To brown, or not to brown? We asked our test kitchen director for the answer.

The beauty of slow cooking is that there is practically no prep work involved: you can dump everything into the crock, push a button, walk away, and return to a hot, homey meal that's ready to serve.

While this hands-off, low-effort method will produce delicious results, when you're slow cooking beef, it is worth adding one additional (very simple) step. Before you put the meat to the slow cooker, take a few extra minutes to brown it in a skillet. According to Southern Living's test kitchen director Robby Melvin, there are several reasons why browning is worth the effort.

"Browning, or caramelizing, meat before putting it into a slow cooker isn't one hundred percent necessary, but it is well worth the effort for the most flavorful and full-bodied end result," he says. "The caramelized surface of the meat will lend rich flavor and color to the finished dish." Melvin also recommends dusting the meat in seasoned flour before browning it. The flour will add body to the dish and help thicken up the sauce that comes together while the ingredients cook low and slow. Also be sure to brown the meat in batches and avoid overcrowding the pan so that the meat can brown evenly, not steam.

If you are making a slow cooked recipe that calls for ground beef, like chili, beef stew, or meat sauce, browning the meat beforehand makes a huge difference. Ground meat should always be browned in a skillet and drained before it is added to the slow cooker with the other ingredients. This will prevent it from clumping together as it cooks and cut down on the amount of grease in the final dish.