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Braising with a slow cooker

I posted a few weeks ago as a newbie to braising. I learned from many helpful Chowhounds that a dutch oven is the best equipment for braises. However, I already have a slow cooker so I've been trying my best to make do with braising in it. I know a DO would make life much easier but it'd be great if I could get the slow cooker to work until I save up for a quality DO and gain enough experience to justify buying one.

Umm... it's not going so well! I've tried 3 times since I last posted and the meat is still coming out quite dry and stringy (i.e. it breaks up into strings along the "grain" of the meat).

Here's how I've been doing my braising:

1. Brown in my cast iron wok. In the meantime, get slow cooker turned on and heating up.
2. Deglaze the wok, bring liquid to a boil in the wok.
3. Put meat and braising liquid into slow cooker, on high.
4. Once the liquid starts showing little bubbles (~1 hour later), I turn it down to low.
5. Allow to cook, checking every 30-45 minutes that it isn't bubbling too hard and to flip the meat.
6. I read in Molly Stevens' book that the temperature needs to reach around 200 degrees to turn the collagen into the lovely soft gelatin so I tried my best to maintain the liquid at around 200 by turning the temperature down and propping up the lid a crack

Oh, of course, I've been carefully choosing the right cuts of meat too: beef chuck roast, pork belly, pork shoulder. I believe it is sometime during step 5 and 6 that I'm having troubles. Here are some of the problems I'm having:

- I've cooked the meat anywhere from 2 hours to 9 hours to experiment to see if it was because I wasn't cooking it long enough or cooking it too long... still get the same results

- I realize that the slow cooker seals too well so it builds up an excess of liquid. I've been propping up the lid a crack to try to fix that but this takes away the nice drip of moisture back onto the meat, and the part not submersed in liquid gets dry and hard

- I've even tried cooking night 1, refrigerating, then serving night 2... still hard and dry

- The last one I made was a beef chuck roast. I braised for 8 hours and the part submersed in liquid was PERFECT. The unsubmersed part was hard and dry so I flipped it, braised for another hour. I ended up with the entire roast tasting overdone and dry.

Chowhounds, do you have any suggestions to help me successfully braise in a slow cooker?

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  1. I've never braised in a slow cooker, only an oven or stovetop. But I don't constantly check and turn the meat. I wonder if the regular lifting of the lid might be one reason you're not getting a good result. Maybe you can put a dishtowel under the lid to capture some of that excess moisture.

    1. Flip it anywhere in between the time that it is edible with chew, and it falls apart. Let it cool in the liquid.

      How high up the meat does the liquid reach?

      I'd probably forget about cracking open the lid, but just reduce the liquid on the stove top after cooking if you wanted to make a sauce.

      Slow cookers use much less energy than the stove or oven!

      1. I have heard of that trick with keeping the lid ajar. It doesn't work for me. Use the lid completely on and sealed. That way the top half steams. The lid being ajar is causing the top half to be hard and dry. By the way, if you just have to, you can cover the meat entirely with liquid. It will take a while to make gravy at the end because you have to reduce the liquid but it will work.

        Browning or searing the meat is mandatory. I know you have been doing that.

        I suspect it is falling apart and stringy because you are overcooking it. One of the reasons you can cook something in a crockpot for 8-10 hours is the crockpot takes a long time to get up to the 200 degrees F it operates at (on low). So don't preheat the crockpot and don't start it on high. Oh, chuck is fairly stringy but shouldn't be ridiculous.

        If you are going to be there anyway, flip the roast a couple of times during the process. If you have to work, then don't worry about it.

        Finally, I repeat what I have posted before. I never quite get as a good a pot roast in the crockpot as I do in a dutch oven. I'm not completely sure why but I don't. It does, however, give you the convenience of setting it and forgetting it.

        1. My technique with the slow cooker is to rub the meat really well with whatever seasonings you think are right and oil. Then sear really, really well. Into the slow cooker. I add only 1/4 cup of liquid. Yes, you read that right. Then I turn the slow cooker on low for however long it takes, generally six-ish hours. I generally turn it once if I'm around. I have just as good success with the slow cooker - for certain things - as I do with "braising." I consider the slow cooker "braising." At the end of the braising time, you'll have multiple cups of liquid to do with as you please. The slow cooker doesn't seal "too" well. It seals just the right amount. The cooking time is always going to be related to the size and shape of the roast but I'm guessing 8 hours for a beef chuck roast is way too long. For me, this is about one of the easiest and most failproof ways to cook. I wonder why you're having this problem. Oh, yes, I agree that you don't preheat the slow cooker.

          1 Reply
          1. re: c oliver

            I think the 1/4 cup of liquid is an interesting technique. My instruction manual says not to use the crockpot unless it is 1/2 to 3/4 full.

          2. It sounds like you're doing the right things for the most part but I wonder if your slow cooker runs hot. I had the worst time with my old one, even on warm, everything burned. Have you tried to see what your crock pot runs when enclosed? I put in hot water and then checked a couple of hours later.

            It sounds like you are taking the temperature into consideration, though, given that you make sure it's keeping at 200. Instead of leaving your slow cooker with a crack in the lid, try putting a towel below the lid. It collects the liquid that evaporates but gives it a seal. If you prop the lid, you defeat the purpose because you don't get the moist environment which is probably why the part exposed to air gets dry.

            Also cut the liquids by 1- 1/2 cups. You get the same results at 2 hours as 9? At two hours with a piece of meat like a chuck roast, I'd think you'd get a hard relatively uncooked piece of meat. Overall, I think a crock pot can get you a pretty good meal but I do prefer the results from a DO. I found a good Lodge one from Costco for under $30.

            1. Even if you were using an enameled cast iron dutch oven in a perfectly controlled oven and were able to keep the braising liquid at 200 degrees F, it would only take 4-5 hours to cook the roast.

              The only way a slow cooker can do it all day long is that it takes a long time to get to 200 degrees. My brand new crockpot brand slow cooker takes 4 hours to get to 200 degrees on low with the pot 2/3 full of room temperature water. I know because I read it in my manual and didn't believe it so I monitored it with a thermometer with just water.

              In my opinion, if you preheat everything to around 200 degrees your pot roast will be done within 4-5 hours and way overdone in 8 hours.

              1. You are throwing good money after bad. For under $50 you can get the highly-rated Tramontina enameled Dutch oven (Walmart) or pick up a black cast iron one, new or at a tag sale/thrift shop, for under $20. You have probably spent that much already on meat for slow cooker braises that have disappointed you. It is completely unnecessary to buy a triple-digit Dutch oven. They're prettier, but you can't taste pretty! If you watch Cook's Country, the dark green Dutch oven they always use is the Tramontina.

                1. Thanks everyone... lots of really helpful tips and information! Got a few questions for you based on your replies:

                  1. I'm happy to let the liquid collect and then boil it longer to reduce it to a sauce. But, doesn't this increased liquid turn it into a stew versus a braise? (I make sure the liquid only comes up to 1/3 of the meat).

                  2. Is it important for the liquid to stay exactly at 200 degrees? What's the max temp it should go up to to not overcook the meat or cook it too fast? I will do a test on my slow cooker with just water to see how well it maintains the temperature (smart idea!)

                  3. Are there any particular cuts of meat that work better in braises for the slow cooker? (Hank Hanover: thanks for the tip about chuck being stringy... good to know it's not completely my fault!)

                  4. I've asked this before but I'm having such a difficult time getting a handle on how long to cook a piece of meat! Is there a general guideline, based on the weight or type of meat??

                  Greygarious: I totally hear what you're saying and I'm kicking myself each time I fail! Still, I have to try the slow cooker route. A good handful of Chowhounds have said they can braise successfully with a slow cooker. If I can get this to work, it would please my eco-conscious side too: use less energy and avoid having to purchase another new item.

                  Right now, I'm thinking the failures are a result of my own inexperience and not the slow cooker. So, I'm going to try a few more times before I give up on this. If I make sure I do everything right with the slow cooker and it still doesn't work, then I truly can justify purchasing a DO. : )

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: LavenderPeony

                    1. I probably like the liquid to come up at least 1/3 to halfway up the meat for a slow cooker. There is liquid in the meat that will be expelled as it cooks. If you notice significantly more liquid in the slow cooker than what you started with, check if it is done. Flip if it isn't.

                    2. You can sous vide at 140 degrees for 48 hrs. It is not important for the liquid to stay exactly at 200, only that you do take it out when it is done.

                    3. Short rib is especially succulent. I also like doing pork butt.

                    4. Of course, cooking with a slow cooker will yield inferior results to an oven braise if you do not take it out of the heat at the correct time. 3-5 hrs sounds about right to me. The only thing that sucks is that if you're ready for dinner but your meat isn't, there is nothing you can do but wait.

                    1. re: LavenderPeony

                      1) I agree w/ jaykaren about the amount of liquid. You can boil it down if you want on the stove, while the meat is resting.

                      2) The liquid doesn't have to stay at 200 degrees and every slow cooker is different so they won't maintain the same temperature. I've had ones that run far too hot, even on warm. I've never measured what "too hot" means but if yours is burning/drying out in two hours, it might be too hot.

                      3) You want fatty meat w/ connective tissue for a braise. I like chuck roast, pork butt, short ribs, chicken thighs.

                      4) Since you're experimenting, try using a meat thermometer and checking after three hours and then play it by ear from then. I have three settings on my crock pot, plus warm. The longer I'll be away from home, the lower the temperature. On low, I can leave my chuck for six hours; on high, half of that. And, I'd never buy a slow cooker that didn't have a timer and a warm function. If I'm using a slow cooker, I'm not at home usually.

                    2. If the meat is submerged, technically, you are stewing. However, Cook's Illustrated ran a test doing it both ways and couldn't tell the difference between them. The only downside was taking longer to make the gravy because you have to take it out, put it in a pan and boil it until it is reduced while the meat rests under foil. A crockpot is supposed to be at least half full, that could result in a excessively high temperature. I think I would try it with more liquid. If it is fully submerged, so be it. I have done it that way before. Even if you don't reduce it down that far, then you will have a lot of really good sauce. Keep the extra for something. Maybe over noodles or rice at lunch?

                      It would be nice if you could maintain the temperature at 180- 200 degrees F but if it occasionally boils, it probably won't hurt anything.

                      You can test the meat for doneness when a fork pierces it very easily. So you could cook it until that happens.

                      Some form of chuck roast is highly recommended. That could be boneless shoulder, boneless cross rib chuck or 7 bone chuck roast.

                      Your liquid will be better if you start with the canned or boxed broth. Make sure you sweat some onions at the start to enhance the liquid. Any other veggies can be added the last hour or roasted separately..

                      1. One other thing I wanted to say. I know you have failed a few times on this.

                        It has been my experience that I seldom learn anything doing it right, only when I mess it up.

                        When I really mess things up several times, I try to, jokingly, remind myself that if I only learn by failing, I must be about the smartest guy around on this subject. My wife and I usually have a good laugh over it.

                        If you keep failing with your slow cooker, you too can be an expert. LOL

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                          Hank Hanover, I especially appreciated this post! Thanks so much! As a newbie to cooking, this is exactly the kind of encouragement I need. It reminds me to keep trying no matter how many times I fail. I do have a personal motto, too, that mistakes are learning opportunities. : ) Thanks for the smile... sounds like you and your wife have a great sense of humour!

                        2. Thanks for sharing your experiences and offering such great advice! I'll take it all and give it my best on several more slow cooker braises. If I still can't get some good, savoury meat, it's time to get a DO! Hoping for the best...

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: LavenderPeony

                            DO can't be beat - you don't have to buy an expensive one. You will have great results from Day 1!
                            There are millions of great recipes from some of the best chefs.

                            I have held off buying a slow cooker as from what I hear it can't equal a DO.
                            But maybe practice will make perfect. Keep trying and do post back. I have reached for my checkbook several times but held back.

                            1. re: Mistral

                              Mistral: I haven't had enough experience using my SC to give much of a review. But, nonetheless, the handful of times I've used it so far, I was happy with its capabilities for making soup and beef stew. I got my Hamilton Beech SC using wedding gift cards. I originally bought it hoping it would be a life saver for my husband and I during those times when we both had to work long hours at work. Reality is that I'll need to put in more time learning its characteristics before I feel comfortable leaving it unattended at home all day! Anyway, I picked this Hamilton Beech model because it has a really handy feature of 3 different pot sizes - 2, 4 and 6 quart. I also like that the base has large, easy to carry handles.

                              I agree with chowser that having one with a timer is helpful. Mine doesn't. But to solve that problem, I just plug mine into a separate electronic timer (the ones you get to turn lamps on/off when you're on vacation) and set it to turn off when I need it to. Doesn't help you turn it to warm but the timer has multiple settings so it can turn off and on several times... kinda helps to keep the food warm when unattended!

                          2. I've currently got a 2 lb pork shoulder braising in the slow cooker. Crossing my fingers it'll go well tonight! Used the ingredients from Molly Stevens' "Pork Loin Braised in Milk" recipe. So far, I've been very careful with the temperature and will monitor it much more closely every 30 minutes or so.

                            Also did that clever idea that you recommended, chowser! I filled the pot to 1/2 full then set it on low. Took 3 hours to reach 194 degrees then it just stayed there. I've got the pork shoulder on low now since it did a good job of maintaining the water close to 200 degrees at its max heat.

                            1. I have started using a slow cooker for making beef bourgonine(sp). I brown the meat in a pan with some chopped onions, then I add it to the slow cooker. I add the seasonings, burgundy wine, water etc. It pretty comes 3/4 up the meat. I put it on low for about 8 hours. I then saute mushrooms, add them in, and brown pearl onions with vermouth. I also add some flour to the mushrooms and the onions, which then thickens the gravy. I haven't had any problems. Sometimes I have made it a couple of days ahead, and then reheat for a couple of hours, and it is really tender, and flavorful and the gravy is thickened. I used to it in a dutch oven which also works, but this doesn't heat up the house, and it is an easy clean up.

                              1. You might take a look at the blog "A [Complete] Year of Slowcooking" at: http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/

                                She makes all kinds of stuff in her slowcookers. Not all is braising. I've tried a couple recipes and while I'm not a big fan of the slowcooker in general (except when making chicken stock for which it is awesome), some of her recipes are great.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Jen76

                                  Thanks Jen76! It's been added to my Bookmarks. : )

                                2. SUCCESS! The pork shoulder turned out absolutely perfect! It was not falling-off-the-bone tender but still soft, moist and flavorful with a nice, slightly bouncy texture to it. I made use of a lot of the tips you all shared in this thread... and it looks like it did the trick! : ) Thanks everyone!