Overcooking meat in a slow cooker everything you need to know

Slow cookers are handy appliances. They allow you to prepare large amounts of complex dishes with little effort in a matter of hours. They also make it possible to produce many multi-course meals and slow-cooked meats such as beef pot roast, pork shoulder, and chicken thighs.

But what is the best way to use a slow cooker? This article will tell you everything about overcooking your meat in a slow cooker while helping you not to ruin your dish!

Yes, you can overcook meat in a slow cooker – but you should not do it. Like cooking any other type of food, meat left in the slow cooker for too long will become tough and dry. 

The best way how to monitor the temperature inside of the meat is to use a temperature probe. It is a heat-resistant way to make sure that your meat has the correct temperature inside.

Does meat get more tender the longer it cooks in a slow cooker?

This often depends on what cut of meat you’re cooking and how you prepared it before putting it into a slow cooker. And, I think it’s safe to say that more time in a slow cooker is almost always better.

If you cook meat in a hot environment (above boiling point – 212°F) for an extended period, it’s likely to be tough and dry. But if you cook the meat in a low-heat climate (below boiling point – detailed differences between slow cooking and boiling can be found here) in a slow cooker. In that case, it will remain tender and moist.

That’s why the slow cooker is so popular. Cooks can just set it and forget it for several hours at a time. The meat will come out tender in just about any cut of meat, whether you’re making tacos, sandwiches, or stew of some sort.

But you don’t have to choose between tenderness and flavor when you prepare your food in a slow cooker. By cooking your meat in a low-heat environment, you can retain its natural flavor because it will be more evenly cooked.

That said, you also need to make sure that red meat doesn’t get overcooked. If it does, there’s a good chance that it won’t be tender and juicy when you’re ready to serve it.

Is there any way to tell if an outside temperature is too high when cooking meat in a slow cooker? The short answer is yes. Meat can only reach an internal temperature of 140 Fahrenheit or more before it’s cooked through. Still, the exact temperature will vary depending on the type and size of the meat.

How long is too long in a slow cooker?

If we are talking about the slow cooking process itself, there is no such thing as too long. For example, some stews take between 12-20 hours to make. So it is heavily dependant on a recipe.

In general, I can say that anything that takes longer than 20 hours to cook in a slow cooker is too long.  

People do not always agree on how long to cook any meat in a slow cooker because every slow cooker might cook differently. Some recipes can take longer for the meat to become tender, so it’s usually best to follow the directions for the exact cut you’re cooking.

That said, when you’re cooking cuts of meat like beef brisket, ribs, and pork shoulder, you generally want several hours on low heat. Ribs and brisket are best cooked overnight. Pork shoulder is best cooked for at least 8 hours on low.

Just remember that it’s better to undercook your meat than to overcook it! Undercooked meat can be quickly finished or left in a slow cooker for longer. Most people prefer their slow-cooked meats cooked for about 8-10 hours or until the meat can be easily pulled apart with a fork.

How long can you leave the cooked meat in a slow cooker?

I leave the meat in a slow cooker for a maximum of 1 hour. By the end, it should be chilled and ready to be transferred into a container or kept in the pot and put into the refrigerator. But at what temperature should the pot be set to keep the meat warm until serving time?

The keep-warm setting on a slow cooker is around 140°F (60°C), which is still quite hot. I never keep food for more than 2 hours in a 140°F (60°C) pot unless I transfer it into another container and place it on ice in the refrigerator. 

The high setting is 200°F (93°C) which will maintain food at this temperature and keep food warm until serving time, for at least 4 hours.

Remember that 200°F (93°C) is still a simmering temperature, which means that the ingredients are cooking. The additional time and temperature can negatively impact the food, for example, overcooking it or make it mushy.

In my opinion, it is always better to set the slow cooker on keep-warm or turn it off completely, wait for the contents to cool down, and put it into the fridge. This will give you an option to reheat it later when it is more convenient for you to eat.

How long can you leave the raw meat in a slow cooker?

I have already written an article about raw meat in a slow cooker. I will give you a short answer here. 

The maximum time that you should leave raw meat in a slow cooker is 2 hours. Longer time will result in meat getting dry and the dangerous bacteria forming on it and in it. 

If the meat was not adequately sealed and packaged, bacteria will be spread to all the food in the pot and result in food poisoning. So be careful when leaving raw meat in a slow cooker for too long. By the way another good tell if the meat is not okay to cook and eat is if there are flies circling around it.

One option to work around this is to put the meat into an air-tight container or vacuum seal it. I realize that it might be a bit extensive, but it will extend meat survival by approximately 2 hours. 

Is it better to slow cook on low or high?

You can slow cook on low or high settings in a slow cooker. This is highly dependant on the type, cut of meat, and size of your particular model. Some meats, like beef brisket and pork shoulder, are best cooked overnight on low. 

Other meats such as ribs will need about 8 hours to cook all the way through. It’s ultimately up to you how long you want your slow-cooked meal to take because it can be up to a maximum of 10 hours on low or 5 hours on high.

While some high-temperature fast cooking methods can quickly dry out or brown meat. Slow cooking at low temperatures and long cooking times allows the food’s moisture to be retained for more flavor and tenderness.

Stick with these general tips to get a good tasting meal in a slow cooker:

Use bone-in cuts of meat. Some companies make cheaper versions of slow cookers that do not retain as much heat as their more expensive counterparts. So using bone-in cuts is key to resting and developing flavors. 

  • Always brown or sear your meat before slow cooking. This adds flavor to the meat and contributes significantly to a better sauce in the end product. 
  • Using fresh ingredients is essential in any recipe, but it is vital for slow cooker recipes. You will be able to taste the difference between fresh ingredients and frozen or canned ones.
  • Pick a variety of vegetables that you like for the most flavorful outcome possible. Fruit is also a fine addition that can add sweetness to a meal without added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
  • Fresh herbs are also essential to add bold flavor to slow cooker recipes. You can use a single teaspoon of dried herbs for every teaspoon of fresh herbs. 

An important thing to mention in regards to herbs. 

You should add them by the end of your slow cooking. From my experience, the sooner you put herbs into the slow-cooking pot more their flavor will release into the dish. It might seem like a good idea, but it is not. 

Overcooking herbs impacts the flavor of the dish because they release way too much flavor into the ingredients. This robust flavor then overtakes the final results and can ruin the whole 8 hours of cooking.

To avoid this mistake, put the herbs in the pot of a slow cooker about an hour before the end. This ensures that the dish has the desired flavor from added spices, but it is not destroyed. 

Does meat need to be submerged in a slow cooker?

It will not hurt to leave the meat out of the water. The meat will release many juices while it’s cooking, and those juices will give you enough liquid for the dish. 

That said, if you do submerge it, then it will, in most cases, lead to more tender results because it will cook in all that liquid over time more evenly. There is no real consensus in the food world about this matter. 

The point that should be mentioned here is that submerging the meat in liquid helps cook it evenly on all sides. This is the difference between the temperature of the fluid and the temperature of ‘air’ above it. Even a slight variance will, in the long term, drastically change the texture on the top side of the meat. 

So if you don’t plan to turn your meat in a slow cooker periodically, you should consider submerging it completely. 

But why does meat get tough when it’s overcooked?

A properly cooked piece of meat should be tender but not soft and completely dissolving – you want a little give and chew to your meat. The more thorough the breakdown, the tougher the meat will become.

The main reason that meats become tough and dry is improper cooking. Meat fibers break down as they cook, but that breakdown is not always evenly distributed.

In a slow cooker, the meat will be surrounded by water – the main reason that it gets tough is that the water can’t get to all of the meat fibers for even cooking. You can address this issue by cutting the meat into smaller pieces. Also, you can use less water in the slow cooker, which will also help.

Why is my meat dry in the slow cooker?

The heat and moisture from the slow cooker are not enough to keep the meat from drying out. If you use a slow cooker, it’s best to brown your meat or poultry before placing it in the slow cooker. This will create a thin protection layer over the meat and keep most of the juices inside. 

That said, if you overcook your meat by a lot (a couple of hours), it will taste dry. To prevent this, you should set up a timer on your phone or kitchen clock and monitor the meat’s internal temperature. 

Use a thermometer to confirm that the meat is cooked to the correct temperature. Insert the thermometer through the side of the roast or chop into the center of the meat, avoiding any bones. The temperature should be at least 160° F (71° C) for poultry and beef, and 170° F (77° C) for pork.

Higher temperatures can lead to dry-out meat. However, if you’re doubling a recipe or cooking something that takes longer, this may not apply. You can tell that your meat is dry if it crumbles when you try to cut it.

What are some ways to prevent my meat from drying out?

There are a few ways to make sure that your meat turns out juicy. 

  • Be sure to check the temperatures with a thermometer.
  • If you want your meat not to dry out, try using:
  • A slow cooker liner will help keep the moisture inside the slow cooker and keep your food nice and moist. 
  • Cut up chicken or fish into smaller parts and brown it before slow cooking it.

Can I leave my slow cooker on low overnight?

Yes, you can leave your slow cooker on low overnight. You should only do this if you’re cooking a dish like a chili that doesn’t need to be stirred and is okay if it gets too hot. I would recommend no to leave your slow cooker on low for more than 10 hours. After that, it’s best to turn the slow cooker off.

Before you ask, yes, you can leave the slow cooker unattended for an extensive period. If you are interested in more details, you can check them here.

Have I been able to answer the question about overcooking meat in a slow cooker? Do you have any tips or tricks on how to know or prevent overcooking meat? Do you have any other questions in terms of overcooking the meat in a slow cooker?

Let me know in the comments below. 

Until next time I wish you juicy, tender, but not overcooked meat. 

Vojta Vevera

Combining a love for cooking and using all kinds of technological gizmos helps Vojta to bring the experiences and excitement to all his articles. He is always doing his best to serve you with great information. Mixing over 15 years of cooking experience with his analytical mind and love for all technological things.

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