Avoiding Dry or Tough Meats in the Slow Cooker

Get ready to say goodbye to tough meat.

Why does my meat always turn out dry or tough?Β Here is a check list for cooking meats:

  • Did you lift the lid during cooking?
    Lifting the lid can drop the temperature considerably. Avoid the urge!
  • Did you have enough liquid in the pot?
    This seems simple, but it’s as easy mistake. Be sure you have enough liquid for the specified cooking time.
  • Did your recipe contain enough acid (such as, the acid in tomato sauce) to tenderize the meat?
    Acid based foods help to tenderize meats. Without them, meat can get dry or tough.
  • Did you cook the meat too long?
    It’s easy to do in a slow cooker. We expect to be able to walk away for hours, but some dishes do not need to cook for an entire day.
  • Did you cut your meat into pieces that were too small to withstand a long cooking time?
    Meats that are cut into tiny pieces will dry out during cooking much faster than larger pieces.
  • Was your cut of meat too tender?
    Less tender cuts of meat are best for this type of cooking.
  • Does the lid on your slow cooker fit properly?
    If your lid does not fit properly, moisture is escaping. This watery steam is essential for keeping foods moist.
  • Are you using the right size slow cooker?
    Putting small amounts of food in a large slow cooker can dry out the food because it cooks much faster.

Tips for tender meats:

  • Brown your meat.
    Browning helps the meat retain its moisture during cooking in a slow cooker.
  • Leaner cuts of meat will become a bit dryer in a slow cooker than fatty cuts.
    Sometimes, you have to work to find that balance of “not-too-dry” and “still healthy”.
  • Marinate your meat overnight before cooking.
    Choose acidic marinades such as orange juice, lemon juice, vinegar or tomato juice.

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43 Comments

  1. A very good article!  I shared it with my "SLOW COOKER RECIPES" group on Facebook.  A small typo:  "not-to-dry" should be "not-too-dry"!

  2. Good tips, except for:

    "Did you cook the meat too long?
    It’s easy to do in a slow cooker. We expect to be able to walk away for hours, but some dishes do not need to cook for an entire day."

    In a slow cooker, meat ends up tough if not cooked long enough. (The longer it cooks, the more tender it gets.)

    1. This is not true. Lean cuts of meat will most certainly become tough in a slow cooker even if left for vary long and slow cook times. If the liquid reaches a simmer the meat will gradually be rendered of its fat – with lean cuts, this will be a much faster process. Leaner cuts will be tough.

  3. I'm really confused now , undercooked or overcooked ?

    New Crock Pot user and yesterday had a Roast Beef joint on for 4hrs high (250ml Stock) , turned out terribly dry and tough .
    Is this because it was under or over cooked ?

      1. That’s not entirely true because I cooked mine yesterday for 8 hours on low and it was drier than dirt

        1. Brandy, it’s possible your meat was cooked for too long. It is possible to over cook meat in a slow cooker, making it dry. Each cut of meat will need a different cooking time, depending on the cut, size, and your slow cooker. It is possible even if you had cooked your meat on high for 4 hours it still would have been over cooked. You can also add a little bit of tomato sauce or rub your meat in tomato paste to help tenderize and prevent it from drying-out. Plus, it adds a little flavor!

  4. My husband HATES when the meat can’t be sliced without shredding. How do you avoid that? It almost ALWAYS happens with anything I cook in my slow cooker.

    1. Heidi, I recommend marinating your meat for at least a few hours and/or using cuts of meat with some fat on them.

  5. followed direction for a boneless pork tenderloin- 2lbs ” cook on Low 4-5 hours”
    meat is too touch to eat. Where have I gone wrong?

    1. Robyn, Here’s a possibility: the tenderloin was very lean and didn’t have much fat.
      It’s sort of a Catch-22, the leaner the cut of meat (pork, beef, and chicken) the more tough it is, but the healthier. Meat needs some fat in order to prevent drying out and being overly tough. You can find the fat content on the package, make comparisons, then decide based on your preference. Typically I look for cuts of meat somewhere in the middle, a little fat works pretty good. πŸ™‚

  6. I cook about 2kgs of steak every week and it always turns out dry. I have tried different times, high and low with plenty of stock but always dry πŸ™
    Any hints??

    Thank u

    1. Hi, Ben. You can try searing the outside of your meat in a pan just long enough to seal in the juices before adding to the slow cooker. Let us know if it works for you. πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks for the tips. I’m trying ’em out now.

    BTW, to be helpful and for you to be thorough with correct grammar, regarding this phrase […meat retain it’s moisture…] “it’s” should be “its.” I guess the rule is that an object cannot be in possession of something.

  8. Does the liquid level relative to the meat make a difference? Should the meat be at least partially covered in liquid? Many recipes call for veggies on the bottom, meat on top. Yesterday I followed the recipe but the liquid level didn’t reach the meat, and it came out dry. Is that why? Should I have added more liquid?

    1. Steph, It depends on the recipe. For example, you can make a whole chicken w/o any liquid and it turns out nice and juicy. Also, you could add a little broth if you plan to add veggies on the bottom. πŸ™‚ Again, it depends on the recipe.

    1. Try a fattier cut of meat–sometimes leaner cuts dry out. You can also try marinating them before putting them in the slow cooker. Good luck!

  9. So I tried an Applewood Bacon Pork Loin from Wal-Mart…you know the one already seasoned real nice in the pack. I didn’t add and water other than rinsing out the package to get all the seasoning out. I cooked it on low for about 7 hrs. It came out a little dry…just wondering what I did wrong.

    1. Newt, try adding liquid–either stock or water. The meat might also have been very lean. Lean cuts can become dry.

  10. This article totally explains why my dinner, at this very moment, sucks! Tenderized, lean meat….fail. Plus, I didn’t realize that the size of the slow cooker really mattered with a smaller batch of food.

  11. I am going to make a beef stew which I normally leave on for 6-7 hours but like most people the meat gets tough.
    This time I am not going to add the meat until 2-3 hours before completion.
    I will sear the meat in the normal way.

  12. I try to choose cuts of meat with the least amount of fat but when I made skinnyms balsamic chicken it was dry inside. The chicken tasted good because I put the diced tomatoes and the rest of the liquid on top. What can I do to the boneless, skinless chicken breast to make it less dry?

  13. If my chuck roast didn’t get tender, and if I cook it for longer, will it finally get tender? I had it on low for 8 hours.

    1. Great question! No, cooking the meat longer will not make it tender. In fact, it will dry out the meat! Next time, only cook the meat for about 6 hours and add an acidic ingredient such as vinegar, tomato, or lemon juice. The acid will help to tenderize the meat!

  14. I find recipes call for example 4-5 hours, etc. How do you know? Why is there not an exact time like standard recipes? I understand low vs high but give me exact cooking time. My meats turn out dry. How do I know which time is the best?

    1. Barbara, The time varies because slow cookers tend to cook at different heats, some higher than others. Meats are much more tender when cooked
      on the bone. You could this to see if the meat turns out less dry.

      One trick that I use: rub olive oil on the outside of deboned meats, including chicken.
      This helps to seal in the moisture.

  15. one time i made brisket in the oven and it came out moist and great to slice….that was 50 times ago…i could never repeat the process..now its always DRY….what is the best way to oven roast a brisket….

    1. The best way would be to roast it low and slow! Roast the brisket at 250 to 300 degrees for several hours. Use a roasting pan with a rack so liquid can sit under the brisket as it cooks and check the liquid every so often to make sure it hasn’t run out. You can also run the brisket in an acidic rub – for example a variety of spices with a little lemon juice and/or tomato paste. The acid in the lemon or tomato helps to keep the meat tender.

  16. So good to have your advice BEFORE I begin to use a slow cooker. My question is long, I hope that is okay. I live in Germany, we buy mostly wild meat, which is wild pig and two types of wild deer. It is generally lean and often tough. I intend to use a slow cooker to cook and tenderize this meat before freezing it. The purpose in freezing the meat is to creat convienient frozen meat packages which can be combined with a packsge of precooked/frozen vegetables. Packages can be thawed and combined with spices and a sauce base, such as coconut milk, then warmed up together to make a quick meal. I do this as a solution to diet choice and daily cooking time limits. I plan to cook the meat in a slow cooker with soup vegetables such as onion, celery and carrotts. The meat will be seperated after cooking, vacume packed and frozen. The broth left over from the slow cooking will be used either in soup or to make bone broth. Reading your article and comments, it seems I will need to test meat as it cooks to find the cooking time that is best. Is that correct? My options to create tender cooked meat seem to be pre-browning the meat, rubbing meat in olive oil, adding something acidic such as vineger to the pot or marinating the meat before cooking. Which do you suggest? If adding vinegar, how much? Do you find any problems with this general plan? Thanks!

    1. Your options to create tender cooked meat you listed are correct. I would suggest browning and simply seasoning the meat with salt and pepper. Once you add the meat to the slow cooker I would add about 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice per pound of meat with broth as needed. The cook time for different kinds of meat will change and will vary depending on the time of meat. Deer will take longer than the wild hog to cook. I would set a short time, check the meat, and then cook longer as you feel the meat would need. You can always add cooking time as once it’s cooked you cannot “uncook” the meat!

  17. I’m fairly new to crockpot cooking- am trying peppered beef tips – says cook on low 8 hrs…. seems like an awfully long time for such small pieces of meat? I’ve never cooked beef yet in my crockpot and I’m hesitant now. Can I cook 6 hrs and check?

    1. You can cook the meat for 6 hours and then check. However, the size of the meat doesn’t always decide how long to cook the meat for. The cut of meats typically used in a crockpot are more tough and need a long time to cook. A crockpot also cooks very slowly, a 6 to 8 hour cook time on low is very normal.

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