No More Dried-Out Dinners: The Trick to Tender Slow-Cooked Meat

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Who can pass up a moist and tender barbecue sandwich, pulled chicken simmered in a slow cooker until it's falling apart, or, my favorite, Kentucky Burgoo, with several tender cuts in one bowl. 
These recipes, while quite different in ingredients, are all ideal for the slow cooker, and they yield the same fork-tender, falling-apart meat. What's the secret?
What do all three of these recipes have in common? What's the common thread?
Let's shift from the art of cooking to the science for a moment. That common thread is collagen, the connective tissue in meat.
We all know that meat is basically bundles of muscle cells, with fibers embedded within that allow the animal to move.  Connective tissue connects cells and tissues within the meat, like support hose or an athletic bandage. As you move, the fabric stretches and moves with you, supporting your movement.  As the animals grow the muscle bulks up and the connective tissue toughens, offering more support. 
There are two kinds of connective tissue: elastin and collagen.  Elastin is also known as "silver skin."  You've probably encountered this situation. You take a bite of meat, you chew and chew, and it just won't break down! That stubborn bite likely contains elastin. Elastin will not soften or break down during cooking, no matter how long you cook it. You'll want to cut this off before cooking, along with any excess fat.
Collagen is the other connective tissue, and it does break down during the cooking process.  As collagen breaks down, it holds onto some of the juice released during cooking, resulting in succulent meat.
Choosing meat for slow, low cooking
When you choose meat, use the cut that the animal used for locomotion.
According to SparkPeople's  comprehensive guide to choosing cuts of meat, cut refers to the part of the animal the meat has been taken from. Most of the leaner cuts come from the animal’s hip or hindquarter region. "Round" or "loin" are keywords to look for when you want the leanest cut of meat (think top round, sirloin, top loin, tenderloin, eye round, etc.). When selecting ground beef, look at the percentages: 80/20% lean means the meat is 80% lean and 20% fat. Look for ground beef labeled 90/10% (or leaner). To assist with the nutritional analysis of your ground beef selection, check out this calculator developed by te USDA. See the chart below for a nutritional comparison of various cuts of beef.
Choose cuts of meat with a large amount of connective tissue.  Pork shoulder (Boston butt) is my favorite cut for barbecue. For beef, use shoulder, brisket, or skirt cuts.  When choosing chicken to slow cook, select older whole chickens such as Capons or Roasters. They're older and tougher, which means they're great for this kind of cooking.
This is not the time to practice your butchering skills. Keep the meat in larger cuts (1 inch cuts or cubes) or whole roasts and chickens.
Let's get cooking
  • If you are going to brown the meats before placing in the oven or slow cooker do so quickly.  Brown the meat in a dry hot pan just until a crust forms on the surface.
  • Cook low and slow.  This can be achieved in the slow cooker or in the oven at temperatures below 300 and cooking times up to 4 hours.  My favorite is 240 degrees for ribs in the oven for about 3 hours.  The slow cooker makes this step really simple!
  • Keep it moist. Add liquid (stock, water, or vegetable juice) to come 1/2 to 2/3 up the height of the meat.  If you cover the meat in liquid the meat will "boil" in the sauce and will be tough.
  • Thermometers really are not necessary with slow cooked meats.  Pull out a fork instead.  If the meat if falling off the bone or is "fork tender," it's done.
Check out these recipes for some of my favorite succulent pulled meats!
What is your favorite kind of slow cooker meat? What's your secret to super tender meat?
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Like this blog? Then you'll love "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight."