I want succulence, not shoe leather.
April 4, 2009 7:24 PM   Subscribe

CrockpotFilter: "Falling-off-the-bone tender" is cited as a desirable quality in meats prepared in a slow cooker, but I find meat cooked this way to be dry and mushy. What can I do to fix this?

The earlier fast meals question reminded me that I have yet to find a crockpot recipe where the meat actually tastes good. When people post reviews on recipe sites, they rave over how the meat was "falling apart, it was so tender." While the meats I prepare do fall apart, they usually taste overcooked with a terrible texture - sometimes akin to chewing bubble gum.

I've tried tons of recipes in different slow cookers and with different cuts and types of meat (usually pork, chicken, and beef), yet I can't seem to avoid this problem. The few times it's worked out well have been when I've gotten an exceptionally well marbled chuck roast. I typically cook meals on Low setting for around 8-9 hours. Sometimes I brown the meat, sometimes I don't.

I really want to use my slow cooker more often, but I'm so frequently disappointed by how things turn out. What tips can you offer?
posted by cabingirl to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Lean cuts of pork, chicken and beef are usually poor candidates for long periods of cooking. Both fat content and connective tissue can make a difference. If a cut is high in collagen, it will soften with long cooking because the collagen will turn into gelatin. But eye of round will turn into shoe leather (unless you use the Cook's Illustrated extremely slow roast method, which uses dry heat and is not suited for a crockpot.)

Best for crockpots: chuck, rump, flank, brisket, shank, pork shoulder and ribs, dark chicken on the bone.

Avoid: eye of round, sirloin, most modern lean pork, chicken breast.
posted by maudlin at 7:51 PM on April 4, 2009 [17 favorites]

YES, what maudlin said. Chuck is my pick for beef, shoulder for pork. I would completely avoid chicken breast for any recipe that calls for a long cooking time, thighs all the way.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:57 PM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

You need two things for lush mouth-feel in a crock-pot recipe. Gelatine and fat. Maudlin and Foam Pants are completely right about the choice of cuts but can I suggest that you beg or buy some pork skin from your butcher to throw into an otherwise lean roast. Ham fat, speck, bacon and other porky goodness is also something to save and cherish as are trotters, calves feet and tendons.
posted by ninazer0 at 8:24 PM on April 4, 2009

Yeah, you need to start with tougher cuts of meat (personally, I wouldn't waste flank steak on a slow cooker though). Tough cuts need long cooking time and moisture to turn the collagen into gelatin.

One paradox is that the longer/hotter the meat gets, the more water is squeezed out of the muscle fibers, but this is counteracted by the formation of gelatin a nice dose of fat doesn't hurt the texture either. If you are are already trying tough cuts and they seem dry, the solution may actually be to cook them longer.
posted by Good Brain at 8:58 PM on April 4, 2009

(I actually switched to a browser that likes MeFi to login and respond to this question because it resonates with me so much! :) )

When I lived alone, I practically survived off of crockpot meals, so I got quite good at making them, and I have a recipe for making a beef stew that I can only describe as heaven in a pot. Here's the recipe from memory that should get you what you're looking for:

You need:

- Meat (obviously). I get the stuff from Sams Club that's already chopped up and packaged and labelled as something like "stew chunks". It's typically horridly tough and chewy for any other meal, but in this case you'll want to get it for the reasons that others pointed out. (In general, cheap, fatty meat works great for this recipe, in my experience, though I have made it with steak on rare occasions and almost died from mouthgasm.)
- Adolff's Tenderizing powder (optional). I like the flavor from this, but my wife doesn't, so you might want to experiment. From experience, it does make the meat more tender, but not by a huge amount.
- One 12oz can of Coca-Cola
- Assorted vegetables, including carrots, peas, corn
- 2-3 chopped potatoes. Not thinly sliced, but cut into chunks around the same size or slightly smaller as the meat chunks.
- Several beef bullion cubes
- Pepper

Here's what you do:

1) (optional) Shake the meat in a baggie with the meat tenderizer if you decide to use this. No need to let it sit; just shake it around for a minute.
2) Throw the meat chunks into a pan and brown them on all 4 sides. Doesn't have to be perfect, and you aren't trying to cook them, just make them browned
3) Throw the meat into your crockpot, along with the potatoes, 12oz of coca-cola, and just enough water to cover them both. Add the bullion cubes (hot water to start with makes them dissolve much faster) and cover.
{Depending on when you want this ready, turn the crockpot on high or low. Low if you're cooking overnight and want it for lunch the next day, high if it's in the morning and you want it for dinner that night.}
4) Stir once or twice between when you start cooking and about 6-10 hours later, whenever you decide to eat it. Remember, though, that every time you remove the lid, you add an hour to the cooking time, so don't overdo it. Just make sure that everything is mixed throughly.
5) About 1-2 hours before you want to eat it (depending on if the cooker is on high or low, respectively), add in your other veggies, such as celery, carrots, peas, corn, etc. Also add in the pepper and any other seasonings you might want. You might add another bullion cube if the smell isn't particularly strong, or if you taste the broth and it's not strong enough.
6) Serve with your choice of homemade cheese-covered french bread, crackers, or whatever you'd like.

Yeah, I love stews and anything else that comes from a crockpot. :) I got this recipe from my mom, who made it for my family for years, and it works with whatever kind of meat you have, even the cheapest stuff. (The coke might sound really strange as an ingredient, but the flavor is amazingly good and it really adds to the taste.)
posted by omnipotentq at 9:27 PM on April 4, 2009 [14 favorites]

Heh, was it my recipe that sparked this? Anyhoo, I know what you mean, but for some reason, with a whole chicken it works. Probably because of the skin (ie, fat) and the gelatin in the bones, which keep the chicken from getting all leathery.
posted by lunasol at 10:00 PM on April 4, 2009

Another great, fatty meat for a slow cooker is lamb.
posted by availablelight at 10:05 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try meat with bones such as the 7 bone chuck or short ribs. Alternatively, you could add some powdered gelatin to give the meat a better mouth feel.
posted by stchang at 11:01 PM on April 4, 2009

I don't do chicken in a crockpot. Even dark meat is too lean, IMO.

Shoulders of lamb or pork work great, though. I did a bone-in leg of lamb beautifully, too. The problem with buying meat at a supermarket is that it's often too trimmed up...do you have a real butcher? Nthing that you need a lot of fat and collagen to get that wonderful, moist, unctuous slow-cooked meat.
posted by desuetude at 12:33 AM on April 5, 2009

The most effective thing you can do to bring out more flavor in slow-cooker dishes is to add canned broth (or the homemade equivalent if you make your own). I use one or two cans of Swanson's Beef Broth (for beef dishes, obviously) and Swanson's Vegetable Broth for pork and chicken dishes. It makes a HUGE difference. And, seconding everyone who recommended that you use fattier cuts of meat for better texture.
posted by amyms at 2:11 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

To those who say that chicken can't be done well in a slow cooker, try out this recipe. I did it in my slow cooker and it was superb. Not mushy, not too dry. Pretty much spot on perfect, actually.
posted by Effigy2000 at 2:12 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned this: Can you try cooking for a shorter period of time? Maybe on a weekend, or overnight? Most recipes are actually best around 5-6 hours, I've found. Or, maybe your CrockPot runs too hot so your Low is closer to High?
posted by libraryhead at 6:18 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that tough cuts of meat are appropriate here, but I also agree with libraryhead; even with a crockpot, it's entirely possible to overcook meat.

The typical crockpot recipe that calls for vegetables, meat and some cooking liquid (but not enough to cover the meat) is essentially equivalent to braising, which is what you call it when you throw a chunk of [browned] meat, some vegetables and broth in a big pot and keep it at a gentle simmer, either on a stovetop or in an oven around 300F, for a few hours. I just opened to the braising section of a favorite cookbook, and found braising recipes for beef short ribs and pork belly that suggest simmering times in the ~2 hour range, give or take a half hour. Crockpot recipes are often written with the idea that you'll set them up in the morning and then find a finished meal waiting for you when you get home from work nine or more hours later. That's just too long to keep meat simmering without compromising the quality of the meal. There are workarounds, I'm sure, but it's just not an ideal situation.

You'd probably be better off using a lamp timer to turn the thing on a few hours after leaving for work, though this creates food safety concerns if you're not careful about the temperature of ingredients during the period that they are neither refrigerated nor actively cooking.
posted by jon1270 at 7:05 AM on April 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips everyone. I usually do stick to the fattier cuts of meat, like chuck and pork shoulder, yet still get this dry and mushy problem. Even short ribs don't come out nice like they do on the stove. I've tried the whole chicken, too, with the same result. Maybe I am just cooking too long like libraryhead suggests. I know the meat itself is sometimes the problem, as the local stores don't have great choices. Any suggestions for a good butcher in the Twin Cities?

I think what I really want to understand is why people rave about meat that's falling apart when the texture is so bad (to me). I mean, I've made a good chuck roast or two in my time and it's been unctuous and wonderful, but it doesn't fall apart on its own. Even a perfectly cooked pork shoulder needs a little help to become pulled pork. It seems like if you cook it to the falling apart stage you've gone past the tasty stage. So why the raves?
posted by cabingirl at 7:15 AM on April 5, 2009

Yes, you are probably cooking for too long. For pork and beef braises, what you usually want is to get the meat just to the point that it is "fork tender" -- where it can easily be pierced with a fork -- and then stop cooking it.

Other tips:

Make sure that the braising liquid is seasoned/salted. If you are using only water or even only stock with no salt, the liquid will tend to leech flavor out of the meat.

Salt your meat a day or more in advance of when you want to cook it. This is something I try to do with every piece of meat (not fish though) I buy. It really makes a difference in terms of texture and flavor. See this link for the reasoning behind it.

Letting the meat rest in its cooking liquid in the fridge overnight usually improves flavor and texture.

Finally, despite what Mark Bittman says, most commercial slow cookers are not ideal for braising, really. You usually cannot control the cooking temperature, and the "low" and "high" settings refer to wattage. Cooking temperatures will vary by the contents of the pot, environmental conditions, model and even the individual slow cooking device that you have. This is a problem when the ideal temperature for braising most meat is 180 degrees F. You do not actually want the cooking liquid to boil, but many slow cookers will get hot enough to do it. So the problem could be your slow cooker. It yours consistently boils the liquid in a braise, I would look for a new/different slow cooker.
posted by AceRock at 8:42 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've had good luck with my chuck roasts (I cook on low for about 8 hours)--meat is tender and flavorful, but I also add a lot of liquid. Here is what I typically do (this makes a nice, very spicy pot roast/stew)

1 boneless chuck roast (I get the ones from SAMS)
Cut up potatoes, carrots and vadalia onions in large chunks
1 can (15 or 28 oz) canned whole tomatoes, undrained (diced and stewed work too)
1 can chipotle peppers in adobe sauce
1 bottle beer

Put half of the cut up veggies in crock-pot--chuck roast on top of veggies and remaining veggies on top of roast. Mix canned tomatoes (with liquid), peppers with sauce and beer and pour over roast and veggies. Cook on low until done (about 7 to 8 hours on low).

This is best the next day (it's easy to skim the congealed fat off the top of the broth and flavors meld nicely). Serve with rolls or crackers--and a dollop of sour cream if too spicy hot. Makes a lot of broth, and I've found that the meat has a good consistency--not dry or mushy.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 9:01 AM on April 5, 2009

I think what I really want to understand is why people rave about meat that's falling apart when the texture is so bad (to me). I mean, I've made a good chuck roast or two in my time and it's been unctuous and wonderful, but it doesn't fall apart on its own. Even a perfectly cooked pork shoulder needs a little help to become pulled pork. It seems like if you cook it to the falling apart stage you've gone past the tasty stage. So why the raves?

Hyperbole. A heavy meal doesn't actually stick to your ribs, angel food cake isn't actually lighter than air, and, yeah, a pot roast that actually fell apart before you touched it with a fork would be horribly overdone. People just like to exaggerate for dramatic effect. Don't take 'em too seriously.

That texture you're talking about in a good pork shoulder — where it's firm without being tough or chewy, and it gives just the slightest bit of resistance before pulling apart — is the same one you should be aiming for here. If you're going past that, you're cooking it too long.

The "low" and "high" settings on different crockpots give you different temperatures, and so the cooking times in crockpot recipes are pretty unreliable. It may be that yours runs hotter than most, and you just need to start shaving an hour or two off the cooking times as a matter of course — or using bigger cuts of meat, which will cook slower than ribs and little cubes of stew meat and whatnot.

Also, marinating or cooking in something acidic will make meat softer faster. A lot of slow cooker recipes have, say, wine or tomatoes (or cola, like in omnipotentq's, or....) to try to take advantage of that, but if you're finding yourself going past "tender" and into "mushy," you might want to cut that stuff out and try just cooking in broth. You can always add a slug of wine or a can of tomatoes towards the end if you want that sour flavor without the extra tenderizing effect of cooking in it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:33 AM on April 5, 2009

"Mushiness" is very typical of overcooking your meat, and consistent with your report of 9+ hours of cooking. Buy an instant read thermometer and note the amount of time it takes say, a whole chicken to get to temp (160 degrees) at the high or low setting. I'm guessing it'll be about 3-4 hours on high or 4-6 on low, depending on your slow cooker.

I had the same issue with my slowcooker when I would put meat in before going to work only to return home to an overmushy/overdone meal. Coming home at lunch and starting the cooking then (thereby eliminating ~4 hours of cook time and dropping the total time to 5 hours on low) worked beautifully for both whole chickens and pork butt (shoulder).
posted by skechada at 8:45 AM on April 6, 2009

As far as difference in the same cuts of meat, buy meat that is labeled with its grade. Prime is awesome but you are rarely going to find it in the supermarket. It is common to see Choice, which is pretty good. I find that Select often isn't worth buying, even for slow cooking.

To add flavor, sear the meat and maybe even the onion/celery/carrot. I do and it adds a lot of umami flavor. deglaze the pan you use with some wine and dump it in. Especially advisable for beef which, in my opinion, actually has the less flavor than poultry or lamb.

Also, as other people have said, the amount of time it is taking you to cook is probably pushing you past the yummy stage and into the yucky. Taste test a piece of meat about three hours in and ever hour after that. It will give you a good feel for the natural progression of the meat. Note: poultry will need a significant reduction in time.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:04 PM on May 12, 2009

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