If you’ve bought a slow cooker as a time-saving, convenient appliance you can fill with ingredients and walk away, it can come as a bit of a surprise to hear recommendations not to put in raw meat or vegetables. There is some debate about browning meat and onions before slow cooking, but what’s the real answer? Can you put raw meat or vegetables in a slow cooker?
You can put raw meat and vegetables in a slow cooker. Slow cookers are designed to cook raw food. Although browning your meat and aromatic vegetables before slow cooking can add flavor, texture, it is not strictly necessary.
Part of the joy of using a slow cooker is the “dump and go” recipe, where you put a whole of ingredients in your crockpot and return hours later to a tasty, wholesome meal. But so many slow cooker recipes say you need to brown your meat and veg first to add flavor. What happens if you don’t? Will your food be cooked? Will it still taste good?
Do You Have To Cook Meat Or Vegetables Before Putting Them In The Slow Cooker?
You do not have to cook meat or vegetables before putting them in the slow cooker. If used correctly, the slow cooker will cook them completely as it reaches the required temperature to cook both meat and vegetables, despite cooking for a long time.
Part of a slow cooker’s convenience factor is that you don’t have to precook the food. Using a slow cooker is intended to save you time and effort. The appliance can cook the raw ingredients placed inside it without your intervention and attention, saving you preparation and clean-up time.
While you can put raw meat and vegetables in the slow cooker, you should never put frozen food in the slow cooker as per the USDA’s advice. The slow cooker will take a couple of hours to reach a simmering or cooking temperatur, and you run the risk of the meat spoiling and you and your family getting food poisoning. Instead, thaw the meat completely before placing it in the slow cooker.
If you are struggling with vegetables not cooking through, see my post on why your carrots and potatoes are still coming out hard.
Why Do Recipes Ask To Brown Meat And Vegetables Before Slow Cooking?
Recipes suggest browning the meat and certain vegetables for many different reasons, the most important being flavor and appearance.
Why brown meat before slow cooking?
- Flavor: The main reason for browning meat before putting it in the slow cooker is flavor. Searing or browning the outside of your meat before cooking triggers the “Maillard reaction” which creates that caramelized taste associated with browned meat.
- Appearance: Appearance is another key reason for browning meat before slow cooking: the meat takes on a rich, brown color.
- Fat removal: Browning meat can also melt away some fat before cooking it in the crockpot. One disadvantage of the slow cooker is that the fat cannot cook away.
- Thickening sauce: If you dredge your meat in flour before browning, the flour will help to thicken the sauce in the slow cooker. This process is helpful because sauces and gravies don’t thicken in a slow cooker unless you add a thickening agent at the end. Browning with flour takes the rawness off the flour and prevents it forming lumps later.
- Faster cooking time: Some cooks argue that browning the meat first reduces the cooking time. This depends on the recipe – if it needs a long time cooking to tenderize meat then this won’t save you much time.
Why brown vegetables before slow cooking?
- Flavor: Onions will soften in the slow cooker, but you need to fry them to caramelize them which brings depth of flavor to a dish (think french onion soup). Other aromatic ingredients also need to be browned to ramp up the flavor: garlic, ginger, and celery add a much bigger punch factor if cooked beforehand. Remember to deglaze the pan to catch all the little browned bits of deliciousness to add to the slow cooker.
- Moisture removal: Browning vegetables removes some of the vegetables’ moisture, which prevents them from becoming watery in the slow cooker.
Toasting spices first
- Spices benefit from being browned first because they lose their raw flavor. This can sometimes be overpowering in dishes and needs mellowing from toasting first in a pan.
Recipes That Benefit Most From Browning First
Even though you can put raw meat and vegetables straight into your slow cooker, some recipes benefit from browning first, especially recipes using ground beef or beef pieces, such as a chili or meat sauce. This process adds flavor and removes fat from the beef.
If you really can’t stand the idea of dirtying another pan, invest in a slow cooker with a stove-top insert or sear function so that you can brown the meat and veg in the slow cooker itself.
- Chili, bolognese sauce and other mince based dishes
- Potroast beef
- Beef stews, curries and tagines
- Chicken thighs
- Dishes with onions
- Dishes with bacon
Slow Cooker Bolognese Sauce Recipe
This hearty sauce can be used over pasta or rice.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 diced garlic cloves
- 2 diced onions
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 1 cup hot beef broth
- 2 tins chopped tomato
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- Pinch of salt
- Heat your olive oil in a medium-high skillet (or use the sear function on your slow cooker).
- Cook the onion for 5 minutes until soft.
- Add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes.
- Transfer the onion and garlic to the slow cooker.
- Add another tablespoon of olive oil and gently brown the ground beef.
- Transfer the beef to the slow cooker.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the slow cooker.
- Turn the slow cooker on low.
- Cook the Bolognese sauce for 6 hours.
Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Recipe
Stuff this tender, juicy pork into soft, floury buns.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 pound pork tenderloin
- 1 cup ketchup
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- Rinse and dry the meat.
- Trim all excess fat off the pork.
- Cut the pork into two or more pieces.
- Season the pork
- Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet on medium-high (or use the sear function on your slow cooker).
- Sear the pork on all sides, taking a few minutes to do this thoroughly.
- Place the pork in the slow cooker.
- Mix the rest of the ingredients.
- Pour the mixture over the pork.
- Turn the slow cooker on low.
- Cook your pork for 4 to 5 hours until tender.
- Remove the pork and shred it.
- Return the pork to the slow cooker until it is heated through.
Recipes That Don’t Need Cooking First
If you bought a slow cooker to avoid all the prep needed before cooking, cooking chicken, seafood or vegetarian is a good idea. Chicken does not need to be browned before being cooked in the slow cooker. This method also works well with turkey.
- Most chicken dishes – e.g. teriyaki chicken
- Seafood dishes – e.g. seafood stew
Slow-cooker teriyaki chicken
This chicken is delicious served over rice.
- 1 pound chicken thighs, deboned and deskinned
- 2/3 cup dark soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons garlic and ginger paste
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- Place the chicken pieces in the slow cooker.
- Mix all the ingredients except the water and cornstarch. Pour over chicken.
- Turn the slow cooker on high.
- Cook the chicken for 2 hours.
- Remove the chicken and shred it.
- Mix the cornstarch and water.
- Add it to the cooking liquid and thicken.
- Return the chicken to the sauce. Heat through.
Slow-cooker glazed carrots
These taste like the carrots your grandma used to make.
- 2 pounds chopped carrots (1-inch chunks)
- ½ cup unsweetened apple juice
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup diced butter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup chopped, toasted pecans
- Place carrots in the slow cooker.
- Pour over apple juice.
- Turn the slow cooker on high.
- Cook the carrots for 3 hours.
- Remove the carrots and drain.
- Return the carrots to the slow cooker.
- Add sugar, butter, and salt to the slow cooker.
- Cook on high for about 20 minutes until the carrots are glazed.
- Serve with the pecans sprinkled on the carrots.
You can put raw meat and vegetables in a slow cooker quite safely. The slow cooker will cook them thoroughly. Recipes recommend browning meat and onions first for reasons of flavor and appearance. It is a good idea to brown or sear ground beef before cooking in a slow cooker as it can get fatty and unappealing, but this step can be left out for time and convenience’s sake.
Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.
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