the useful time of the food.

To ensure safety in this case, you can perform frequent measurements of the internal temperature of foods to check if heat is maintained properly. Do not store food in the slow cooker. 


In this brief guide, we answered the question, ‘How long can you leave food in a Slow Cooker?’. We discussed how safe is to leave food in the slow cooker and what factors influence how long you can keep food in it.


  1. Jay JM. Food – Microbiology. 6th Ed, Aspen Food Science, 2000.