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I'm participating in a pot luck lunch this week. I'm bringing fully cooked meatballs, served in pasta sauce. My plan is to make the meatballs (around 30 - 40) the night before, cook them fully in the oven, and refrigerate them overnight in the crock pot without the sauce.

My question, to have everything properly heated before lunch time, how early should I start the crock pot? I don't want to start too early and turn everything to mush, but I also don't want to serve cold meatballs.

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You really have to cook them a loooong time to turn them into mush. A trick is to do small meatballs (say 1cm diameter) that will heat up fast. –  nico Sep 23 '12 at 17:52
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5 Answers

up vote -1 down vote accepted

Thank you to everyone for your great advice. I ended up using a combination of everyone's answers.

I prepared the meatballs the night before and cooked them in the oven as per usual. I stored them overnight in the fridge in a large ice cream tub, rather than refrigerating the crock. (Thanks for that tip Joe and MargeGunderson.)

In the morning, I combined everything in the crock pot and brought it to work. I started the crock pot on low at 8am. Everything was already cooked, so no need to worry there. The meatballs were heated through by noon. (Thanks everyone for the tip on starting early. Thanks nico for the assurance on "mush".)

Now, time for lunch!

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Except that by refrigerating them the night before in a closed container and then slowly re-warming them the next day, they were in the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees for an awfully long time, probably close to the four hour limit. –  Carey Gregory Aug 9 '13 at 5:41
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If you have some reason not to take Carey's answer (eg, making the meatballs earlier than the night before), I'd suggest a second alternative -- reheat the meatballs in a low oven.

  1. Heat the crock w/ the sauce in it.
  2. Put the meatballs on a sheet pan, and heat in the oven. (maybe 300°F/150°C), if you're concerned w/ overcooking or can't monitor them as much, cut it back to 200 to 250°F (100 to 125°C))
  3. Combine when the meatballs are up to temp.

I also wouldn't refrigerate the crock, as it's a significant thermal mass (will take some time to heat on something as low powered as a slow cooker)

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If you're actually putting the crock in the refrigerator as well as the meatballs, it would take at least a couple of hours to heat the crock, and then heat the meatballs through along with whatever sauce you're going to add.

Is the sauce also going to be starting from a refrigerator temperature? If so, that will take even more time, depending on the size of the crock and amount of sauce.

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They're meatballs. It's a crockpot. Why bother refrigerating them or cooking them in the oven? Just brown them in the oven under broil and then set the crockpot on low and cook them overnight in the sauce. They'll be perfectly done, perfectly safe, and delicious in the morning. A few extra hours won't hurt them at all and then you won't have to worry about time, temperature and food safety.

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This is what I would do, you just need to take care depending on your sauce and how low your "low" setting actually is on the crockpot. A sauce with a fair amount of sugar in it ( eg, one based off of tomatoes or containing brown sugar ) will scorch and burn if left unattended for a long enough period of time. –  Kogitsune Sep 26 '12 at 16:10
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I've allowed tomato-based sauces to go 24 hours on low in a covered crock pot with no problems. I don't see how anything would burn unless you left the lid off and allowed it to dry out. –  Carey Gregory Sep 26 '12 at 16:52
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The speed that the crock pot will heat up the food will depend on your crock pot and the size of the meatballs.

If you know how long it takes for something like pasta sauce by itself to heat up, I'd suggest starting your crock pot with that much time plus a bit (less for smaller meatballs, more for larger ones). Will there be a microwave? If so, you can heat some of the pasta sauce a bit before putting it in with the meatballs, giving you a head start.

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