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February 2006

Meat Dries Out in Slow Cooker

I've just started using a slow cooker, and have had pretty mediocre results in keeping my meat moist vs. conventional cooking. For example, the chicken always seems overdone and dry.  Even my beef stew has been on the dry side, with my latest one almost inedible (not tough--just dry) after 7.5 hours on Low. My question is:  Am I simply overcooking it (i.e. the slow cooker might be hotter than the recipes call for)?  Should I start adjusting my times down, and if so, by how much?  Or is it meant to be stewed longer?  Should I add more liquid?  The vegetables seem perfect, though.

I've actually used several different models of slow cooker (some borrowed, some bought and returned), and they all seem to dry the meat.

-- Ramona

This may come as a surprise, but what is likely happening is that you are overcooking the meat.  We tend to think that if you stew meat, the longer it cooks, the more tender and juicy it gets.  In fact, this works only up to a point.

 

As proteins heat up, they loosen their internal bonds, begin to uncoil and bond with neighboring protein molecules.   See Custards and Sauces for a description of how proteins change with temperature.

However, at somewhere around 170°F (76°C), depending on the meat used and the other ingredients present, the protein network begins to break apart again and and the individual molecules tighten back up.  As that happens, the muscle fibers in the meat shrink, their cell walls break open and the water that was trapped within the muscle fiber starts to leak out. The result is that the texture of the meat becomes dry even though it was cooked in liquid.  The same thing can happen in a pot roast or even with meat dishes cooked on the stovetop.

If you're like many people who start supper in the slow cooker before you leave for work in the morning then you are taking part in a balancing act.  You are trying to cook the food at a sufficiently high temperature so that it gets out of the danger zone for bacterial growth fairly quickly.  That temperature range is between 40°F and 140°F (4°C to 60°C).  On the other hand, you don't want to overcook the meat to the point of being too dry. This isn't an easy balance to achieve.

Just to clarify here, based on the comment below from Catt, 140°F (60°C) is the top end of the danger zone through which you want the heat to rise quickly.  In order to kill salmonella and other pathogens, you need to cook until the center of the meat is at least 165°F (74°C).  While protein starts to tighten around 170°F (76°C), it doesn't become unpleasantly dry until around 185°F (85°C), so between 165°F and 185°F (74°C and 85°C) is the target range, if you are measuring.  I would shoot for around 175°F (79°C).

I would try cutting the meat into somewhat larger chunks, perhaps up to about 2 inches (5 cm) to a side, and cooking for a shorter period of time.  Once the cooker gets up to temperature, try cooking the food for about 5 hours longer.  That should give you a total cooking time of about 6 hours.  If the meat is still coming out dry, reduce the time by another half hour or so.  For safety, though, always be sure that the meat is cooked completely.

If you want to see more recommendations on using a slow cooker check out the posting Browning Meat for Slow Cooker.


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Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered, nor can we guarantee we will answer questions immediately
© Lost Hobbit Enterprises 2004 onward


Basting

What does it mean to baste something?  How and when do you do it?

-- Nora

Basting is used in roasting meat and poultry.  To baste something, you take some of the juices that have collected in the bottom of the pan and use them to moisten the top surface.  The juices may be spooned over the meat or brushed on.  A basting bulb can also be used.  It is a hollow tube which narrows to a small opening on one end and has a soft bulb on the other end.  To use it, the bulb is squeezed to press out some air, and then the open end is placed into the juices in the pan.  When the bulb is released, the vacuum which is created draws the liquid into the tube.  The liquid can then be drizzled over the meat by gently squeezing the bulb again.

Basting is done every 20 minutes or so, depending on temperature and the meat being cooked.  Always follow the instructions in the recipe.

Basting has two major effects.  Because the juice is loaded with protein and natural sugars from the meat, when it reaches the roasting temperature, it undergoes a Maillard reaction (see Browning Meat for Slow Cooker).  This adds both flavor and color to the outside of the meat.

Also, as the water in the juices evaporates, it cools the surface of the meat slightly while at the same time moistening it.  Both of these effects help to keep the meat from drying out.

Roasts with a layer of fat, cooked fat side up, don't need to be basted.


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Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered.
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Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered, nor can we guarantee we will answer questions immediately
© Lost Hobbit Enterprises 2004 onward


Bread Pre-ferments

I've tried several times to make a biga, but the ingredients don't come together. When I first mix it, it resembles tiny balls but goes no further than that.  I am using King Arthur bread flour, recently purchased, and Fleischmann’s instant yeast.  The water is at room temperature. My question is, could the yeast be old and  should I use spring water as opposed to tap water?  Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

-- Karla

A biga is one form of pre-ferment, a dough or batter made beforehand and used in bread dough.  There are two major kinds of pre-ferments, firm or dry, and wet or sponge, depending on the ratio of water to flour.  Pre-ferments enhance the taste of bread by extending the fermentation time, creating more complex flavors and enhancing the texture of the final product.

The following bakers percentages, as given by Peter Reinhart in The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, show the degree of hydration between two firm and one wet pre-ferments.

Baker's Percentage Pâte Fermentée Biga Poolish
Flour 100 100 100
Water 65 66 .7 107
Instant Yeast .55 .49 .27
Salt 1 .9 - -
Resting Time 1+ hours 3 – 4 hours 2 – 4 hours

The firm pre-ferments are blended and then kneaded for a few minutes before being coated with oil and left to rest at room temperature, while the wetter one, the Poolish, is mixed just long enough to blend well.  It is not necessary to remove all of the lumps.  In all cases, the bowl should be covered during resting. For the Pâte Fermentée, resting time is about one hour, or until it has risen to about 1 ½ times its original volume.  The usual instruction for a wet pre-ferment is to allow it to rest until it bubbles up and then collapses back down to its original volume.

The equivalent measures for home baking are:

Ingredient Pâte Fermentée Biga Poolish
Flour 2  1/8 Cups 2  1/8 Cups 2  1/2 Cups
Water 3/4 Cup 3/4 Cup 1  1/2 Cup
Instant Yeast 1/2 Tsp 1/2 Tsp 1/4 Tsp
Salt 3/4 Tsp - -

If you use traditional rise instead of instant yeast, increase the amount used by about one third.  Each of these mixtures gives enough pre-ferment to use in making two 1 pound loaves.  Once they are finished resting, they can be refrigerated for up to a few days before use.

Because the dry pre-ferments have approximately the same hydration as the dough for French bread, they should have about the same consistency and will rise like bread dough.  The Poolish will be about the consistency of pancake batter and will become bubbly.  If they fail to act in this way, then the yeast may indeed be too old.   Yeast becomes weaker with age and should be used or discarded before the expiry date on the package.  Yeast should be stored in a cool, dry place.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the strain of yeast used for making bread, is tolerant of temperatures up to about 110°F (43°C), but best performance for making a pre-ferment is up to about 80°F (27°C).  Warmer than that will speed up the yeast, reducing the benefits of making a pre-ferment in the first place.

As to the question of using bottled or spring water in place of tap water, unless the tap water where you live is particularly hard or soft, don’t waste the money.  If you are worried about chlorine or fluorides in your water, you needn’t be.  There isn’t enough to significantly harm the yeast. If you want, though, you can either let it stand overnight in an open container or boil it and then allow it to cool completely.  Either method will drive off these chemicals.

Anyone who likes making homemade, artisan-style breads should try using a pre-ferment and see the difference it makes.


If you have food or cooking questions, send them to Questions@KitchenSavvy.com
Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered.
© Lost Hobbit Enterprises 2004 onward



Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered, nor can we guarantee we will answer questions immediately
© Lost Hobbit Enterprises 2004 onward


Jus'ed Cause

What is the difference between au jus and gravy?

-- Overheard in a restaurant

This just heard.  Homer Simpson, "Mmm, jus!  Not quite gravy, not quite blood."  Well, not really, but it made me smile.

The short answer is, "Probably the size of the bill."  With the trend to call simple things by fancy names, many restaurants are serving gravies, sometimes even those that come in powdered form, as jus.  After all, who wants fries and gravy when you can have "pomme frite au jus "?

The French cooking term "jus" (pronounced Zhoo) simply refers to a juice, or gravy, made from pan drippings.  Food that is served with jus is said to be "au jus" (O Zhoo).  A simple jus is made by adding vegetables to the roasting pan, either about a half hour before the roast is finished or on the stove top after the excess fat has been drained off.  Whichever way it is done, the vegetables are cooked until they have browned.  Then water or stock is added to the pan.  The liquid is boiled and the pan scraped with a wooden spoon until all of the brown bits, called the "fond", are loosened from the pan and dissolved into the liquid.

If the liquid is then strained and served as is, it is called jus.  If it is thickened first, usually with arrowroot or cornstarch dissolved in some water, then it is a "jus lié" (Zhoo lee-AY).

Pan gravies are made pretty much the same way, except that they are frequently thickened with flour, either dissolved in water or added to the vegetables at the end of the browning to make a roux.  A pan gravy is usually a bit thicker than a jus.

One final nerve jangling note:  its bad enough that restaurants are calling their gravy "jus", but sometimes you will see something like "beef dip with au jus".  Since the word "au" means "with" in this context, they are saying "beef dip with with gravy".  If they are going to be pretentious, at least they should bother to learn what they are saying!


If you have food or cooking questions, send them to Questions@KitchenSavvy.com
Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered.
© Lost Hobbit Enterprises 2004 onward



Due to the volume of questions received, not all can be answered, nor can we guarantee we will answer questions immediately
© Lost Hobbit Enterprises 2004 onward