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From what I understand, the cooking process melts the collagen, turning it into gelatin and making the meat more tender. However, the process also tends to cook the meat itself, making it tougher. So too long or too high and the stewing beef is too tough.

How long is too long? Say in a slow cooker on high, where is the inflection point where the meat stops getting more tender and start to get tougher? I googled the crap out of this but haven't found an answer?

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I'm going to assume that you are covering your meat with liquid, because if you aren't that's the problem. Collagen needs heat plus water to break down, if you don't have liquid it will turn tough as old leather.

There is no point where meat gets tougher when being slow cooked, what happens first is that the collagen breaks down, then the proteins start to denature. Generally once the collagen is all broken down is the ideal time to take it out, any longer and the meat itself starts to break down.

Things to remember:

  • How long it takes for meat to get tender in a braise or slow cook method depends on the size of the cut, thickness of the cut, and the amount of collagen in it. Working cuts like chuck, rump, neck, shin, etc have lots of collagen and need a longer slow cook to break it all down. They also have more flavor. Non-working cuts like filet, sirloin, etc would need much less time, but to be honest you're wasting good money slow cooking cuts like that, roast them instead of grill them as steak! Bigger cuts and thicker cuts will need a longer slow cook as well as it takes longer for the heat and the moisture to get to the center
  • Some meat will never get tender no matter how you cook them. Low-quality, poorly processed meat that has been frozen and then quick-thawed is likely to be tough as old leather no matter how lovingly you treat it in the pan. It's the GIGO principle, Garbage in-Garbage out, you can't make bad meat good with technique. So it may not be that your meat toughened up after slow cooking, it may be that it never had the potential to be tender in the first place!
  • Moisture is critical with working cuts as it breaks down collagen, in a slow cooker the meat must be completely submerged in liquid. In the oven it's important to have a lid on your braising dish, or at least tin foil.
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if the pot is covered, don't the vapors above the liquid break down the collagen? as per… – rbp Dec 21 '13 at 15:16
Vapor alone isn't enough. You couldn't steam meat and get the same results. You need to have the meat have some contact with the liquid, generally 1/3 to 1/2 way up the meat is fine. I shouldn't have said cover, that's too much depending on the sauce you want. If you cover it then that may be too much liquid and you'll get a thin sauce. – GdD Dec 21 '13 at 17:25
Based on this recommendation, I tried using less liquid, and turning the heat up a little higher than I have been. The result was spectacular. First of all, there was plenty of liquid to soften up the mean, but more importantly, the liquid cooked down better, and I had a thicker, more intense sauce after the braising. – rbp Jan 22 '14 at 21:59
Great @rbp, glad you got good results! – GdD Jan 23 '14 at 9:21

You have some good answers here. I would suggest the following.

Always have plenty of liquid for slow cooking any meat. You can ensure this by cooking in a covered pot/wrapping in foil if in the oven or keeping the lid on for a slow cooker. Placing you meat on vegetables such as carrot or onion will add flavour and moisture. Look at it after an hour or so to make sure its not drying out and top up if required.

Secondly choose your meat - hard working muscles will develop more fibre so need slow cooking to break then down but that will also release the flavours. Cook slowly at lower temperatures 120 c for 4 hours or so for a regular family sized joint (longer for a larger item). Then for a further hour finish uncovered in a hot oven which will brown/crisp the outside. Test meat with a fork for tenderness so you don't over cook/dry it out. Let your meat stand/rest for at least 30 minutes before carving - it will absorb moisture back in making for better eating.

Hope this helps

There is a good guide to the different joints of beef and cooking methods here

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+1 for the good reference link! – Kristina Lopez Nov 20 '12 at 18:38

Cooking meat does not make it tough, it gets more tender.

Meat does get dry at higher temperatures, time does not matter that much.

The higher the temperature the more moisture is squeezed out of the meat making it more dry, I guess that it what you describe as tough.

See Baldwins write up at it looks like the moisture loss increases most at 60-65C/140-150F. A slow cooker have much higher temperature than this.

This is also a good answer, i.e. 100 hours is not to long!

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I have cooked boneless short ribs sous vide at 130 degrees for 72 hours and it is extremely tender but not too mushy. At 140 degrees, 72 hours of cooking makes the boneless short ribs mushy, but 24 hours was not quite tender enough. More experimentation is needed to develop this texture curve, and it will likely be heavily dependent on the starting cut of meat as others have pointed out. – RudyB Nov 20 '12 at 11:55

I use a slow cooker to cook beef all the time. The general rule of thumb is that a high temp setting usually finishes cooking the contents in 4 about hours, a low temp setting is usually finished in about 8 hours. I've never had an issue with beef becoming tough in a slow cooker. Usually quite the opposite, it's so tender it falls apart. In the oven, you can also slow cook beef, or any other meat for that matter, by adding a liquid (water, broth, beer, or wine), covering the pan with a lid or foil, and setting the temp to 225 fahrenheit (107 celsius). Which ever method you choose, turn the meat every half hour to keep the top from getting too dry. I've also found that if you pan sear the meat before cooking it locks in the moisture for a more flavorful meat. Hope this helps :)

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