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I have a Hamilton Beach 6 qt Set 'N Forget Programmable slow cooker, and I keep having the same problem-- when I try to make beef stew, the beef comes out almost inedibly tough, and the veggies don't soften. I can't for the life of me figure out what's wrong!

My cooking method:

Put in 1.5ish lbs stew beef-- the stuff that comes from the store already cut up into pieces.

Add carrots and celery, chopped about 1/2 - 1 inch long.

Add splash worsterchire sauce and cajun spices.

Add enough water to fill the crock pot halfway (I did this because last time I didn't use as much and thought that might be the source of the problem-- but apparently not.)

Set crock pot on low until it reaches 160* (within about an hour and a half), and then leave on warm through the rest of the night (it maintained the temperature at 160*), for a total of 11 hours.

I've read that acidic ingredients can prevent vegetables from getting soft, but that wouldn't explain the beef. Anyone have an idea what the problem might be?

And on that note... does anyone have any suggestions for what to do with a couple pounds of tough, cooked beef, hard carrots, and celery?

Thanks!

  • How did you check the temperature to verify that it had reached 160 degrees? – djmadscribbler Oct 21 '14 at 0:10
  • The crockpot comes with a probe that measures temperature-- you can set it to your desired temperature and it will bring the contents up to that temp, and then switch it over to warm automatically. – eleswyse Oct 21 '14 at 0:14
  • A couple of pounds of tough cooked beef is great for a dog, or somebody who is a fan of the consistency of jerky without the long shelf life... not much else :) – Erica Oct 21 '14 at 12:33
  • What to do with the tough meat and vegetables? Grate or shred them then boil them to make soup. Soup can be frozen as long as the meat wasn't frozen beforehand. – Greenstone Walker Oct 21 '14 at 22:51
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Try cooking on low instead of warm (or at a higher temperature, maybe 185-195F, with your fancy crock pot), and make sure you really got good stew meat.

I would expect the beef to have been reasonably tender after that long if it were the right kind of cut - certainly not inedibly tough, even if it weren't all the way done due to the lower temperature. But it's unfortunately possible that the beef for stew that you got isn't actually good for this purpose; sometimes stores will sell things under that label expecting (I guess) that people will cook them briefly in their stew. Make sure that what you buy has a lot of connective tissue that will break down as it cooks. See also What is the best cut of beef to use for stews?

If you did have a good cut of beef for long slow cooking, it's possible that 160F is still just too low (or that 11 hours isn't long enough) for the meat you got. See What is the lowest possible temperature for stewing meat? - apparently the collagen -> gelatin breakdown can happen even down to 130F, but it's much faster at higher temperatures.

It's likely that one way or another the low temperatures also messed with your vegetables. I'm not sure if that's actually hot enough to soften them. And for some vegetables, cooking them at a lower temperature for a while will cause them to stay firm even if they're subsequently cooked at a higher temperature!

There's a blurb about this in On Food and Cooking, which I'll find and add into my answer when I can. In the meantime, I found this in a Serious Eats article about carrots:

Unlike meat proteins which are fully cooked anywhere between 140 and 165°F or so, vegetables contain pectin—a kind of glue that holds its cells together and keeps it firm. Pectin doesn't break down until 183°F, which means that no matter what vegetable you cook sous-vide, you have to set your water oven to at least 183°F if you would like the end results to be tender ...

  • I was also thinking of the fact the 160 degrees is the absolute minimum that collagen will begin to turn to gelatin with temps around 180 being much better. I was thinking it could be a mix between a cut of meat that was too lean and the lower temperature. – djmadscribbler Oct 21 '14 at 17:28
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    @djmadscribbler Apparently it actually starts a lot lower, and is just slower - see cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/24737/… (editing answer too!) – Cascabel Oct 21 '14 at 18:03
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I always leave my crocpot on low, not warm. The meat and potatoes are always tender.

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Start the pot on HIGH until it is all hot and bubbly to get it started, around 15 to 30 minutes while you are cleaning up the kitchen. Then turn to LOW to cook. The WARM setting it just to hold the meal until you are ready to serve the meal. WARM setting is designed to NOT COOK the meal.

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Beef is generally a pretty hard meat to break down compared to other meats. Takes longer to chew, longer to digest, and requires more heat to make it tender during the cooking process. So while a crock pot is fine for most of the operation, you'll meet with the desired success if you'll instead braise your cut of beef in a covered pot (not a pan) on the stove top.

Make sure your pot is of the stainless steel variety, as you'll be going at it pretty aggressively with your metal spatula. And absolutely make sure it has a heavy bottom. Invariably they're a separate piece welded on to the lining of the pot. The bottom of the pot really needs to be able to hold and evenly distribute heat, which is simply not true for pots which by definition are bowl-shaped pieces of sheet metal. Remember, part of what the term "evenly distribute" means is that a balance is struck between the burner and the bottom of the pan. If that bottom is almost non-existent then there's no back-and-forth between the two. The heat just leaps straight from burner to food surface and makes it impossible to do much more than sauté or stir fry.

Add to the pot a thin layer of olive oil, thin meaning just a bit more than one sixteenth of an inch. Set the burner up in the range of medium high to high. (Not high, not medium high, but squarely in between those two.) Just before the oil reaches its smoke point drop in your piece of beef. Your goal is to sear the beef on that side, which will take about 80 seconds. (Do not apply additional pressure to the meat.) Even at that short of a time span it will want to stick to the bottom of the pan. You want to separate the two, but not at the expense of tearing the meat. (Otherwise there's no sense in searing it.) So flip your spatula over (underside facing the ceiling), slide it under an available lip, and then rock it from side to side while gradually pushing it further and further underneath the cut of beef. This means that the flat edge of the spatula retains contact with the bottom of the pot the whole time. Rocking, here, does not mean teetering.

Once the beef is loose, grab a pair of kitchen tongs and stand it up on one side (whichever side is most convenient). You're now going to sear that side. In fact, you're goal is to sear each side of the cut of meat. Generally that would be six sides: two broad, two narrow, and two ends. But trust me, this will make all the difference in outcome. The searing creates much more of a "closed system*, by which the cut of meat is able to stew from the inside out rather, that is, than from the outside in. Stewing from the outside in is synonymous with boiling. Boiling beef draws all the moisture out and leaves behind a mass of tissue. So that's never what you want to do. You want to force the moisture to stay in the beef while it's cooking, at least as much as humanly possible. Searing makes that possible.

Now the meat needs to be braised. It's beef. It needs to be braised. You can accomplish this one of two ways. You can leave it in the pot you started with on your stove top. Or you can transfer it to your crock pot. If you do the latter though, it's imperative that you bring it's temperature way up first. Just add about a quarter cup of water (or beef stock) to it and bring that to a roiling boil. Yes, a quarter cup (not a misprint). Not only is this all you'll need, this is one of those situations where more is literally less. So if you're going to add Worcestershire sauce, make sure that's part of this quarter cup of liquid. Also, when you add the beef you'll want to make sure and include all of the oil (flavors) produced in the first step.

Now, if you're going with the standard stove top approach, while the heat's still up (as before) you just add that quarter cup of water and cover. You'll need a clear lid, because braising by definition entails just barely keeping things at a boil, in which case you'll be needing to see what's happening without changing what's happening. As steam rises and contacts the lid it eventually trickles back down and keeps the level the same. It's this equilibrium you're after. Meanwhile, as the meat slowly releases it's own juices, (emphasis on slowly), that added amount of liquid is sufficient to compensate for any incidental, low-level evaporation. Same thing with the crock pot. When you drop the meat in it'll temporarily stunt that roiling broil. Here's the time you should be cranking the dial down. Your goal, again, is to get it as low as possible without losing sight of slight movement in the water. And then your goal is to keep it that way.

There's no reason to expect this stage to take any less than a couple hours to accomplish, though closer to four is even better. Remember, the beef is being broken down. And I know from experience that patience at this stage reaps a huge dividend in tenderness. You won't have to cut the meat. Nor will anyone to whom you serve it. It'll simply pull right apart.

Now, the vegetables. Always add first the ones that take longest to cook. Remember, you're going to stay here with low temps (just enough to boil water). So gauging what you add (meaning when) can be a bit nuanced compared, that is, to just throwing everything in together into a high heat environment. I always go with celery first. Then carrots and onions. Then potatoes. (You may find it more practical to lightly oil your pieces of potato and then salt and pepper them before adding them to the stew.) And remember, this is the diametric opposite of stir fry. Once the braising process commences, at no point ever will you be doing any stirring. You just add what needs to be added, cover, and allow the process to bring itself to completion. The vegetables will release all of their water. You won't have to add any more. (If you do favor a particularly soupy stew, adding preheated beef stock should suffice, but no sooner than a half hour before serve time.)

With a half hour's prep work and searing, three hours braising, and a final hour to hour-and-a-half for the vegetables to slow cook, your stew should take about six hours to make. But this is not the kind of thing you can crank up like a machine and then come home to after a day at the office. A good stew has to be fussed over in a very present and very hands-on sort of way. A crock pot can work. But it's really just one more step in an already ample repertoire.

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    We would really appreciate it if you could focus your answers on what the OP actually asked. All in all, you've spent a ton of time explaining how to do this not in a crock pot, and how to make a good stew, which is definitely not what the OP asked about, however well it may work. This is, quite honestly, very close to not being an answer at all (which would get it deleted). If it actually were impossible to make a good stew in a crock pot, sure, this would be fine - but that's not at all the case, and stew does not have to be fussed over. – Cascabel Oct 21 '14 at 3:57
  • If what you really want to do is share something you know, you don't have to wait for someone to ask the question. Be sure the question isn't a duplicate (use the search engine), and that it is on-topic (check the Help Center), and if it's good - ask and answer the question yourself. If the questions and answers are useful, the practice is highly encouraged. – Jolenealaska Oct 21 '14 at 5:09
  • Ah yes, Jerome, the slippery slope into self-indulgence. Good advice for all. I would never wish to carry the reader on a ride from which no gain was to be realized. Can you help me understand though where specifically I went wrong, I mean, which step or steps in my approach are unnecessary? I can't edit them out if I don't know. Thanks. – Tom Raywood Oct 21 '14 at 15:54
  • @TomRaywood In the context of this question (about how to do it in a crock pot), I'm saying that essentially all of the stuff about how to make a good stew, and how to make it on the stove is unnecessary. It's fine to give some related pointers if you'd like ("be sure to sear the meat for better flavor"), but leave full descriptions of them for a question ("how do I best sear meat for a stew?"). But the question was about how to make sure things cook soft, and the parts of your answer addressing that are the bits saying "cook it hot enough and long enough" - focus on those. – Cascabel Oct 21 '14 at 18:24
  • @TomRaywood I make the same mistake if I read the question quickly, or even just once. Since we're so driven here to have the answers that specifically answer the question, take time to really understand the question. In the year I've been here, I've flagged over 100 answers for removal, most of those for not being actual answers to the original question. So the first step in really good answers, is to really understand the question. Ask for clarification in comments if necessary. – Jolenealaska Oct 21 '14 at 18:32

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