As a recipe writer, it’s my job to figure out which steps are necessary in the making of any given dish, and which steps might not be delivering enough benefit (or any, for that matter) to merit the extra work.
It’s not always an easy task. When you’ve cooked certain dishes in the exact same way again and again, it can be challenging to re-examine them. Such was the case with this week’s Slow-Cooker Italian Meatballs in Marinara Sauce.
I’ve made meatballs in red sauce a million times. Usually I make the dish in a large Dutch oven. I form the meatballs and brown them in a sauté pan before adding them to the sauce. This is done to develop flavor and a crust around the meatball, but it does take time and makes a greasy mess of the stove.
Sometimes, when I’m making a large quantity of meatballs, I’ve browned them in a hot oven. That’s easier, but the meatballs don’t brown as evenly.
Whenever I develop recipes for a slow cooker, I try to keep in mind that many people look to this popular appliance to make their lives easier. I do understand the desire for slow cooker recipes to be one-step wonders, where all the ingredients are dumped into the cooker uncooked and, hours later, a delicious meal appears. It’s not always the case, though.
Most successful slow-cooker recipes, especially ones that include an animal protein, need some precooking to either develop flavor or help with the texture of a dish, or both. At least I thought so, but would it be true with this meatball recipe?
I decided to challenge the conventional norms and see what would happen if I simply stirred all the sauce ingredients into the slow cooker without cooking and added the meatballs raw.
What I got was a combination of ultra-tender, almost silky meatballs that I loved, but they were swimming in a so-so sauce. While the sauce had a nice meaty flavor, as it had the chance to cook low and slow with the meatballs, it lacked the depth of tomato flavor I usually get in a marinara. And, surprisingly, the onions never really melted into the sauce, retaining a bit of an unpleasant crunch and slightly raw onion flavor.
So, I added back in the step of sautéing the onions in a skillet, and while I was at it, I sautéed the garlic, too, along with tomato paste. I know that sounds strange, but when you sauté tomato paste for a few minutes, its natural sugar caramelizes slightly. A lot of flavor lies in that caramelization.
In the end, I decided to lose the step of pre-browning the meatballs for this slow cooker recipe, but keep the easier and considerably less messy step of sautéing the onions, garlic and tomato paste. The result was a deeply flavorful slow cooker version of a beloved recipe. This is a version I will be making many times again, though not because it’s easy or convenient, but because it’s delicious.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.