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Make Chili in the Crock-pot With Raw Meat?

by Elizabeth Skipper | February 17th, 2015 | Ask the Chef
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crock pot (400x400)I love using my crockpot for weeknight meals, especially stews and roasts. I want to make chili in my crock-pot, but every recipe I find says that I have to brown the meat before adding it. The point of the crock-pot (for me) is to shorten my prep time. If I used a lean ground meat, such as turkey, could I put it in raw?

Sure, you can just throw raw meat, lean or not, in your chili. Sling it in there along with everything else, turn it on, and leave. Be sure to cook it long enough to attain a temperature of 165°F for at least two hours and it will be safe to eat. Although why you’d want to is beyond me. The taste of a concoction like this will leave a lot to be desired.

According to an old (I’m guessing from the 1970’s) Rival Crock-Pot manual I have,

“Must I ‘brown’ meats first?” Not unless there is considerable fat. Browning does cut down on the fat content. When meat is lean there is no need to brown it first, because the CROCK-POT improves flavor.

However, according to the hints for cooking meats I found in a newer slow cooker manual online, “Browning meat in a separate skillet or broiler allows fat to be drained off before slow cooking and also adds greater depth of flavor.”

So which is it? I’m with the second opinion. “Because the Crock-pot improves flavor” is a vague, essentially meaningless, statement. Using a slow cooker simply substitutes the use of a small appliance to perform different cooking tasks, usually braising or stewing, for those usually done on a stovetop or in the oven. They can also be used to simmer, steam, bake, or serve; but the main benefit of one is that it allows for long, unattended cooking at relatively low temperatures. That’s not the same as shortening prep time. What you get out of a slow cooker depends on what you put into it.

That doesn’t have to mean a lot of work to get it ready to go; it does mean that you can’t just put a bunch of ingredients into it and have miracles emerge at the end of the cooking time. All the recipes you’ve found call for browning the meat because that additional step enhances the flavor. If you ever doubt that, try this experiment: put chopped carrots, onions, celery, and ground beef into a pot with water and simmer until everything’s cooked. In another pot, sauté the vegetables and beef together (no need to add additional fat unless you’re using lean beef), then add the water and finish cooking. Put seasonings such as thyme, bay leaf, marjoram, whatever floats your boat, in both, too. You won’t believe the flavor difference between the two.

What’s called the Maillard reaction is what occurs when meats are browned. It’s responsible for that wonderful “meaty” flavor we associate with grilled and roasted meats; and it occurs at temperatures higher than those found in a slow cooker. So if you want chili that’s as flavorful as it can be, take the extra step of browning the meat first.

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