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When making chili in the crockpot, must the ground beef or turkey be precooked, or can I just throw everything in and cook it all day?

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2 Answers

There are two different issues: safety, and flavor.

From a safety point of view, assuming you don't overload your slow cooker, and it comes up to safe temperatures (140 F, 60 C) in less than two hours (preferably much less), it is perfectly safe to begin cooking in a slow cooker with raw ground meat.

On the other hand, you will not get the flavor development that browning meat provides. Slow cookers are essentially appliances for the long, slow, moist cooking method calling braising.

Many conventional (stovetop and oven) braising recipes begin by searing or browning the meat, prior to the braising phase. This develops deeper, richer flavors due to the maillard reaction.

If you skip this step for a slow cooker, you will lose the benefit of this flavor development. In some recipes, this may not be an issue, or it may even be traditional (such as for Cincinnati style chili). For other recipes, including many chili recipes, you may choose to brown or sear your meat (or other ingredients) prior to adding it to the slow cooker to benefit from the flavor development; in this case, it is not necessary to cook the food all the way through—that will happen in the slow cooker.

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Has anyone actually tested the "deeper, richer flavors" claim? In McGee's "On Food and Cooking" he states "There are exceptions to the rule that browning reactions require temperatures above the boil. Alkaline conditions, con-centrated solutions of carbohydrates and amino acids, and prolonged cooking times can all generate Maillard colors and aromas in moist foods." Couldn't the prolonged cooking of ground meat, onions, etc produces most, if not all, the same flavor compounds? –  Didgeridrew Jan 6 at 15:35
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@Didgeridrew Slow cooker conditions and times are not sufficient for the edge processes you allude to, and almost no dish is alkaline. The process is temperature dependent, so no doubt a few reactions do take place, but not enough to taste. The Chinese style eggs that turn brown in their shells take weeks to prepare. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Century_egg –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 6 at 15:54
    
Also, the experience of generations of cooks with stocks and broths demonstrates that unless the meat or bones are browned before making the stock, the color is much lighter. –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 6 at 16:08
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You certainly can add raw ground beef to the crockpot. As a matter of fact, many (if not most) slow-cooker chili recipes ask for the meat to be added raw. The whole purpose of a slow-cooker is to save effort on the part of the cook/dishwasher. Browning the meat ahead of time requires effort and a whole additional pot to wash.

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While the substance of your answer (simply put "yes") is accurate I cannot pass without challenging your claim the whole purpose of a slow-cooker is save effort.... Um, NO. The "Principal" purpose a crockpot is as a vessel for SLOW cooking. From being useful for breaking down tougher cuts of meat to the ability to deeply infuse flavors into a dish a slow-cooker has several purposes completely unrelated to 'ease of cleanup'(and IMHO 'more important'). –  Cos Callis Jan 6 at 4:28
    
There's a new generation of slow cooker like devices on the market that can get hot enough to brown things first. those were made for convenience. (but I don't have one, so I have no idea how well they work ... I just watch too much late night TV. and Breville and Cuisinart make similar appliances. –  Joe Jan 6 at 15:16
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