Can you safely delay cooking for any length of time without Bacteria growth? Say I want to fill my Instant Pot with Chicken and delay it’s cook time to my return home 9 hours later. That chicken just sits at room temperature all day. What is the guideline so I don’t make my family sick?
- Question from Commenter Christian
Is Instant Pot Delayed Start Safe?
Don’t use delayed start to cook meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or produce. In other words, any food that needs refrigeration.
Who Says So?
The Feds. The US Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation for food storage is:
Stick to the "two-hour rule" for leaving items needing refrigeration out at room temperature. Never allow meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or produce or other foods that require refrigeration to sit at room temperature for more than two hours—one hour if the air temperature is above 90° F.
Are You Storing Food Safely? [FDA.gov]
In other words, food that needs to be refrigerated for safety...needs to be refrigerated for safety. Leaving it out at room temperature for more than two hours is a Bad Idea.
A little more information for you in case you’re still thinking about delayed cooking. Bacteria love temperatures between 40°F and 140°F; that’s where they multiply. The warmer it is, the quicker they multiply. That’s why, at 90°F, the safety zone is only 1 hour.
Also, these times are all about risk management. Are you going to be fine if you leave food at room temperature for two hours, but at 2:01 suddenly you get The Death Bacteria? No, of course not. Maybe you’ll be fine. But the odds turn against you after 2 hours. Do you feel lucky?
And, if you want to delay cooking for less than two hours for convenience reasons, you’re probably fine. (I start cooking immediately and let keep warm mode do its job, but that’s just how I roll.)
Won’t Pressure Cooking kill all the bacteria in the food?
It depends, and it’s complicated. (Isn’t it always?) I read up on pressure cooker sterilization and foods. My research took me down two paths; medical sterilization and food canning.
Medical journals say: If you need to sterilize surgical tools, and you don’t have a steam autoclave available, a home pressure cooker can do the job. Pressure steaming sterilizes medical tools after 30 minutes at 15psi. (They explain this with wonderful terms like “Thermal Death Time”.)
Canning meat is also well studied - according to the National Center for Home Food Preparation, you can preserve quart jars of cubed meat by pressure canning at 11psi for 90 minutes.
Hmm. The numbers look like they should work in an Instant Pot. Electric pressure cookers run at roughly 12psi, so I can sterilize 1 quart of food after 90 minutes at high pressure, right?
Problem 1: Not long enough
I’m not cooking 1 quart of food. If I am, I’m not cooking it for anywhere close to 90 minutes. I’m not going to kill all the bacteria that multiplied while the food sat for hours in the danger zone.
Problem 2: Not consistent enough
Electric pressure cookers (like the Instant Pot) and small stovetop pressure cookers have another problem - they’re not as consistent as pressure canners. Pressure canners have pressure dials on top, to monitor the pressure and make sure it never drops below the minimum (11psi). Electric pressure cookers use 12psi as their target, but don't hold pressure at or above 12psi. Picture a sine wave centered on 12psi, cycling up and down; sometimes the pressure is above 12 psi, and sometimes it is below. The National Center for Home Food Preparation recommends not pressure canning with pressure cookers - only with pressure canners designed for pressure canning.
Even if your electric pressure cooker says it does canning, the NCFHP says USDA tested pressure canning in home pressure cookers back in the 80’s. (Back then, the rule was “add 10 minutes in a home pressure cooker to do pressure canning.) The USDA tests were inconsistent…which meant sometimes the food was underprocessed. That’s Bad. In the late 80’s, they withdrew the “add 10 minutes” recommendation and switched to “Only pressure can in a dedicated pressure canner.”
Problem 3: Spoilage Bacteria
Now, here’s another problem. Let’s say you get lucky, and pressure cook the food long enough to kill all the bacteria in it. You’re good, right? Well, yes…from a safety point of view.
The problem is: we have to worry about more than just illness bacteria. Spoilage is also caused by bacteria, multiplying away on room temperature food. The rancid smell and awful taste of food that’s gone bad? That’s from spoilage bacteria. And that rancid smell and awful taste don’t go away, even when the bacteria is killed. Spoiled food is spoiled food, and the longer it sits in the danger zone, the more likely it is to go bad.
I hate to say spoilage is the real issue with leaving food out all day before cooking. Food-borne illness is Bad News, and I don’t think you should play 3-Card Monte with your health. But…in the comment above. I’m pretty sure chicken left at room temperature all day is going to taste off, no matter how long I pressure cook it.
Please, don’t do it. Let’s be careful out there.
What can I cook in my Instant Pot with Delay Start mode?
If you delay starting (for more than an hour), it has to be something that doesn’t need refrigeration. That sounds like…beans, potatoes, and rice. And not much else. Even then, if I soak beans overnight, I drain the soaking water and replace it with fresh water. And soaking potatoes and rice seem like they’ll just give me a soggy mess. Maybe if you put vegetables (like green beans) above the level of the water, in a steamer rack? Beyond that…I can’t think of anything where a long delayed start is safe or useful.
Personally? I don’t use Delay Start. I don't use a Crock Pot for the same reason. I’m not a morning person. Slow cooking and delayed start cooking mean I have to get out of bed a few precious minutes earlier...and that's not happening. I love my Instant Pot because pressure cooking fits my lifestyle. I get home from work and the pressure cooker squeezes time for me, fitting a long-cooked stew in before dinner.
What do you think?
If you use Delay Start, tell me about it in the comments. How are you using it? What are you cooking with a delayed start?
- Are You Storing Food Safely? [FDA.gov]
- Canning in Electric Multi-Cookers (not supported by USDA canning processes) [nchfp.uga.edu]
- Using a domestic pressure cooker as an autoclave (abstract) [PubMed.gov]
- Instant Pot Frequently Asked Questions
- How to Fix Instant Pot Overheating
- Update on Instant Pot as a Slow Cooker
- My Pressure Cooker Recipes Index
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Mom in Denver says
Great post! I love your recipes and you've really helped me to master just-in-time cooking with the Instant Pot.
Tonight is one of those nights, where we have 30 minutes at home after school and tutoring to get dressed for swimming and eat dinner - so everything needs to be ready to go - I'll be gone about 2 hours before dinner, definitely not all day!! I have chicken thighs in my new Instant Pot Aura (still not sure why I purchased it - would love your thoughts on it). So I'm using my IP pressure cooker for rice, do you think I'm better off using delay start or just keeping the rice warm while I'm gone? I don't have experience with either - I always cook JIT.
Mike Vrobel says
Keep warm is what I'd do - as you can see in this article, I don't trust the safety of Delayed Start. I think the rice will be overcooked, but letting it sit in water uncooked seems riskier to me.
Thank you so much for this article, I also was wondering about this feature and how/if to use it!
Mike Vrobel says
Angel Haga says
Thanks so much for your "delayed start" article! I was concerned over the food bourne illness issues.
Rob Niederman says
I cook steel-cut oats in my Instant Pot for breakfast. I set the delayed start before bed so the oats have finished cooking (and the IP has depressurized) by the time I get up. When I get up in the morning, I've got a warm & healthy breakfast ready-to-go.
Mike Vrobel says
Thanks! Didn't think of overnight oatmeal.
Razzy 7 says
Personally, I would not use the delay timer for something like chicken or probably for any meat. Actually, I don't use the delay timer for any of my IP cooking. Why take a risk? Besides, chicken takes such a short time to cook, why not simply put the chicken into the IP once you're home from work? By the time you get the sides ready, you'll be ready to eat. I would have thawed chicken in the fridge rather than cooking frozen chicken so it will cook more quickly when you get home from work.
Mike Vrobel says