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What makes stewed meat tender?

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I was making a chili recipe today, with the main protein being small cubes of chuck beef. I browned the meat separately, then simmered gently in sauce (uncovered) for 2 hours. After testing, the meat was still somewhat tough and dry (not so much dry, but not infused with the surrounding moisture). Up to this point, I was cooking in a big, uncovered pot with beer, broth, and other sauces, so I wanted it to reduce.

After the meat test, I then put a lid on the pot and let it go another 45 minutes. At this point, the meat got tender and took on more flavor and moisture.

I'm simply wondering if it was the added time that made the difference, or covering the pot - which seemingly redirected heat and steam back into the pot?

I know "low and slow" cooking tenderizes meat in a smoker, but so does a pressure cooker. Pretty much all the chile recipes I read were focused on ingredients and not tactics... simply suggesting a cooking time of 2-5 hours.

In the end, I liked the final product but am not sure how I arrived there. Any suggestions on future tactics? Thanks!

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  1. It was the extra time. What makes stewing meat tender and 'moist' is the breakdown of collagen in connective tissue into gelatin. Generally speaking, the longer you cook it, the more of it breaks down. The surrounding moisture doesn't really infuse the meat, though it does coat the meat and flavors it to an extent.

    The cover might have made the difference if the meat wasn't mostly submerged in the liquid, since the meat that is sticking out would not be at a braising temperature unless a lid is added.

    1 Reply
    1. re: cowboyardee

      Thanks. What got me pondering the topic was this:

      - If a meat is sitting in an open hot tub/pot of sauce, it might be happy simply passing along the heat and flavors to their natural, northern-bound direction.

      - if that same pot is capped, it might force the meat to take on the rebounding heat/moisture/flavors as they are being rebounded.

      Convection ovens seem to benefit from the recycling of heat/air, as do pressure cookers.

    2. I'm with cowboy as to the time, but a tablespoon of vinegar can also help extra tough meat along.

      2 Replies
      1. re: inaplasticcup

        ooo I've never heard of vinegar... does it make a big difference?

        1. re: darrentran87

          Same reason folks use wine. The acid helps break up the collagen, tendons, etc.