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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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© 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

Comments

Because all of my experience with several crock pots I own, have turned out meat that is like chewing shoe leather, I have started to use the oven timer on my stove oven to fix dinner while I'm gone. To prevent spoilage, I put in frozen roast and onions etc into a cold oven and it turns on and off when I set the dials and that's that. No more dry fibrous meat. However, I am never gone at work for 12 hours like some commuters.

I've been experiencing this as well, and I think I'm going to aim for using a shorter cook time and a lamp timer so I can still cook while at work, but the the crockpot will shut off after a certain point to prevent overcooking.
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I wouldn't recommend the use of a timer either before or after the food is done to control when the crockpot is running. Doing so could potentially lead to spoilage. See the article on How Long Can Cooked Food Be Left Out.

Read more at KitchenSavvy: KitchenSavvy: How Long Can Cooked Food Be Left Out (http://www.kitchensavvy.com/journal/2006/10/how_long_can_co.html)

Wow I thought this was just me! I normally cook everything in my large pot on the stove but recently got a slow cooker after people telling me how fantastic they are etc etc. And mum uses one and her food turns out beautiful! I have used mine three times and each time the meat is tough as leather and dry and sometimes very flavourless, regardless of how long I leave it in there or what temperature setting I use! I thought it was something I was doing until I found this article. Thanks!

If we have to check with a meat thermometer, what is the whole idea of being able to slow cook while at work, or out all day. I am very disappointed in how a slow cooker cooks meat, especially chicken.
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Reply -- I wasn't so much suggesting you need to use a meat thermometer as explaining what happens and why meat does dry out. That said, you still need to be sure the food is properly cooked and safe to eat.

Slow cooking is about convenience and because of that quality can be compromised.

Dave

This amazing article is going to revolutionize my crockpotting! Knew I was doing something wrong.

Now, armed with my meat thermometer,
I can find out exactly when the meat hits the sweet spot 60-76C, and stop it overheating - by using my second secret weapon - this link http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080109140202AAfyGME - check out the addendum to the first answer - all becomes clear!

The crockpot isn't aiming for a set temperature, like an oven - it's pumping in a constant power, like a microwave! So the less stuff you put in it, the hotter it gets, and while it might cook a potful of stew gently, a small joint braised on a few slices of onion is going to get massacred.

This also means you can reduce the heat by loading it up with more stuff - use a larger joint of meat, double up the veg under it, or if all else fails, stick it on a trivet and half-fill the pot with water - the water will absorb much of the power, meaning the meat will cook more gently.

Eureka! I'm going to try this right away. Could take some time to perfect, but with the meat thermometer and some practice, this should be easy to figure out.
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Good comments!
Just aim for the high end on the temperature range. 60C is the top of the danger zone, not the desired cooking temperature. Around 74C is the temperature to kill pathogens like salmonella, so you want to cook to at least that temperature.
Dave

I just had this problem the last two times I slow cooked and thought it might be the slow cooker, because I have had it for 12 years. Anyhow I posted on Facebook: " Well I obviously figured out how to cook meat in the crock pot with plenty of liquid and it still come out dry. So if anyone would want some tips on that don't hesitate to ask this areas worst cook. I'd be happy to help!" Thankfully one of my FB friends gave me this link! Thank goodness! It saved me money on a slow cooker, I don't feel like the worst cook now, and a post to link to in a future blog post. We sell sides of beef so this post will be useful in that way too! Thanks!

Everyone raves about tender crockpot meat, so I try and try again. But almost every time my meat turns out dry. I thought my pot was broken during my move because it was bent and did not have a good seal. Just enthusiastically bought a new one. Fantastic time saver, was able to take my son on a long tricycle ride because dinner was done when we got home but again, even with the new pot I was so disappointed, veggies and flavor good, meat yuck. I feel better that it is not just me because everyone else I have spoken to tells me how easy it is and works like a charm every single time. I was thinking what is wrong with me and the new pot just confirmed that it must be something about that I'm doing. I'll try reducing the time even more (already reduced the heat). Timing is a bit difficult because I'm aiming to have the food cook while I am at work. Thanks for the advice...

Glad I found this I was going to give up cooking meat in the slow cooker. I follow the recipe to the "t" and always end up with really tough meat. This is a lot of wasted money. I really wish a crock pot was made that actually listed the temperature on it rather than "high" or "low" as that is really vague. I am getting ready to dump out about 6 pounds of beef ribs tonight because they are way overcooked. Yuck.

I have the one that Costco sells. I also have wondered if it is too hot! My meat always turns out dry!

I know it's 3 years since the last comment, but still valid info! My roasts are always dry too even with great cuts of meat and I'm sure it's because my pot is too hot and needs less time rather than longer. It also boils which I'm pretty sure is not supposed to happen. The one Costco sells might not be a good choice. Thanks!

Yay!!! I've been googling for a half-hour trying to find an answer to that question. I bought a crock pot recently - found tons of recipes on-line and always ended up with dry meat. Definitely going to start backing off the times in 1/2 hour increments. Thanks!

Thanks so much for answering my question! I'll start reducing my cooking time, and maybe ask the butcher to cut the stew into larger chunks. I think the slow cooker is fabulous, but it's been a real letdown on getting meat to be good because of this overcooking issue. I do feel that the cookers seem to be hotter than the recipe books expect; maybe a change in the slow cooker industry to ensure no bacterial contamination?

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