Beef and veggies in crock pot turn out hard and tough


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?


Best Answer

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 ...