Make and freeze meal packs now — slow cook them later
Perhaps you're already in the habit of cooking big batches of soups and stews, and then freezing them for future dinners. Good for you: That kind of plan-ahead cooking saves money and time. But there's another method which requires even less work: Rather than stashing fully prepared meals in your freezer, you can instead prepare and freeze the ingredients needed to create a fresh-tasting dish in your slow cooker.
Strategies for Freezing
Step #1: Wash, chop and otherwise prep all ingredients. It's not necessary to pre-cook meat. According to the USDA, it's perfectly safe to store raw meat and raw vegetables together in a sealed plastic bag. So long as food is kept at zero degrees, there's no reason to worry about spoilage or dangerous pathogens being introduced at this stage.
Step #2: Combine all of the ingredients in a gallon-sized plastic freezer bag, remove as much air as possible, and freeze for up to three months.
Flavor is the only concern when it comes to how long you ought to leave your ingredient packs in the freezer: In most cases, quality begins to degrade after two or three months. Flavor can also be compromised by using ingredients that don't freeze well, such as rice, pasta, and cream sauce. Some home cooks don't like the taste of broccoli or potatoes after being frozen, thawed, and slow-cooked, but you may have to experiment with various recipes to determine your personal preferences.
Going from Freezer to Slow Cooker
As always with frozen food, it's important to take precautions when thawing: The only thawing methods endorsed by the USDA are refrigeration, a cold water bath, and microwaving.
With ready-to-slow-cook meals, it's ideal to move the entrée from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before you plan to cook it. Although it may not be fully thawed by the morning, you won't have to wrestle an icy block of ingredients into a round appliance. Thawing the meal before cooking also contributes to food safety and flavor. Add an extra hour to the cooking time if your meal isn't completely thawed.
Freezer-Slow Cooker Recipes
When working with a slow cooker, you're not limited to soups and stews: You can make appetizers, side dishes, and desserts this way. Here are a few suggestions for enjoying the freezer/slow-cooker combo all year long:
- Slow Cooker Corned Beef and Cabbage: Chop the vegetables prior to freezing, and then top off this St. Patty's favorite with beer before cooking.
- Frank's Favorite Slow-Cooker Thai Chicken: Easier than ordering take-out, this dish gets a flavor boost from chicken thighs and peanut butter.
- Cuban Ropa Vieja: This Cuban classic - which can be served on tortillas - is perfect for when the weather takes a tropical turn.
- Texas Style Baked Beans: When you're invited to a barbecue, offer to bring the baked beans.
- Slow Cooker Pumpkin Turkey Chili: Celebrating Halloween doesn't have to end with carving jack-o-lanterns.
- Slow Cooker Cranberry Pork: Use your surplus Thanksgiving cranberry sauce for this tender pork dish.
- Slow Cooker Chicken Marrakesh: Brighten up dreary winter days with this colorful dish.
- Slow Cooker Spicy Black-Eyed Peas: Resolve now to make the black-eyed pea dish before New Year's Day rolls around.