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Many slow cooker recipes suggest that beef be browned before being added to the slow cooker, which is definitely better for the flavor of the dish. I've always believed that this browning must occur just before adding to the slow cooker for food safety reasons, and this article from the USDA backs me up.

Yesterday in an online chat, one of the writers for the food section of a national newspaper said it is safe to brown beef the night before.

I know that the USDA is often extra cautious and provides the strictest possible guidelines to ensure food safety. Are they being overcautious on pre-browning, or should I skip what the food writer said and trust my original gut and the USDA?

EDIT: My slow cooker recipes are usually for larger cuts of beef, not ground, and so browning will not cook them through.

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7 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I assume that the section of the USDA article you're referring to is this:

Partial Cooking
Never brown or partially cook beef to refrigerate and finish cooking later because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed. It is safe to partially pre-cook or microwave beef immediately before transferring it to the hot grill to finish cooking.

Before I go on, I should point out that the USDA obviously has much greater expertise than I do when it comes to food safety. Nevertheless, I find this recommendation to be extremely bizarre bordering on silly.

For full cuts of beef (not ground beef), bacteria should only be present on the surface. That is why most people - or at least most people I know - choose to eat their steaks rare, or at most medium rare. The "interior" is not fully cooked, nor is it supposed to be.

Searing the beef will kill any surface bacteria almost immediately. That is why rare steak is (relatively) safe to eat. As far as I am concerned, once the beef has been browned, it is already cooked sufficiently. The only reason to add it to a slow cooker later would be to tenderize it or even out the cooking.

If the USDA expresses concern over refrigerating beef that has basically been cooked sufficiently, it must be because they believe that browning/searing kills enough of the bacteria to make it safe for direct consumption, but not all of the bacteria - such that they could multiply again and contaminate the food over a long period of time.

But refrigerating immediately after browning should prevent that. No part of the beef will be in the "danger zone" for longer than 45 minutes or so, and even if you did miss some of the bacteria during the browning and they manage to multiply overnight, you're still tossing them into a slow cooker and that's going to kill any remaining bacteria.

Perhaps I'm missing something obvious, but from what I can tell, any health risks associated with browning a large cut of beef and subsequently refrigerating it for a relatively small period of time would have to be infinitesimally small. It's not something that I would concern myself with.

Edit:

I did just think of one other possible reason for the USDA warning. The key phrase is "partially cook." If the browning is being done as a means for shortening the subsequent cooking time (i.e. slow cooking for 6 hours instead of 12), then you might have a problem. Because if you don't manage to kill all the bacteria, then the total required subsequent cooking time is going to creep back up as they multiply; that means your 6 hours in the slow cooker that might have been enough if you had seared the beef immediately before, are no longer enough to guarantee safe consumption.

So I am adding a caveat to my original answer: It is probably safe to refrigerate the browned beef, but you should calculate your cooking time as though you had never browned it. If you are concerned about safety (and I maintain the risks are minuscule), then treat the browned/refrigerated beef as uncooked meat. If you do that, I cannot see any reason why this wouldn't be safe.

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the minimum temp the USDA thinks it is safe to comsume beef at is 145 degrees F (which they label "medium rare"). I'm not sure browning gets to their minimum. Thanks for your thoughtful answer! –  justkt Sep 23 '10 at 16:45
    
Very well put @Aaronut –  BaffledCook Oct 23 '10 at 20:44
    
I wonder how dated their recommendation is; older refrigerators would ice over badly if you put warm/hot food in them, so most cooks of these times would treat "refrigerate immediately" as "leave for over half an hour till it cools to room temperature, then refrigerate." –  SF. Nov 5 '13 at 6:40
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My answer is speculative only, and not authoritative.

I would suspect that if you brown the meat directly from the fridge, and immediately put it back in the fridge, you wouldn't end up heating the center of the cut up much. (Hopefully, the core of the meat wouldn't even rise above 40 degrees.)

Keep in mind the 4 hour limit on meat -- Meat has a total lifetime of 4 hours between 40 and 140 degrees, so you want to avoid heating the uncooked portion as much as possible, and to brown it as fast as possible, to avoid heat transfer to the inside. -EDIT- You don't want to be heating up the inside out of the safety range if at all possible.

Putting it in the freezer for an hour to cool it down might also help after browning. You might consider storing it overnight in a cold braising liquid, which would help to bring the temperature down quickly.

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You don't need to heat up the center for a slab of beef, though; unless you're dealing with ground beef, any harmful bacteria will only be on the surface. –  Aaronut Sep 23 '10 at 16:23
    
@aaronut. That's what I was getting at. I guess it wasn't clear. –  Chris Cudmore Sep 23 '10 at 18:44
    
Apologies for misunderstanding, then, I just wasn't sure why the heat of the interior would be important; if you're referring to the "danger zone" (for bacteria) then the temperature only has to rise a few degrees above refrigeration temperature to get there. For chicken or other meat where the interior is often contaminated, this could be quite dangerous, but for beef it shouldn't be. –  Aaronut Sep 23 '10 at 19:50
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I think the USDA's recommendations refer more to partially cooking meat that you will then add grill marks / sear later. The interior of the meat would not have enough time to come up to a safe temperature in that case. You're doing the opposite, though: putting an outer sear on the meat before cooking it thoroughly. It's probably safe to refrigerate in between those steps, as long as you refrigerate quickly (beware of the "danger zone"), possibly by adding a short cool down in the freezer. Braising will still cook the meat thoroughly later, so you should be fine. Since you will start the slow cooker with refrigerated meat instead of recently seared meat, you should add a bit more cooking time.

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I agree with Aaronut in that the logic just doesn't add up.

If the ALL meat gets to the safe temperature that temperature should kill all bad things that could grow.

The only thing I could fathom is if the browning itself produces something that is no longer destroyed by the safe temperature if it is allowed to then cool again.

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In all likelihood, you would be OK if you browned the meat the night before, so long as you did a quick sear and transferred it to the refrigerator immediately afterwards. That said, why take the chance, when you're only spending a couple of minutes browning the meat?

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Anecdotal evidence: I routinely prepare a beef dish such as chilli, including searing, and leave it in a slow cooker, not switched on, overnight - then switch it on in the morning so that the dish is ready to eat when I get home in the evening.

The only time I wouldn't do this is in very warm weather, when I would make room for the pot in the fridge.

My rationale is this:

  • The 8 hours+ of slow cooking will definitely kill any bacteria present.
  • Thus all we care about is toxins created by bacteria in the 10 hours or so between preparation and cooking
  • I've always been fine :)
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I admit, I eat stuff that's well outside of the USDA's guidelines, but I make it a habit to only do it myself, not for food I'm preparing for others. (with the assumption that my immune system might be innoculated, but others might not) –  Joe Jan 12 '11 at 14:03
    
This suggestion is definitely well outside the guidelines. –  justkt Jan 12 '11 at 14:27
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I'd classify this as risky; if you get an absolutely perfect sear and the slow cooker itself has been thoroughly cleaned then the meat might not spoil while sitting in there, but 10 hours is a long time for any meat (cooked or not) to be at room temperature. And why? It's not hard to throw it in the fridge... –  Aaronut Jan 12 '11 at 14:42
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Based on the principles of microbiology... anything could happen. Some points to consider...

Most disease-causing bacteria will be killed heat treatment at a given temperature for some amount of time. The slow cooking, if at proper temperature for designated time should kill whatever bacteria reach that temperature/time. It's mostly irrelevant what you do as long as it reaches temperature and cooks for given amount of time. Consider frozen meat and faulty thermometers in borderline judgement calls.

However...

Disease-causing bacteria can be internal to the cut of meat if an animal (or plant) was colonized systemically before slaughter (or harvest). Most all microbial contamination is on surface, but I would not assume absence of bacteria, other microbes, or other parasites elsewhere in a cut of meat.

Heat-destroyed bacteria can leave behind toxins which cause sickness and sometimes organ damage. (example: E. coli)

Heat treatments and other shocks can kill off most all bacteria, but leave some species remaining to colonize the contaminated material (media). Some species of bacteria form spores which resist heat inactivation, except under specific extreme temperatures and pressures. (example: Bacillus species)

Cold conditions (refrigeration) do not prevent growth of all disease-causing species of bacteria. For example, Camplyobacter species can continue to multiply in refrigeration where growth of other disease causing bacteria is suppressed.

Based on the above risk assessment and my working experience as cook and microbiologist I would worry that the practice of partially cooking food and then refrigerating it can favor or enrich the meat for certain kinds of disease-causing bacteria to colonize. I would not brown meat and then store it for any period of time before continuing to cook. If I had to do so, then I would make sure that the second cooking conditions (time and temperature, possibly pH) would be guaranteed to inactivate whatever parasites and toxins may be present in the meat.

Also--don't forget vegetables and herbs as source of foodborne illness.

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There is lots of nice information here, but I am not sure I see where you have actually answered the question asked.... –  SAJ14SAJ Nov 4 '13 at 22:20
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