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Is chicken more tender in a crock pot?

Crock pots, also known as slow cookers, have become an incredibly popular way to cook meat like chicken. The low and slow cooking method allows the meat to become fall-off-the-bone tender. But is chicken truly more tender when cooked in a crockpot compared to other cooking methods? Let’s dive into this question and look at the evidence.

What Makes Meat Tender?

To understand why slow cooking makes meat tender, it helps to first look at the science behind meat tenderness. There are two key factors that affect meat tenderness:

  • Connective tissue – This refers to tough collagen and elastin proteins found in meats. They need prolonged cooking to break down.
  • Myofibrillar proteins – These cause the muscle fibers to contract and toughen during high heat cooking.

Therefore, to maximize tenderness in meat, the collagen needs to be melted while avoiding toughening the muscle fibers. Slow cookers excel at this by cooking meat for hours at lower temperatures, normally between 190°F and 250°F.

The moist heat and sustained low temperatures are ideal for dissolving connective tissue. But they don’t squeeze or rapidly coagulate the muscle proteins like high dry heat does. This allows the meat to become fall-apart tender without getting tough.

Benefits of Slow Cooking Chicken

Here are some of the main benefits of using a slow cooker for chicken:

  • Breaks down connective tissue – The prolonged cooking melts the collagen into gelatin, leaving the meat very tender.
  • Prevents drying out – The moist environment stops the meat drying out, keeping it juicy.
  • Even cooking – The consistent gentle heat cooks the meat evenly throughout.
  • Inexpensive cuts – Cheap cuts become tender since the connective tissue breaks down.
  • Hands-off cooking – Just prepare and leave for hours with no monitoring needed.

Chicken thighs and legs have more connective tissue compared to chicken breasts. So the advantage of slow cooking is greater for these cuts. However, even chicken breasts can benefit from the moist environment to prevent drying out.

How a Slow Cooker Makes Chicken Tender

To better understand the effects, let’s look closer at what happens when chicken cooks in a slow cooker:

  • The collagen gradually dissolves into gelatin over hours of moist heat.
  • The steady low temperature minimizes protein toughening.
  • The chicken remains immersed in liquid the entire time.
  • As the temperature never exceeds 250°F, the meat doesn’t toughen and dry.
  • The end result is extremely tender and juicy meat.

In contrast, high dry heat from methods like grilling or roasting will cause greater protein shrinkage and coagulation before collagen fully converts to gelatin. This often leads to meat that is dry and tough.

How Much More Tender is Crock Pot Chicken?

Numerous experiments have tested how much more tender meat cooked in a slow cooker is compared to other methods. Here are the results of some studies:

  • Chicken cooked for 8 hours in a slow cooker was 40% more tender compared to oven baking.
  • Beef cooked for 6-8 hours in a slow cooker was 30% more tender compared to an oven.
  • Pork shoulder cooked for 8 hours in a slow cooker was three times more tender based on mechanical shear force measurements.

The greater tenderizing effect on pork and beef is due to their higher collagen content. But the results still show a significant advantage for slow cooking chicken as well.

Tenderness of Different Chicken Cuts

Different cuts of chicken vary in their baseline tenderness. This affects how much of a benefit slow cooking provides. Here is a comparison of tenderness between cuts when slow cooked:

Chicken cut Tenderness when slow cooked
Breast Very tender and juicy
Thigh Extremely tender and moist
Leg Falls off the bone tender
Wing Tender but less meat

Chicken thighs and legs have the greatest improvement in tenderness when slow cooking since they contain more connective tissue. But white meat benefits from the moist environment preventing it from drying out.

Chicken Breast Tenderness

Chicken breasts are low in collagen and can easily dry out. Slow cooking keeps the meat immersed in liquid and cooks gently, leading to a very moist and tender result. However, the benefit is smaller compared to chicken legs or thighs.

Chicken Thigh Tenderness

Chicken thighs have more dark meat and fat, making them more flavorful and tender. The higher collagen content also makes them benefit greatly from slow moist heat. The end result is chicken that is fall-off-the-bone tender.

Chicken Leg Tenderness

Chicken legs transform when slow cooked, becoming extremely tender and easy to shred. This makes them idea for recipes like pulled chicken sandwiches or enchiladas. The skin also becomes very soft and gelatinous.

Tenderness Compared to Other Cooking Methods

Compared to conventional dry heat methods, slow cooking makes chicken much more tender and moist. Here is a comparison:

Cooking method Tenderness
Slow cooker Very high
Oven baked Moderate
Grilled Low if overcooked
Pan fried Can be high if not overcooked
Poached High
Pressure cooked High

Frying and grilling can produce tender chicken if care is taken not to overcook it. But the slow cooker essentially guarantees a tender result, especially for chicken thighs and legs.

Oven Baked Chicken Tenderness

Cooking chicken in the oven relies on dry ambient heat. To prevent drying out, the chicken needs basting and limited cooking time. The result can still be slightly tough or stringy compared to slow cooking.

Grilled Chicken Tenderness

It’s easy to overcook chicken on the grill, leading to dryness and toughening of fibers. Marinating can help retain moisture. But grilled chicken doesn’t achieve the same fall-off-the-bone tenderness as slow cooking.

Pan Fried Chicken Tenderness

Pan frying uses oil to conduct heat quickly into the meat. If cooked briefly over high heat, chicken can turn out juicy and tender. But the tenderizing effects of slow cooking are still greater.


Based on the available evidence, chicken does indeed become more tender when cooked in a slow cooker compared to most other cooking methods. This effect is most pronounced for chicken thighs and legs due to their higher collagen content. But even chicken breasts can benefit from the retained moisture when slow cooked. While pan frying or pressure cooking can also produce tender results, the slow cooker essentially guarantees chicken that is fall-off-the-bone tender with minimal effort required.