No, it’s not forgetting to unplug it (though you should do that, too).
Slow cooker
Credit: Getty / Devrim_PINAR

I'm all about trimming down the time it takes to get dinner on the table, especially on packed weeknights. Savvy meal prep, thoughtful leftover repurposing, simple sheet pan suppers — and of course the beloved slow cooker

But there's one shortcut that seem unavoidable: Skipping defrosting the meat in the fridge the day before cooking it.  

But it turns out you should never put frozen proteins straight into your slow cooker to cook a meal. And food safety is the reason. Here's what you need to know.

What the experts say about putting frozen meat into the slow cooker 

But wait, isn't that the point — to let the slow cooker do the work of thawing and cooking the meat while I binge episodes of The Great British Bake Off, right?

Not so fast, says the USDA. 

In their slow cooker food safety tips, they recommend you always defrost meat or poultry before putting it in the slow cooker. 

The primary concern is that putting frozen meat in the slow cooker means it spends too much time thawing. Slow cookers operate at temperatures between 170°F and 300°F, so well above this zone, but frozen pieces will take longer to reach a safe internal temperature. This means they spend more time in the "danger zone", aka between 40° and 140°F, where bacteria grow exponentially. This can possibly result in foodborne illness. 

The USDA still confirms that slow cookers and crockpots can safely cook food (so you can keep delicious chilis, hearty soups, and fall-off-the-bone tender ribs on your menu rotation). Just set a reminder to thaw your meat in the fridge a day before cooking it and you're in the clear. 

What about Instant Pots and thawing meat? 

When using the pressure-cooking setting on the ever-popular Instant Pot, the appliance cooks frozen chicken or meat fast enough to avoid the "danger zone." So, if you have forgotten to defrost your protein but still want to go ahead with dinner, you can indeed cook meat straight from the freezer. But make sure you are using the pressure cooker function; if you are using the slow cooker function on your Instant Pot, you're back in trouble.

Here are a few tips for pressure cooking with meats straight from the freezer:

  • Add more liquid. Ensure the frozen meat is covered in water, broth, or your sauce, as this helps it cook evenly and thoroughly.
  • Add more time. A good rule of thumb is to increase the cook time by at least 50 percent. 
  • Use a meat thermometer. It's a good tool to have on hand for confirming that the meat is safe to eat; bacteria are killed at temperatures above 165°F.

Great slow cooker recipes to try

Now that we've wrapped up our food safety refresher, go back to meal planning with these slow cooker recipes. Check out these slow cooker suggestions and recipes for dinner; just don't forget to thaw in advance!