Have you ever made a slow cooker stew and ended up with dry meat? If you’re looking for the perfect cut to ensure a moist, rich, slow cooker stew, let’s discuss those best cuts.
The best cuts for slow cooker stews contain a lot of connective tissue and collagen. These cuts are tough when cooked quickly and need to be cooked at low temperatures for longer to soften the collagen.
Look for cheaper cuts such as:
- Meat labeled as stew meat or braising steak
- Shank (shin)
- Short rib
- Pork shoulder
- Lamb shanks
If you use the right cut for your recipe, you’ll end up with meat so tender that it melts with every bite. I’ve been making stews for years and found the perfect cuts for slow cooker meals.
Best Slow Cooker Stew Cuts In More Detail
An excellent way to prepare a delicious meaty stew is to use a slow cooker—just set the ingredients and timer, and go about your day.
Not all meat is good for long cooking times over low heat. The best cuts are often cheaper, fatty, and contain lots of tough connective tissue.
Some of the best cuts I’ve used when preparing slow cooker stews are:
This cut is also sometimes called stew meat or braising steak when it is diced up and is an economical cut of meat. It is probably the most common beef cut for stews.
Thanks to a large amount of collagen and other connective tissue, chuck is excellent for most slow-cooking methods, like stewing or pot roasting.
Beef Shank (shin)
Because beef shank comes from cattle foreshank it’s known as the shin in some places and is a cheap cut full of connective tissue. This is the perfect type of meat for a slow cooker as it needs a long slow cooking time to break down the collagen. This cut can also be called Gravy Beef.
Beef Short Ribs
Beef short ribs, with their dense marbling of fat and connected bones, make them perfect for slow cooking. The long cooking time helps break down the connective tissue in this mid-section cut, and the fat keeps the meat tender and flavorful.
Oxtail is an excellent meat for stews and comes from the tail of a cow or bull. This meat is bony and rich in gelatin and marrow, which makes it ideal for slow cooking. Stewed oxtail is popular in many traditional dishes from around the world.
This cut is generally inexpensive and comes from just above the pig’s front leg. It is split into two smaller cuts known as the Boston Butt and Picnic Shoulder (or Picnic Roast).
Pork shoulder is best for braising and long, slow cooking. This method melts the fat and leaves the meat tender and sweet.
I’m a huge fan of lamb’s rich flavor and sauce. This cut comes with a large bone each and plenty of meat, making it look really impressive. The fattiness of lamb shanks makes it perfect for stew, as the meat won’t dry out.
Benefits Of These Slow Cooker Cuts
- You’ll use less energy than leaving a pot on a stove for hours
- The long cooking time will tenderize your meat by breaking down the connective tissue
- You can use cheaper cuts of meat that benefit from long cooking times
- Recipes are usually simple—add the ingredients, set the timer and heat, and off you go.
Why Does Some Meat Get Tender By Slow Cooking?
Cheaper, fatty cuts taste great and achieve the best texture when cooked long enough to break down the tough connective tissues that make them unsuitable for quick frying or cooking.
Some meats get tender when cooked because cheaper cuts often have a higher collagen and elastin content than more expensive cuts. Collagen is the connective tissue between the muscles, and elastin is the protein that forms the gristle.
Meat with high collagen can be pretty tough and difficult to chew. To make it softer and tastier, we use a long, slow cooking time over low heat. This helps to break down the amino acid chains as the collagen dissolves in liquid to become gelatin.
Gelatin improves the texture of your meat, making it softer, and adds rich flavor. You can only get collagen to melt like this by cooking it in a moist environment over a low temperature for a long time.
Meat with lower amounts of collagen, like lean chicken breast, is better cooked quickly to prevent it from becoming tough and stringy, but the opposite is true for cuts high in connective tissue.
Meat cooked in a sealed slow cooker will also be more tender as less moisture escapes the pot than meat roasted in an oven.
How To Prepare Meat For Slow Cooker Stew
To get the best out of the meat you choose for your slow cooker, here are some tips that help to retain flavor and tenderness:
- Remove any skin or gristle
- Some people prefer to cut away visible fat for a leaner meal, but I find the natural fat ensures a richer, deeper flavor in moderation
- Season your meat with salt, pepper, and herbs, and coat lightly with flour.
- I prefer to brown my meat first as it gives extra flavor. Brown your meat in a hot pan before transferring it to the slow cooker.
While cutting away the gristle will make your meat less chewy, you can soften and break down the collagen by cooking meat slowly at a low temperature (160-205 F). This process turns collagen into gelatin, which helps give the meat a deep, rich flavor.
A bonus of this rich source of gelatin is that it provides plenty of protein and anti-oxidants, which help support your skin, bones, joints, and digestive system.
What Meat You Should Avoid Cooking In Slow Cookers
Save your expensive, lean, tender cuts of meat for grills and BBQs. Also, avoid using meats that should be cooked quickly to retain texture and firmness, including seafood.
Here are the meats I suggest you avoid cooking in your slow cooker:
- Strip steak
- Chicken breast
- Pork chops
- The skin on meat—the skin will not crisp up as it would when roasting.
Some other non-meat ingredients you should avoid adding to slow cooker recipes are soft herbs—use dried instead, or add fresh herbs at the end of the cooking time.
Use firmer root vegetables like carrots and potatoes rather than softer ones such as asparagus or zucchini.
One thing to note when adding wine or ale to slow cooker meals prepared at very low heat—the temperature means the alcohol may not burn off, and this can affect your stew’s flavor.
What Is The Cheapest Beef Cut For Slow Cooker?
The cheapest cuts of beef may vary from place to place, but here are some of the more inexpensive cuts you’ll find at grocery stores and butchers.
- Chuck steak
You can make the most of economical, tough cuts of meat by using them in slow cooker recipes. They are perfect for stews that cook at low heat for several hours. Look for meat with the bone in for added flavor; just cut off the gristle before cooking.
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