Freezer-to-Slow-Cooker Meals: The Secret to Home-Cooked Meals When There's No Time to Cook
Crockpot cooking just got even easier, with slow-cooker freezer packs you make yourself. Use these simple hacks and a homemade dinner can still be yours, even on those no-time-to-cook days.
The slow cooker offers a range of culinary experiences, from white-tablecloth-worthy gourmet meals made in your personal tabletop braiser, to desperation dinners that find you frantically throwing whatever ingredients you can find into the crock right before you run out the door in the morning. Now this can make for some odd dishes (“Why does this pork taste like a pine tree?”), especially if you’re not grounded in the basics of slow cooking. But even if you’re an old pro at delivering delicious, slowly braised food, those tossed-together slow cooker meals can still be a roll of the dice.
Instead of depending on pantry staples swimming in sodium (I'm looking at you, cream-of-X canned soup!) along with the odd veggies from the back of the fridge, take a little time when you’re already in prep mode to plan ahead for future slow cooker meals. Freezer bags of ingredients you can defrost overnight and then pour into the slow cooker before you run out the door (learn the fundamentals of freezing here) can be a life saver for busy weeknights. A little meal planning and prep saves you from another night of expensive take out or sad, dry, frozen pizza. Below are tips for prepping crockpot freezer meals, along with a few new recipes to get you started.
Double Your Prep, Double Your Dinners
In my work as a kitchen coach, I've found that one of the main reasons my clients avoid meal planning is the belief that it eats up a ton of time, both in the kitchen and in the mental effort required. But that’s not so, especially when it comes to freeze-ahead meals for the slow cooker. The answer is ridiculously simple: When you’re planning to make a crockpot meal you love (and you’re OK with skipping any browning steps), simply double the ingredients on your shopping list, do the prep for both, then freeze half the ingredients in a ziptop freezer bag, pushing out as much air as possible. Chopping four carrots instead of two, or cutting up two chicken breasts instead of one adds so little time that it’ll almost feel like you did no prep at all, and ensures a healthy meal in the future. (Find some healthy and delicious slow cooker recipes here.)
- Raw potatoes that go from freezer to slow cooker don’t hold their shape well, but rather fall apart in the slow cooker. Feel free to swap the potatoes out for a similar root vegetable, or accept the texture change and adjust for a naturally thicker dish than originally planned.
- Remember, if you chop ingredients with similar densities into similar sized pieces, each will cook at nearly the same pace; this ensures that everything ends up at the right doneness and texture.
If You Like It, Then You Should Put a Label on It
As a general rule, slow cooker freezer meals can be stored in a freezer for up to three months — but it can be hard, at two months and three weeks, to remember exactly what’s in the bag (nevermind remembering the cook time and temp). But with a piece of masking tape and a permanent marker (or specially-designed printable labels if you're fancy), you can quickly note the date it goes in the freezer, the ingredients inside, and the cooking instructions. Voila! No confusion, nothing to figure out when you’re digging through the icebox a month later.
Gotta Keep 'Em Separated
The point of doing freezer-to-slow-cooker meal prep is ease and convenience — ideally, each meal is in one bag, ready to be thawed and cooked as needed. But taking a moment to separate out any delicate ingredients and storing them in a separate baggie can be the difference between a succulent dish and a bowl of mush.
Delicate vegetables like asparagus, spinach, bell peppers, zucchini, and yellow squash take less time to cook than sturdier root vegetables. Pay attention to your recipe; if certain vegetables are meant to be stirred in towards the end of cooking, pack them in their own bag, label each with a marker as “1 of 2,” and “2 of 2,” then clip or rubber band the bags together in the freezer (or place both bags in a larger ziptop bag). Do thaw both bags together; A little extra time in the fridge for the more delicate veggies won’t matter a bit.
So Can I Cook Frozen Chicken in a Slow Cooker? (Or… Safety First!)
It can be tempting to simply dump a bag of frozen ingredients into a slow cooker and walk away. It sounds like the epitome of convenience, right? Well, except for the potential for food poisoning from your favorite chicken recipes.
There is some debate on the subject — some experts think it’s just fine, as long as you cut the chicken into small pieces to speed the time it takes for it to cook through. But science suggests otherwise: Cooking time and temperature are key to food safety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states poultry has to get up to 165°F internally to kill off the bacteria that cause illness (pork, beef, lamb, and veal only have to get to 160°F).
But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. In the thawing process, there's a food-safety danger zone while the temperature is between 40°F and 140°F; this is when bacteria multiply the quickest, often releasing toxins in the process. And thawing in a slow cooker takes much longer than it does on the stove, as most slow cookers are designed to keep food between 170°F and 280°F. Once the food reaches 165°F, any bacteria is generally destroyed — but the heat-resistant toxins that have been released in the meantime don’t always get killed off. That’s what causes illness much of the time.
This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of food poisoning cure — free yourself from worry with a pinch of planning: The night before, take the bag(s) of ingredients out of the freezer and set them on a plate in the fridge before you go to bed. In the morning, everything will be thawed and ready to go, meaning the food can come up to temperature much more quickly. And what a thrill to come home to a delectable meal you so easily prepared! Go you.
Ready, Set, Go!
Below are some crockpot recipes specifically designed to go from freezer to slow cooker. Let us know how it goes!