Cooking Off Alcohol
A Stirring Experience

Browning Meat for Slow Cooker

Please help settle a family debate.  Is it necessary to brown meat that is being cooked in a slow cooker?

-- Sandra, Bobbi and Bruce

With the exception of ground meats, it is not absolutely necessary to brown the meat before cooking it in a slow cooker or Crock Pot, although it is recommended as part of the flavor development of the dish.  When meat is browned, the sugars and proteins on the surface undergo a change called the Maillard reaction, after the French physician Louis Camille Maillard (pronounced "My yard") who discovered the reaction.  This reaction creates the rich nutty flavor associated with gravies, roasted meats, baked beans, and other foods.

If you don't brown the meat, particularly in beef dishes, then the final dish ends up tasting rather thin and without depth.  In slow cooker recipes using  chicken and pork, where the flavors are not usually so complex, browning is not as common.  Still, the dishes may benefit from browning the meat.

Because ground meats are more prone to growth of e-coli and other bacteria, I would recommend always browning them.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends these practices for using slow cookers:

  • Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area.
  • Wash hands before and during food preparation.
  • Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time.
  • If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator.
  • Always defrost meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker.
  • Choose to make foods with a high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce.
  • Cut food into chunks or small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Do not use the slow cooker for large pieces like a roast or whole chicken because the food will cook so slowly it could remain in the bacterial "Danger Zone," between 40 °F and 140 °F (4 °C to 60 °C), too long.
  • Fill cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full.
  • Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in a slow cooker so if using them, put vegetables in first, at the bottom and around sides of the utensil. Then add meat and cover the food with liquid such as broth, water or barbecue sauce.
  • Keep the lid in place, removing only to stir the food or check for doneness.
  • If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking time and then use setting called for in your recipe. However, it's safe to cook foods on low the entire time -- if you're leaving for work, for example, and preparation time is limited.
  • Once it is done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating.
  • 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 you are at home, finish cooking the ingredients immediately by some other means: on a gas stove, on the outdoor grill or at a house where the power is on. If the food was completely cooked before the power went out, and you were home at the time so you know when it happened, the food should remain safe up to two hours in the cooker with the power off.

I would add that if you are cutting up meat and vegetables ahead of time, cut all of the vegetables first and package them up to refrigerate before starting to cut up the meat, to avoid cross contamination.

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