Slow cooking tougher cuts of meat into succulent fall-off-the-bone perfection is what we love about our Crockpots. The low heat is certainly gentle, but can you go too far and overcook meat in a slow cooker?
It is possible to overcook meat in a slow cooker just like traditional cooking. Tough cuts which have more connective tissue need longer to tenderize than delicate, leaner cuts, but even these cuts will become stringy and dry out eventually.
If you’re cooking stews or pot roasts and the meat is still chewy then it is likely that it is still undercooked. Slow cookers usually use tough cuts (like shank or brisket) and this will only be chewy when it hasn’t had enough time for the tissue to break down.
Slow cookers are forgiving, and you will likely not ruin your meal by giving the dish an extra hour or two on low heat. But by drastically increasing the cooking time stated in the recipe you risk overcooking.
Read on for my recommended cooking times and favorite cuts of meat in the slow cooker.
When Does Overcooking Happen?
The type of cut used, the weight, and the size of meat cubes are the main factors to determine how long meat will be able to cook in the slow cooker before becoming overcooked.
Tough cuts, like stewing meat, are often used in the slow cooker as they are cheap and can be cooked for a long time without overcooking. It’s best to put these on low and they can be left for 6-10 hours depending on the size and weight. They can take a lot, but will eventually fall apart. For example, overcooking happens with stew cuts on over 8-10 hours on low.
Softer and more delicate cuts will overcook much faster as they have less fibrous tissue to tenderize. These cuts are things like chicken breasts, pork loin, steaks, and anything else you can fry quickly.
Slow cookers work by slowly coming up to a simmering point over a number of hours. Once it’s at this hot temperature, these soft cuts will overcook very quickly. For example, you can poach chicken breast cubes in a simmering saucepan in 20 minutes.
High Vs Low Setting
On most slow cookers, like the Crockpot, the high and low setting determines how long it takes to reach a simmering point (209F/98C). High takes 3-4 hours to reach simmering and low takes 7-8 hours. So high cooks food at this higher temperature for much longer and can lead to overcooking softer food. Read more details on the Crockpot website.
See my whole article on cooking on high vs cooking on low and what is best.
How Long Can You Leave Meat In A Slow Cooker?
Large roasts can cook for 10+ hours on low, stewing meat can cook for 8 hours, and chicken thighs for 6 hours. Softer cuts of meat should be cooked for shorter times and no longer than the recipe states.
Your meal is done when the meat is “fork” tender. It can then be left on the warm setting for up to 4 hours.
You want your meal to be ready for dishing up when you get in, right? The problem is that you can’t leave the cooker on “warm” all day.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture stipulates a “danger zone” of between 40F and 140F where bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes.
Most slow cookers have a warm setting of around 145F. To stay on the safe side, do not leave your food on the warm setting for longer than four hours. Instead, let it cool and refrigerate.
Does Meat Get More Tender The Longer You Cook It?
Tough cuts that did a lot of work in the animal’s life will become more tender the longer it cooks until it becomes stringy and dry. Softer, leaner cuts will become tougher the longer it cooks as they don’t need to tenderize first.
So in general, slow cooking meat gets better with time but only up until a point. Tough cuts have tough collagen fibers which are coiled around each other. These need to “unwind” to become tender.
The hot steam generated by the slow cooker breaks down the collagen in the meat, and in the process, the meat is tenderized. At the same time, with prolonged cooking, the muscle fibers shrink, and the meat gets dry.
It is therefore good to understand that slow cooking is a balancing act.
What Are The Best Cuts Of Meat For Slow Cooking A Long Time?
Some excellent choices include:
- Beef Shin – also called Osso Bucco when the bone is included, is sinewy and gelatinous when cooked, perfect for a beef and vegetable soup option
- Chuck Steak – a very common and cheap cut of meat often used in stews
- Beef Short Ribs – a versatile cut, great marinated and chucked in, bones and all
- Beef Brisket – great in stews, especially with good marbling
- Lamb Shanks – not a cheap cut, but adequately prepared, worth all the effort
- Lamb Neck – One of the best cuts of meat for lamb stew, excellent in taste
- Pork Shoulder – crisp the skin in the oven beforehand for extra flavor
- Chicken Thighs – Flavorful and with a short cooking time
The good news is that the best cuts of meat for slow cooking are usually the cheapest. These cuts are also the toughest as they are harnessed from the animal part that does all the heavy lifting – the working muscles.
This fibrous connective tissue or collagen takes a long time to break down through cooking. In the melted-down state, this meat is also the tastiest. Not ideal for a quick steak on the barbecue, but excellent braised in your slow cooker.
How To Avoid Overcooking In The Slow Cooker
Set the correct temperature and duration, and add the correct amount of liquid.
Sticking to the cooking instructions is key. The recipe will follow the three principal rules of slow cooking that will help mitigate the risk of overcooking your dinner.
In addition to these basic principles, a few additional measures can be adopted that will help.
Braise your meat. In other words, brown it in a bit of oil in a pan before adding it to the pot. The browning seals the meat and helps it retain its natural moisture as well as add flavor.
Leaner cuts of meat dry out more quickly in a slow cooker than fatty cuts. Marinate your meat overnight before cooking.
What To Do If It Is Overcooked?
Unfortunately, once your meat has passed the point of no return, it is not going to un-cook itself easily. The usual result of overcooked slow cooker meat is not burning but texture changes. Your meat won’t char if it’s been cooked in liquid.
Usually, the meat will toughen or go stringy as it dries out. You can try to resurrect it by adding a sauce to see if it can bounce back somewhat. Or change tack completely. Turn it into a soup, shred the meat, or if still somewhat salvageable, mix it up and turn it into a beef and mustard or pulled pork sandwich.
Is It Safe To Leave Slow Cooker Overnight?
Leaving the slow cooker on overnight is fine as long as the cooking durations are adhered to. If the recipe calls for an 8-hour cooking time and assuming the average person sleeps for roughly the same amount of time – then the answer is yes.
Always cook on low overnight otherwise you risk overcooking your food. Not many dishes require more than 8 hours on low, so you should awake to perfectly cooked meals.
Another thing to consider, and based on the size of your dish, is that a sufficient cooling period is also required before the food can be refrigerated. It is not recommended that the cooker be left at room temperature all day while everyone is out for the day, particularly in the hot summer months.
A sensible recommendation would be that overnight cooking is done on weekends only, or when someone is at home to finish the preparation.
Essential Rules To Prevent Overcooking
By following a few simple cooking strategies, it is pretty easy to slow cook your meat dish to succulent perfection.
Setting The Correct Temperature
Follow the recipe ingredients accurately. The rules for cooking any meat differ when considering the type of meat used, the thickness and density of the meat, the amount of surface area exposed to heat, and the size of the cooking pot, amongst others.
Keep An Eye On the Duration
Your recipe will inform you of the duration required for your cook time. It’s best to stick to this – usually low and slow is best if you have the time. Most recipes can be altered to be cooked on high and reduced by around 50% cooking time of low.
Importantly, note that the “low” and “high” settings on a slow cooker do not indicate different max temperatures. Instead, it has to do with the time taken for your meal to reach the “simmering point” – which is just below boiling.
Use The Right Amount Of Liquid
A good general rule of thumb should be that unless you’re making a soup or the recipe calls for additional water or any liquid to be added, avoid doing so – see my tips on how much water in the slow cooker. The meat retains enough water to aid the slow cooking process and adding additional liquid to your pot when it’s not called for could easily ruin your meal.
The evaporation process through steam is minimal in a slow cooker. Many people fear that the meat will become dry and add water to the pot in the mistaken belief that this will assist in cooking.
This is not the case, and adding liquid, especially later in the cooking process, will dilute the flavor, making the meal less tasty and spoiling the texture.
Vegetables are usually called for in most slow cooking recipes, such as stews and casseroles. These veggies are vital in adding the correct amount of additional liquid to your creation.
Lifting The Lid
Granted, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to lift the lid and take a sneak peek at the progress, especially when the fragrant scent wafts past your nose. But doing so will alter the cooking time.
The temperature drops, and it can take upwards of 20 minutes for your pot to return to the optimal cooking temperature. The dip in temperature then also impacts the duration required. Removing the lid also releases more steam.
Chucking In Everything At Once
Suffice to say, most recipes call for ingredients to be added at different intervals. Vegetables cook much more quickly than meat does, especially tougher cuts of meat.
Adding veggies such as zucchini or baby potatoes too early will result in a mushy, flavorless mess. Likewise, tomatoes need thorough cooking to break down the acidity and enhance the flavor of the entire dish.
A good casserole should be prepared by layering the ingredients in a systematic, timely manner. Firstly add the meat, then the harder vegetables, followed by the less dense vegetables such as zucchini and lastly the herbs, such as fresh basil or parsley.
Additional Useful Slow Cooking Habits To Adopt
- Brown your meats: Browning your meat or poultry in oil beforehand does not adversely affect the cooking time, and it does add some depth and good color to your meat
- Cut ingredients into even size chunks: This will ensure that your ingredients cook evenly and prevent over or undercooked pieces
- Season well: Season your meats before browning with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and add your chosen spices to the pot when required. Adding them too early can reduce their potency. Adding them too late can lift their effectiveness
- Experiment freely: Feel free to supplement with different spices based on your preference. Spices and herbs are easily replaceable with different combinations. Taste the dish when necessary and adjust by adding more seasoning
- Add dairy products at the end: liquid dairy such as milk or cream will curdle with slow cooking. Hard cheeses can get oily. Add the dairy near the end of the cooking process
- Don’t use frozen ingredients: Frozen meat and vegetables will mess with the temperature, and therefore the cooking duration. This could also potentially introduce harmful bacteria to your dish. Thaw properly before adding to your pot
- Use the correct cooker size: Your slow cooker should always be filled between halfway and two thirds for optimal results
- Don’t add uncooked starches: Pasta and rice require a high cooking temperature. Boil them separately and add to the pot just before serving during the warming process
Hopefully, you’ve learned a few things on whether you can overcook meat in a slow cooker and the different types of meat that work best for slow cooking. Remember that they are pretty forgiving and designed to cook for long times, but be wary of cooking delicate cuts which will go tough more easily.