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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.