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how to tell when slow cooker meat is done?

Inspired by this board, I decided to try making pulled pork in the little slow cooker I got as a hand-me-down. When I pulled it out, it shredded easily, but I thought it was a bit dry and not exactly tender. The problem is, how do I know if I overcooked it or undercooked it?

I was reluctant to check the temperature because I heard that for each time you open the lid, you need to add 20 minutes to the cooking time. Still, I did check the temperature once partway through; the internal temperature was definitely above 190F (I pulled out the probe at that point) on low, but the pork at that point wasn't shreddable, so I think it just hadn't melted the connective tissue at that point. And obviously it tenderized enough to be "pulled" easily later.

(On the positive side, a good barbecue sauce and fine shredding will cover a multitude of flaws. :-) So my "guinea pig"/taste tester liked it, and I'd definitely try making it again to perfect it.)

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    1. re: monavano

      Do you mean whether I put in extra liquid? Yes, it started out covered about 2/3 of the way up the meat with a sauce. It was maybe 3/4 covered by the end. How would this affect it? I've seen some recipes that called for putting the pork butt in by itself, and others that included a small amount of liquid.

      1. re: madbaker

        Braising generally helps to keep the meat moist. Perhaps the meat was overcooked, hence dry. I like to braise really low in a dutch oven and check for tenderness after 2 hours or so.

        1. re: monavano

          Hm. This is what puzzles me: If it's undercooked, it'll be tough (because the collagen won't have melted). But if it's overcooked, it'll also be too tough, right? How do you know when it's tough due to undercooking v. overcooking? And especially in a slow cooker? (I don't have a dutch oven, unfortunately.)

          1. re: madbaker

            I go by the seat of my pants, really ;-) Maybe the cut of meat was from an older animal, that would be my guess.
            Sounds like you did everything right.

            1. re: monavano

              That approach works for me. :-) Not always so much for my guinea pigs (they kind of get nervous when I start out with, "can I experiment on you?").

              I had no idea I could/should even think about the age of the animal. I wonder if the guys working the counter at Whole Foods would have any idea?

      1. re: chowser

        It was a pork butt, which is what most recipes seem to call for...

        1. re: madbaker

          Pork butt work great (too many people try tenderloin and it often ends up tough, even if it's shred-able), and you cook it until it's easily shred-able. If it shredded easily, then it's been cooked enough. If it's tough after that point, then it's overcooked. So, I definitely wouldn't keep cooking it. Did you leave the fat on it?

          How big is it and how long did you cook it (and what temp on the crockpot)?

          1. re: chowser

            OK, thanks, that helps -- tough + shreddable = overcooked.

            The meat came trimmed and tied at Whole Foods, but it did have some fat on it; I didn't touch it other than to rub some seasonings on it. It was about 2 lbs, but keep in mind my pot is very small. The meat filled the insert up about halfway, and there wasn't much room around it. I cooked it mostly at low, but I turned it off accidentally halfway through (while I was testing the meat for doneness) and then turned it up to high to get it heated up more quickly, then turned it back to low -- so it's kind of hard for me to estimate how long the cooking time was. At 6 hours, it wasn't shreddable. Two hours later (but that includes some amount of time with the cooker off), it was shreddable.

            I think next time I should use a bigger cut of meat (so the cooker won't run as hot) but maybe a bit less liquid, and also test for doneness more even though it'll slow down the cooking. I'll have to do this on a day when I know I'll be around at the end of the cooking time. Does this sound like it'll work?

      2. If it shredded easily, you didn't undercook it. Basically, braising meats are done when the meat has a texture you're happy with. For pulled pork, that usually happens around a temp of 200. Taking your time in getting to that temp helps. So does avoiding a rolling boil in your braising liquid.

        And if you're cooking in liquid, taking the lid off to check the meat doesn't really add much to the cooking time once the temperature within the cooker is fully up. Just resist the urge to check in the first few hours.

        Your problem: hard to say. Could have been overcooking. Could have been that you got it to temp too fast, though that's hard to do in a slow cooker unless it cooks at a boil. Could have been not enough sauce incorporated into the meat after pulling. Could have just been an anomaly with that particular pork butt - if it was a smallish cut from a larger pork butt, maybe you just got the piece with the least connective tissue and fat.

        7 Replies
        1. re: cowboyardee

          You know, that's a good point about boiling in the crockpot. I had one that ran way too high, even on the low temperature and I could never do a decent braise in it. I also wonder if there was too much liquid to begin with. I usually start off w/ far less than 2/3 way up the meat. You need to cut the liquid substantially in a crockpot.

          1. re: chowser

            Hm, that's really interesting -- thanks for the tips. Glad to know I can check the doneness without losing time/heat.

            With a healthy dollop of sauce at the end, it was quite tasty, but having tasted the meat alone, I had to attribute any success of the dish to the sauce and not to my cooking. I don't know...if I don't think the meat tastes good on its own, but it's good with the sauce, doesn't it suggest that I could practically serve cardboard with the sauce and make people happy? In which case, what's the point of perfecting the recipe?

            Anyway, I think this is as close to diagnostic as I can get: probably overcooked, use a bit more meat and a little less liquid, do NOT turn the pot off and then to high and then to low. I'll try again this next weekend and see if it turns out better. Aside from the problem of having to eat 4 lbs of pulled pork in a week, it's all good (and some people wouldn't see a problem with having to eat so much pulled pork anyway).

            Thank you all for the advice!

            1. re: madbaker

              That sounds right. Are you using a crock pot recipe?

              1. re: chowser

                Yes, it's from a slow cooker recipe I found online, but I also followed tips from here and other sites on slow cooking. Actually, I remember reading some of your tips on old threads and finding them very helpful, so thank you!

            2. re: chowser

              My crockpot runs too high on the "low" setting. I keep meaning to donate it and get a new one that controls temps better.

              1. re: monavano

                That's what happened to me with my old one and it was essentially useless--even on low, it would boil liquids. I think my latest is from Costco and it works great.

                1. re: chowser

                  I think mine runs a bit hot too, but that might also be because I don't think I was ever filling it enough (as in, less than one-half). Of course the problem is that you don't know how hot they'll run until you buy and try them!

          2. I didn't see if you said that you seared your meat or not first? I think browning the meat well first and braising it low and slow, and starting with a more fatty cut of meat is key.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Matahari22

              Searing the meat is a great step to build flavor, but it has little effect on whether the meat has a moist, easily pulled texture once it's finished.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                I respectfully disagree that it is only a flavor builder.

                I was always taught that searing or browning the meat before braising or cooking, seals in the moisture in the meat longer, which results in a more moist end product.  

                I have pretty severe dysphagia and a stricture.  I was not able to eat anything  for 9 months by mouth at all, and  after two years I am finally able to eat some meats again. It must be fork tended and juicy or it's like trying to swallow rocks and sawdust for me.  

                I have cooked meats with out browning first, and I stand by my statement of browning it first.   Brown first, low and slow with a little liquid and use a fatty cut of meat.  That's the best combo, IMO. 

                http://www.edinformatics.com/math_sci...

                http://m.toledoblade.com/Food/2011/03...

                1. re: Matahari22

                  Respectfully, that 'searing seals in juices' idea was disproved a while ago. It's one of those old-school cooking myths that just won't die.
                  http://www.cookthink.com/reference/7/...
                  Or for a better reference, check out "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee.

                  The links you included don't really address this issue. They suggest searing presumably for the same reason I do - it builds flavor. Nothing to do with tenderness.

              2. re: Matahari22

                I didn't, actually, because I wanted to see how well the super-easy version would turn out. But searing wouldn't have caused or fixed my problems with overcooking, I think, right? Actually, I only minded the texture when I was tasting it plain (i.e., post-pulling, pre-saucing). I wonder if letting it sit overnight in the slightly acidic BBQ sauce also helped tenderize it...that's another experiment I'll have to try. Going to the fridge now to put half of the leftovers in extra sauce for a taste test in a couple of hours...

              3. I never add water or other liquid when I do pork shoulder in the slow cooker. The fat creates it's own juices and keeps it moist. You can use a thermometer to tell if it's done, we bbq our pulled pork to about 195. Otherwise, if the bone pulls right out and it falls apart when you put a fork in it it's done. If it's dry then either it was over cooked or it was lacking fat from being over trimmed.

                3 Replies
                1. re: rasputina

                  Hm. What do you think would happen if you *did* add some other liquid? I think I remember reading on some Chowhound forum about a Cook's Illustrated test in which they didn't find a taste difference from braising (meat not fully covered by liquid) v. boiling/stewing (meat fully covered by liquid).

                  Maybe mine was overtrimmed. Although there was enough fat left on the surface of the meat as well as in layers/streaks for me to be removing chunks of fat after cooking, there wasn't as much as I expected when I was separating the juice from the fat.

                  1. re: madbaker

                    I think you did pretty everything correctly. Pork shoulder can be extremely variable in the cut of meat being too fatty or not fatty enough. I'm finding that pork has been less fatty than years past.

                    The simplicity of the slow cooker is a one pot production and braising is out except for a few models which do allow for partial stove top cooking. There is some give and take with a slow cooker / crockpot, but it does make it easy when everything was completed in one pot.

                    Make sure your sauce is quality and the day after pulled pork product should be much tastier. You can vary the contents of your sauce slightly to adjust for any discrepancies in your pulled meat.

                    1. re: madbaker

                      The problem w/ the crockpot is that it doesn't allow for water to evaporate and the flavors of the sauce to develop as much, or thicken. The easiest way around it is to start w/ less liquids. But, that's more about flavor. Boiling meat will lead to toughness. Slow low cooking shouldn't unless it's overcooked. Did you notice what your liquid was doing?

                      Fat on the meat makes a big difference, imo, and WF is more zealous about trimming fat that other places. The worst pulled pork I made was when I trimmed the fat. It was much tougher, imo.

                  2. Back for an update -- thanks for the extra input that I missed responding to!

                    So I tried making pulled pork again today, and it was definitely an educational experience.

                    First, I think the problem the first time was to some degree overcooking, but also to some degree the cut. For complicated reasons, my meat went into the cooker in three pieces -- the main piece, plus a piece that I'd had to cut off to try to make it fit and that fell apart, probably because it was made of several pieces that had been tied together and that couldn't hold together when I cut the roast in half. I took the smaller pieces out maybe 45 minutes earlier (they were significantly smaller than the main piece, maybe 1/4-1/3 the size). At that time, they were perfectly cooked, falling-apart tender, and quite juicy and flavorful. The big piece didn't feel fork-tender, so I left it in there to stew more while I pulled the little pieces. When I took out the big piece, it just wasn't as juicy or tender or flavorful as the other pieces (though certainly better than my first attempt). I have several theories as to why:

                    * It was a different cut of meat than the little ends, which probably had more fat (being from the edges of the cut).
                    * It was a bigger chunk, and therefore had less exposure to the braising liquid and also got overcooked around the edges before it got fork-tender in the middle.
                    * The fact that it was tied made it harder for me to tell whether it was fork-tender (perhaps tying it held the meat together and made the consistency feel harder).
                    * The fact that there was less in the pot at the end of cooking (because I had to take out the smaller pieces when they were done) meant that the remaining piece was cooking at a higher temperature...although I thought that since I lost heat by opening the pot several times and also removing then pouring back some juices, that overheating effect might have been mitigated.

                    A couple of notes in response to points raised in other posts:
                    * By the end of cooking, the liquid was bubbling at the edges, just above a simmer but definitely not a rolling boil.
                    * The interior temperature of all the pieces was 204-205F at the time that I took them out.

                    I'll also note that I did season and brown the meat lightly this time. But given that I didn't do a side-by-side comparison of seared and unseared meat, I can't say how much it affected the doneness. Clearly, since that one piece still turned out a bit less tender and less flavorful, there was still something more that could have been done differently.

                    Next time, I might try taking off the string to see if this makes a difference. I'll brown the meat in advance, for flavor at the very least. I'll also try to use more uniformly sized chunks of meat. I'm not sure whether I should cut all the meat into chunks so as to expose more of to the braising liquid and to avoid overcooking the edges, though.

                    Thanks again to everyone for all the expert advice -- it's definitely making for a better dinner tonight! :-)

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: madbaker

                      Well that is good that you had a better dinner tonight. You have another plan for next time. After that you should be a pro at it. :)