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Why is my slow cooker beef stew not tender?

Having a tender, fall-apart beef stew is the goal when making this classic comfort food in the slow cooker. However, sometimes the end result is less than ideal, with meat that is tough and chewy. There are a few key reasons why your slow cooker beef stew may be lacking in tenderness.

The Cut of Beef

The first thing to look at is the cut of beef you are using. For slow cooker stews, you’ll want a cut that has a good amount of connective tissue and fat marbling. This is what will break down over the long cooking time and become deliciously tender. The best cuts for slow cooker beef stew include:

  • Chuck roast
  • Beef chuck shoulder roast
  • Bottom round roast
  • Rump roast
  • Brisket

Cuts like sirloin or tenderloin may seem appealing since they start out more tender. However, they lack the connective tissue needed to end up fall-apart tender after hours in the slow cooker. Always opt for a tougher, fattier cut when making beef stew.

Not Enough Liquid

Having the right amount of liquid is also key for tender slow cooker beef stew. The liquid braises the meat over time, breaking down those collagen fibers. If your stew doesn’t have enough liquid, the meat won’t end up as tender as it should.

A good rule of thumb is that the liquid should come about halfway up the sides of the meat. For a 3-4 pound chuck roast, you’ll want around 2-3 cups of broth or wine. Too little and the meat won’t braise properly. Too much and you’ll end up with more of a thin beef soup.

Didn’t Brown the Meat

Browning the beef before putting it in the slow cooker helps develop deeper, richer flavor. But it also has an impact on tenderness! Browning creates a flavorful fond on the bottom of the pot that dissolves into the braising liquid. This richly flavored liquid helps soften and tenderize the meat. Skip this step and your stew won’t be quite as luscious and tender.

Didn’t Cut the Meat Into Chunks

How you cut the meat before adding it to the slow cooker also affects tenderness. Keeping the meat in one large piece means less surface area for the braising liquid to penetrate and soften. Cutting the beef into 1-2 inch chunks before cooking gives you more tender, bite-sized pieces of beef in the finished stew.

Cooked it on Low All Day

While the low setting works great for some slow cooker recipes, beef stew needs a blast of high heat to get perfectly tender. Cook the stew on high for 4-6 hours to help melt the collagen and connective tissue. Then you can switch to low to keep it warm until serving.

Didn’t Skim the Fat

As the beef stew simmers, fat and impurities can rise to the top and congeal. This layer of grease and scum should be skimmed off periodically. Otherwise it will coat the meat, shielding it from the braising liquid and inhibiting tenderness. Be sure to skim a few times throughout cooking.

Didn’t Add Acid

Adding a splash of acidity helps further break down the meat’s collagen for increased tenderness. Tomato paste, red wine vinegar, lemon juice or even tomatoes themselves can add this bright pop of acid to your stew. Just a tablespoon or two does the trick!

Cooked it Too Long

While long, slow cooking is key for delicious beef stew, going overboard can make the meat tough and dry instead of tender. Cook larger pieces of meat (over 2 pounds) for 6-8 hours on low. Smaller pieces (under 2 pounds) need just 4-6 hours. Checking at the low end of these ranges prevents overcooking.

Didn’t Let it Rest

Letting the stew rest for 5-10 minutes before serving allows the meat to reabsorb some of those lovely braising juices. Dishing it up immediately can lead to drier, less tender beef. Let it sit off the heat for a bit for beef that’s juicy and luscious.

Added Too Much Liquid at the End

It’s common for the liquid in beef stew to reduce significantly after hours in the slow cooker. While you may be tempted to add more broth or water at the end, this actually leads to less rich flavor and often less tender beef. Keep it concentrated for the most succulent stew.

Didn’t Use Enough Flavor-Builders

Onions, garlic, herbs and spices all add depth of flavor to beef stew. But they also help tenderize the meat! Caramelized onions, in particular, contribute tons of flavor. While optional, tomato paste and mushrooms also enhance the savory taste and impart a meaty richness. Use generous amounts of these stew flavor-builders.


With a few tweaks to your recipe and method, you can get fall-apart tender beef stew every time. Be sure to:

  • Choose the right stewing beef cut
  • Add enough braising liquid
  • Brown the beef first
  • Cut meat into chunks before cooking
  • Use a stint of high heat
  • Skim fat while cooking
  • Include an acidic ingredient like tomatoes or red wine
  • Don’t overcook
  • Let the stew rest before serving
  • Avoid thinning out the liquid too much
  • Use plenty of flavor-builders like onion and garlic

With these tips and tricks, you’ll be rewarded with fall-apart, melt-in-your-mouth beef stew every time!