Stews made in the slow cooker are the perfect example of comfort food, brimming with tender meat and hearty vegetables.
This guide will provide you with six essential tips to elevate your crockpot stew game. Follow these to make thick, tasty stews with the best cuts of meat, the right amount of liquid, and the correct order of ingredients.
1. Pick The Best Cuts Of Meat
The best cuts of meat for a slow-cooked stew are those cheaper, fatty cuts with lots of connective tissue.
Think of cuts like beef chuck, shank, pork shoulder, and lamb shanks. When cooked slowly at low temperatures, this type of meat breaks down to become tender and flavorful, enhancing the overall taste of the stew.
The main reason for this is the high levels of collagen and elastin they contain, which makes them tough when cooked quickly and dissolves into gelatin over long, slow cooking times, improving the texture and flavor of the meat.
Try to resist the temptation to use the leaner, more expensive cuts like tenderloin, ribeye, and strip steak, as these are better suited for grilling. If you use them for a stew they’re likely to become tough.
For the best results, make sure you prepare the meat before cooking. Try removing any skin or gristle, seasoning it well, and browning the meat before transferring it to the slow cooker. These simple steps can really make a difference to the end product.
2. Brown The Meat First
While not essential, browning the meat first can add a depth of flavor and rich color to your stew.
This process, known as the Maillard reaction, occurs when sugars and amino acids in food react to high heat, resulting in a pleasingly browned surface and enhanced taste. However, achieving this requires high temperature and minimal moisture, conditions not typically found in a slow cooker.
So, if time allows, consider browning your meat in a skillet before transferring it to the slow cooker.
For a successful browning process, use a dry pan with a small amount of oil, and sear the meat over a high heat. Avoid overcrowding the pan if you have a lot of meat to do as this prevents it from reaching the necessary temperature.
I find skillets made from stainless steel or cast iron are the best pans to use for this as they can take the hot temperatures required to brown the meat.
If you’re pressed for time or don’t have the equipment, don’t worry too much! Your stew will still turn out delicious even without this step. The slow cooker will ensure your meat is thoroughly cooked, absorbing flavors from other ingredients too.
3. Cook The Stew Low And Slow
Cooking stew on a low setting for a longer time is a great way to make sure tougher cuts of meat end up fork-tender.
However, the ideal cooking time also depends on the ingredients used.
Slow cookers offer a variety of settings, but for stews, it’s generally best to use the low setting for 8-12 hours – use the high setting for 4-6 hours if you need it quicker.
The ‘warm’ setting is not recommended for cooking as it doesn’t reach high enough temperatures and can lead to food spoilage.
While it’s tempting to leave your stew simmering all day, be aware that overcooking can lead to mushy vegetables. To avoid this, add any more delicate ingredients later in the process.
Remember, the type of meat you use matters too. Tougher cuts like chuck roast, lamb shanks, and pork shoulders are perfect for slow cooking as they break down and become tender over a longer time.
So, whether you’re following a recipe or using leftovers from the fridge, remember these guidelines for a delicious, perfectly cooked slow cooker stew.
4. Use Just The Right Amount Of Liquid
For every pound of meat, you should add 1 to 1 ½ cups of liquid, such as water, broth, stock, or even a dash of wine for added flavor.
Crafting a delicious stew in a slow cooker requires an understanding of the right liquid ratio. It’s crucial not to drown the ingredients, as too much liquid can dilute the flavors but too little can result in it becoming too dry for stew.
Quality ingredients, searing the meat, layering the components, and adding fresh herbs and spices can further enhance the stew’s texture and taste.
Slow-cooked stews also often need assistance to achieve the desired thickness, and this can be done through techniques like using a roux, slurry, vegetable puree, or reduction.
The slow cooker’s magic lies in trapping moisture and heat, so resist the urge to lift the lid frequently until it’s near the end of cooking unless you really need to. You can always thicken the sauce just before serving if required either in the pot itself or in a separate saucepan.
5. Thicken The Stew For A Richer Result
One of the easiest methods to thicken a stew is using a starch slurry made from flour, cornstarch, potato starch, or chickpea flour, added in the final thirty minutes of cooking.
Stews often become thin due to the sealed lid of the slow cooker preventing evaporation but there are several ways to thicken your stew and make it more satisfying.
With some simple techniques, you can achieve the perfect thickness and flavor. Try mixing your chosen starch with liquid to form a paste, ensuring it’s well combined before adding it to your stew to prevent clumping.
Alternatively, blending some of the vegetables in the stew and adding them back in also helps thicken the dish.
If you’re out of starches, don’t panic! You can use instant mashed potato flakes instead but add them gradually in case it gets too thick.
The key is to add thickeners towards the end of cooking, giving them about 20-30 minutes to work their magic. Be sure not to add them at the beginning as the meat and vegetables will not have released all their liquid until later in the process.
6. Add Any Delicate Ingredients Near The End
Add softer ingredients such as green vegetables, beans, pasta, or rice later in the cooking process to help maintain their consistency and follow the correct order of ingredients in a slow cooker.
Start making your dish with tougher components like meats and root vegetables, which require longer cooking times. Add these to the cooker alongside any liquid and seasoning for optimal flavor absorption.
Try chopping root vegetables into similarly sized pieces before adding them in as it will help them to cook more evenly.
To prevent overcooking, delicate ingredients like leafy greens, zucchini, pasta, beans, peas, and dairy items should be added toward the end of the cooking time.
While layering your ingredients in the pot isn’t essential, it aids in even cooking and proper heat distribution, especially for any denser items in your recipe. Additionally, it protects delicate ingredients from becoming mushy as they’re further away from the heating element in most crockpots.
Slow cooking a stew is an art that requires patience and a good understanding of the ingredients you’re working with. From choosing the right cuts of meat to achieving the perfect balance of flavors and textures, these six tips will guide you through the process.
Remember to cook low and slow, add just the right amount of liquid, and save delicate ingredients for the end. By following these guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to creating a comforting, hearty, and flavorful stew that will impress your family and friends.
Everyone loves a delicious ham and what better way to cook it than in the crockpot. When it comes to how much water to use for slow cooker ham, how much is best? Slow-cooked ham doesn't need to be...
Cooking corned beef in a slow cooker is a great method that ensures tender, flavorful beef with ease. But how much water do you need to add to slow-cooked corned beef for the best results? For...