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I started to ask about adapting slow-cooker recipes for longer cook times, but noticed there were a few questions about that already that look helpful.

My next question is about how to prep a slow cooker so I can just set-it-and-forget-it in the morning before going to work. What special precautions should I take for slow-cooker recipes that use raw or partially cooked meat so I can have everything pre-mixed in one or two containers and stored over night (8-10 hours) in the fridge?

How would I need to modify cook times or temperatures for starting from fridge-temp instead of room-temp? Would kick-starting things by cooking in a stove pot in the morning help? Or is the slow cooker likely to handle it well enough?

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I don't know if there's an 'official' way of doing this, but I've heard a few different techniques (eg, putting the crock together the night before, then fridging it).

Personally, if I'm going to prep things in advance, I try to take advantage of the extra time, such as by giving the meat a dry-rub.

In theory you can mix the meat and vegetables (as they'll all be cooked to sufficient temperatures to make the meat safe; the problems are when you cook the vegetables for less time) ... but I find that makes it difficult to specifically layer the crock the way that I want to. (I typically put a carrots across the bottom to lift the meat a little off the bottom of the crock).

When it comes time to put everything into the crock, I start it on high for a little while so it'll come up to temperature in a reasonable time, and then switch it over to warm before leaving it to work. (it's possible that the new programmable crockpots do this automatically with 'fuzzy logic' ... I've never tested it specifically).

...

So, to summarize:

  1. prep food the night before
  2. store in containers relative to how you'll want to layer things in the crock. (if not layering, all together is fine).
  3. don't use the crock as one of the containers in the fridge.
  4. on the morning of, layer things into the crock about 30 min before you need to leave.
  5. add the appropriate amount of liquid.
  6. place the lid on.
  7. turn the crock on high.
  8. once the temperature is up to around 130-140°F (57-60°C), switch it over low.
  9. leave it for the appropriate amount of time.
  10. switch it to warm if you need extra time before it'll be served.

If you overslep or otherwise need to get out the door quickly ... put the liquid in the microwave to heat up (or stovetop) while you assemble the stuff in the crock, and assemble it while the crock is on low. (you won't burn yourself right away, as it takes a few minutes to warm up). Once the liquid is warm (you don't want it at a boil ... we're looking for near our target 130-140°F / 57-60°C; a couple of degrees over if you have the time), pour it in slowly, working your way around the outer edge of the crock. Drop on the lid, and then go to step #9.

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    Can you explain why the crock shouldn't be one of the containers in the fridge? I'd been picturing my latest slow cooker in which the crock is removable, and thinking of perhaps just filling it, fridging it, and dropping it in the heating element in the morning and going on my way. Would that risk a cracked crock? – Erica Oct 30 '14 at 11:32
  • Thanks Joe. I nearly followed this last night just using my own intuition. The recipe is a stew, so lots of water and no layering. I braised the meat, set it in the crock, chopped the veggies, added them and the liquids (stock, tomato juices) and fridged it. It's about 9 hours later, just put em on the heat and added the wine. I'm setting it on high and my wife will turn it to low in about 4 hours when she's on break. @Erica I think the reasoning to not use the crock is so that it's not chilled when you start. My crock is clay, so I don't think it can be heat damaged. – Dacio Oct 30 '14 at 13:48
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    The clay can hold a lot of heat, so its starting temperature will make a difference in the overall cook time. Also, if you have separate containers fridged, they're easier to store in there (I had to re-org a lot of space to fit the 6 quart) and easier to pre-heat either straight in the microwave or transferring to the stove. Either way, I'll let you know how the stew turns out! – Dacio Oct 30 '14 at 13:51
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    @Erica : the issue is both thermal mass (more to get up to temperature) and thermal shock (if you don't have lots of liquid, the bottom will heat while the top is still cold, and it can crack if there's too much of a differential or rapid change (eg, pouring boiling liquid all at once into a chilled crock). – Joe Oct 30 '14 at 14:13
  • Whelp the stew was delicious. The meat wound up a little on the dry side, which was surprising, but it was nice and tender which was a good result for a chuck roast. Thanks again Joe! I'll try some more of your tips the next time. – Dacio Oct 31 '14 at 5:20

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