A lot of foods just seem to work best when they're made ahead in large batches, so you don't have to fuss with them on the day of your meal. Meatballs definitely fall into this category. It's not that they're difficult, but messing around with raw ground meats isn't necessarily something you want to do on a regular weeknight. Whether you make your own and freeze them, or just cut to the chase and buy them frozen, you'll never lack for meal ideas while you've got them on hand.
Frozen Meatballs for the Win
The cool thing about meatballs is that they're so versatile. Feel the urge for a meatball sub in the middle of the night? You're covered. Want a quick meal with some pasta? Done deal. Have friends coming over, and need something to set out for an appetizer? Meatballs have got your back. They can be simmered in sauce, skewered for the grill, wrapped in a tortilla or even just served on a tray with toothpicks.
Of course, how you go about cooking them is a factor as well. Arguably the most convenient tool for preparing meatballs is your slow cooker because you can just load it up and walk away until they're done. That's a fine idea in theory, but in practice there's a pretty substantial catch.
Slow Cooker Frozen Meatballs
The one thing you can't do when you're making frozen meatballs in a Crock-Pot is exactly the one thing you'd probably envisioned: going straight from the freezer to the slow cooker. The problem is that slow cookers take a long time to bring food up to temperature – that's exactly what they're for – and that creates a food-safety issue with frozen foods.
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Harmful bacteria grow best at temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 F, the food safety "danger zone." When you cook frozen meats or poultry in the slow cooker they can actually spend most of their cooking time in the danger zone, where any bacteria that are present can grow and flourish. Your meal will eventually reach a safe temperature but in the meantime, many bacteria can create heat-stable toxins that will still make you sick.
Thaw Them First
The simplest way around this problem is just to thaw your meatballs before you start. As long as they aren't frozen to begin with, your favorite Crock-Pot meatball recipe will work just fine and the end result will be a meal that's food safe. Ideally, this means you'd take your bag of meatballs out of the freezer the night before, and let them thaw in your fridge. That way, they're at a food-safe temperature from start to finish.
If you don't have that kind of time, or just didn't think of it soon enough, there are two other methods you can use. One is to thaw the bag of meatballs in a bowl or sink of cold water, and the other is to use your microwave's defrost feature. If you use either of these methods, don't put the meatballs back in the fridge when you're done. You'll need to cook them right away.
Don't Start Them Cold
The other option is to not have all the ingredients cold when you start your meatball recipe. Your meatballs won't spend nearly as long in the danger zone if you're starting with a preheated sauce, and ideally with a prewarmed slow cooker as well.
If you're making honey garlic meatballs, for example, you might start by heating the sauce in a saucepan on the stovetop, then adding the hot sauce to the meatballs in your preheated slow cooker. Even better, heat the sauce with the meatballs already in it. That way, they begin to thaw and cook right from the start.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.