Slow Cooker Taco Meat is made using lean beef and, thanks to cooking low and slow, comes out super tender with absolutely incredible flavor. In this super simple recipe that uses only two ingredients, it’s the method that matters.
Seriously, friends. Stop what you’re doing and make this taco meat. It has totally changed our taco night game. My friend Laura (hi Neuf!) told me about this method for making taco meat that she picked up via Gina of the wonderful Skinnytaste. My version is simplified even further and uses just store-bought salsa to flavor the meat. Even after testing taco meat in the slow cooker with other spices and aromatics, I found that there was no need to complicate this recipe. Store-bought salsa already has all the flavors you need built in – spices, onions, bell peppers, garlic. Just add the salsa to the meat, put it all in the slow cooker, and come home to the best tacos of your life.
P.S. Do you love freezer meals as much as I do? Check out all of our freezer-friendly meals which each include printable labels with reheating instructions to attach to the meal.
Why Make Taco Meat In the Slow Cooker
Taco meat (as is true for beef in many recipes) gets more flavorful and tender if cooked very low and slow. It’s the same phenomenon that makes chili taste even better after simmering for hours. Those flavors benefit from some extra time to develop.
Ground beef cooked just in a skillet with some spices and aromatics has a tendency to come out dry. But simmered for a few hours in the slow cooker, even the leanest ground beef comes out super tender and flavorful.
Store-bought salsa gives the slow cooker taco meat even more of a flavor boost. The ingredients in salsa have already been simmered and had time to develop, so they give you a head start on getting flavor out of the taco meat.
Slow Cooker Taco Meat Ingredients
As promised, just two ingredients are needed for this easy, delicious taco meat!
- Ground Beef – Use a lean ground beef which will come out tender and not as greasy as a beef with a higher fat content. Bonus that it’s healthier and also tastes great! I prefer to use a 93% lean beef for this.
- Salsa – Add 1 (16-oz) jar of salsa to the meat as it cooks. Any variety works. I’ve used everything from Mild Pace salsa to a Aldi brand salsa to a boutique fire-roasted local salsa and the results always came out great. Just be sure to get a spice level that works with your spice preference. We almost always use a mild version since I know the kids will eat it.
Do I have to saute ground beef before slow cooking?
Yes. It is absolutely necessary to brown ground beef in a skillet before adding it to the slow cooker. It just takes a few minutes and pays off big time in producing a texture that is tender while still holding its shape.
I tested this recipe by skipping the saute step and the results were not great. If you add the ground beef to the slow cooker without browning it in a skillet first, the texture of the resulting taco meat has a soggy quality that reminds me of elementary school sloppy joe’s.
Come to think of it, that’s probably how cafeterias prepare sloppy joe’s for hundreds of kids – just add the raw meat to a big pot with some sauce and cook it.
In short – don’t skip the step to brown the meat in a skillet.
Variations on Slow Cooker Taco Meat
Can I make this with a different meat? Yes and yes! Thanks to the slow cooker’s ability to tenderize and flavor the meat, any lean ground meat will work well. This is great with ground turkey or ground chicken.
Can I make this vegetarian? It is great vegetarian! Use meatless ground crumbles from the freezer section as a great 1:1 substitute. Finely chopped seitan would also work well and would give you something close to Chipotle’s vegetarian sofritas.
Can I add vegetables? This is great with some extra vegetables added. Make sure to finely chop them so that they have a similar texture as the meat after cooked. Riced cauliflower, broccoli, or carrots would be an easy addition (or any of these vegetables very finely chopped). Just add about 1 cup riced vegetables for 2 cups of ground meat. These vegetables will release water while they cook, so reduce the water added to the slow cooker by half.
Freeze This Meal
To Freeze Slow Cooker Taco Meat: To freeze this meal, combine the cooked ground beef, salsa, and water in a freezer-safe bag or container. Freeze for 4 to 6 months.
To Cook the Meat: Defrost the meat in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours. Transfer to a slow cooker. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours / high for 4 to 5 hours. (After cooking time is finished, the taco meat can hold on the warming function for up to 2 hours.)
Print the recipe below for a printable label you can attach to the top of the freezer meal.
Other Favorite Taco Recipes
- Honey Lime Salmon Tacos – Honey for a bit of sweetness, lime for the tart flavor, these fish tacos are easy to make but big in flavor.
- Sweet Potato Tacos with Avocado Crema and Goat Cheese – Not your ordinary tacos for sure, but I love this vegetarian combination with avocado crema for creaminess and goat cheese for a unique tangy flavor.
- Instant Pot Crispy Pork Carnitas Tacos – While lately I’m all about these classic ground beef tacos, the tried-and-true taco in our house is made in the Instant Pot using pork shoulder that is shredded and then pan seared for a crispy texture.
- Slow Cooker – This recipe actually works well in a smaller slow cooker, so it’s a great use for that small version you save for dips or parties. I use either a 4-quart Slow Cooker (I use the Cuisinart version linked here) or a 6-quart Slow Cooker (this is a link to the KitchenAid version I have and love).
- Lodge Cast Iron Skillet – Cast iron is great for browning meat.
Slow Cooker Taco Meat
- Slow Cooker (4-quart or 6-quart)
- 2 Tbsp Cooking Oil (I use avocado or grape seed oil for most things)
- 2 lbs Ground Beef (93% lean)
- 1 16oz jar Salsa (use any type - mild, medium, or hot)
- 1/2 cup Water
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add oil and when it begins to shimmer, add beef.
- Saute beef, breaking it apart as it cooks, until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Drain off any excess fat or liquid from the pan. (Note: Resist the urge to season the meat with salt or pepper at this stage. Depending on how salty your salsa is, you may or may not need additional salt.)
- Transfer beef to the bowl of a slow cooker and stir in salsa and water. (See note below for freezing instructions.)
- Cook for 7 to 8 hours on low or 4 to 5 hours on high. (After cooking is complete, you can leave the meat on the “warm” setting for up to 2 hours.)
- Give the meat a stir. Taste and season with some salt and pepper, if needed.
We didn’t have a lemonade stand this summer, but Molly and Clara decided that when temps dropped below 40 degrees here in Kansas City, THAT was the time for a lemonade stand. Inside. Behind the baby gate so that their most eager customer couldn’t make a mess of things.
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