Meatballs, whether they’re seasoned with Parmesan and oregano for a classic Italian-American red sauce or kneaded smooth to form South American albondigas, can be prepared in a slow cooker as a time- and attention-saving method. However, overcooking meatballs can lead to tough, tasteless meatballs, so do not simmer them for an extended period.
Browning or Cooked Raw
The crust and color that develops from browning not only adds texture and visual contrast, it lends greater flavor to the finished meatballs. However, browning requires more work than simply cooking raw meatballs in the slow cooker. Some types of meatballs, such as albondigas or Lion’s Head meatballs from China are not browned prior to cooking as they are prized for their softness. To brown meatballs, coat a heavy skillet with a thin layer of oil and heat on medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the meatballs in a single layer so they are barely touching and cook them until they are browned on the outside.
How Long to Cook For
As surprising as it may sound, cooking meatballs for too long in the slow cooker leads to tough, dry meatballs -- even if you cook them in sauce. Cook the meatballs in the cooker for as little time as possible for them to be fully cooked. The internal temperature should be 160 degrees Fahrenheit for food safety. Cook raw meatballs for 35 minutes on the high setting for a slow cooker and browned meatballs for around 20 minutes on the high setting.
Cooking in Liquid
While cooking in meatballs in liquid in a slow cooker does not prevent them from becoming dry when overcooked, it does give you the chance to produce a highly flavorful broth or sauce while cooking your meatballs. As an added benefit, once cooked, the meatballs and sauce may be eaten as is. While a tomato sauce for Italian-American meatballs -- seasoned with garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano -- is the go-to choice for many people, consider pairing different sauces with different types of meatballs. Simmer ground-chicken meatballs in a teriyaki or sweet soy sauce for Japanese-style meatballs, or cook deep-fried veal meatballs in a mushroom and sour cream gravy for a cross between Polish and German meatballs.
If you cooked the meatballs in a sauce or broth, you can serve the individual meatballs with toothpicks as a fast snack or dish up them up with some sauce and serve over pasta, rice or boiled potatoes for a fast, hearty meal. Cooked meatballs can be stored in the fridge to be used later for a range of meals such as meatball sandwiches or thinly sliced and used as a pizza topping.
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