Should You Brown Stew Meat Before The Slow Cooker? (And How)

Cooking stews in a slow cooker couldn’t be easier – dice your ingredients, pop them in and you’re basically good to go. When it comes to best practices, you’ve probably heard the advice to brown your meat first, but is this necessary?

Browning stew meat before adding it to a slow cooker adds flavor and improves the color. While this step is important for taste and appearance, it is not essential if pressed for time. Slow cookers will thoroughly cook the meat without needing to caramelize it first.

I’ve often been in a rush and not browned the meat first – it still comes out great. While caramelizing is an excellent step to improve meat, it’s not essential.

To help make the browning process faster, I’ve included some tips on how to brown your meat effectively before adding it to your slow cooker.

Why You Should Brown Your Slow Cooker Stew Meat

The advice is often to brown your meat in a pan before adding it to your slow cooker. You might wonder why many recipes call for browning the meat first if this step is not essential.

Adding your meat to a hot skillet for a few minutes before putting it in the slow cooker helps make your meat tastier, richer, and have an appetizing brown color.

Without browning, your meat will be pale and less complex in flavor, but it will still cook fine and take on flavors from the other ingredients.

If you’re a keen cook, you may have heard the term Maillard reaction—this process was named after Louis Camille Maillard, a French chemist, and physician.

He described the reaction where sugars and amino acids in food react to heat. This reaction leaves food with a darker, browned surface, which most people find more pleasing.

Whether you’re making marshmallows roasted over a fire or ground steak browned in the pan, the Maillard reaction adds a richer taste to cooked foods.

You need high heat and very little moisture to accomplish this reaction, which you will not get when adding your meat straight to a slow cooker, which cooks your food for a long time at a low temperature, usually in a liquid.

If you prefer the meat in your stew to have a pleasing brown color, a richer flavor, and less grease then you should take the time to brown your stew meat before adding it to the cooker.

How To Brown Meat For Slow Cooker

If you’ve tried to brown meat before but haven’t achieved the rich caramel color you expected, you might not see the point.

Luckily, a few simple tips help you brown meat more effectively. Browning works best at high temps with dryer foods so that the cooking time isn’t wasted on burning off excess moisture.

Remember that you only want to sear the outside without actually cooking the meat. If you leave your meat for too long, you’ll overcook it, leaving it tough and dry.

Steps for Browning Meat

  • Make sure you pat your meat dry first.
  • Cook in a dry pan with a little bit of oil.
  • The best pans are made from stainless steel or cast iron. Avoid browning using a non-stick pan.
  • Sear at a high temperature as the Maillard reaction only occurs at 300F+. You want to hear your meat sizzle when it hits the skillet.
  • Avoid constantly stirring the meat—the longer you can let the meat sit without stirring it, the faster the reaction occurs.
  • If you have a lot of meat, brown it in small batches and don’t overcrowd the pan, as this prevents your beef, pork, or mutton from reaching the necessary high temperatures.
  • After browning the meat, you can deglaze your pan and add this liquid to your slow cooker for additional flavor. Avoid doing this if the liquid tastes burnt, however.

What Happens If You Don’t Brown Meat Before The Slow Cooker?

Making stew in a slow cooker is usually achieved by cooking for an extended time at a lower heat. Your meat will be cooked to a tender softness that falls off the bone. But you will not have the deep brown color you get from cooking the beef at high temperatures.

Browning the meat first ensures you get the rich color, but it also adds a depth of flavor as the browned meat cooks in the stew. Adding the deglazed liquid from the skillet can also add extra richness to your stew.

Can You Brown Stew Meat In A Slow Cooker?

Once you’ve added your meat to a slow cooker, the long, low-temperature process will not brown your food.

For many people who choose to skip this step, it is because they find the extra work and cleanup of the preparation removes the point of a slow cooker where you can simply pop the food in the pot, set the timer, and go.

One way to avoid extra cleanup steps is to get a slow cooker that allows you to place the inner pot over the stove (as many don’t). My quick hack for browning stew meat is to use my slow cooker’s removable pot and place it directly on the stovetop.

With just a little oil added, I heat the inner pot to a high temperature before adding my meat and letting it sizzle until nicely seared and brown.

When this is done, I lift the pot by its handle and return it to the slow cooker, add the rest of my ingredients, set my timer, and hey, presto!

Not only do I get the benefits of browning, but I also avoid extra dishes. Plus, when I add my stock, the pot is naturally deglazed, ensuring all the flavor stays where it should.

However, not all slow cookers have an inner pot suitable for placing directly on high-heat surfaces. Also, they are usually coated with a non-stick surface which is less ideal for browning than cast iron or stainless steel.

Despite these limitations, you can still get some of the benefits of browning by doing this.

Is Browning Stew Meat Healthy And Safe?

Some people have had concerns about potential carcinogens in browned food, but this is unlikely to happen in meat or fish. Acrylamide from the browning process is more often found in plant products.

If you plan to make a slow cooker meal, you will find that browning your meat first will improve the way it looks and tastes, and cooking in a dry pan at high heat can also help reduce the fat if you pour it off.

With many people needing to limit excess fat in their diet, this can make browning your stew meat a healthier option.

However, if you skip this step, your slow-cooked stew will still taste fine. I recommend that if you have the time, browning your meat is worth it, but it’s not essential if you have to rush.


If you have the time, browning your stew meat at a high temperature in a cast iron or steel skillet before adding it to the slow cooker will greatly improve the taste and color.

However, if you have to skip this step, your stew will still taste fine, and any bacteria on the surface will still be killed during the cooking process.

Cat Hellisen

Cat is a writer with a wealth of experience in food, cooking and fitness. They have written several books and love long walks on the beach with their dog. About Cat.

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