Too much of a good thing

beef stew 

When it comes to beef stews and braises, long cooking at low temperature is the way to go, and many recipes call for hours of cooking. Even though you may think longer is better, beware of extended cooking times, says indexed blog Serious Eats.

You might feel that if three hours is good, four must be better, to allow all of the connective tissue to break down. While that does take some time, there are undesirable changes that occur when the meat is cooked for too long. J. Kenji López-Alt explains that there are three distinct phases that the meat passes through during long cooking sessions: what he calls primary, secondary, and tertiary breakdown.

In the first phase, "large swaths of connective tissue that run through a piece of stew beef break down and convert to gelatin. Individual cubes will still hold their shape very well, but will show tenderness when you bite into them." The second phase occurs "when the tissue holding together individual muscle fibrils (the long, skinny bundles of muscle cells that give meat its distinct grain) breaks down and the fibrils easily separate from each other. At this stage, the beef is very easily shredded." The final phase "is when those individual muscle fibrils themselves break down, turning from distinct, juice-filled strands into pulpy mush."

In Kenji's experiment, he noted that cooking times that went beyond four hours ended in meat being extremely dry and resembling the "pulpy mush" described above. He cautions that the slow cooker recipes that call for eight hours of cooking may be overdoing it, although he does offer the caveat that the cooking temperature and cut of meat also play roles in how long it takes for a stew to be done. That means there are no hard and fast rules. Kenji recommends that you begin "checking your meat when you hit around 80% of the total recommended cooking time, and stop cooking as soon as it reaches the stage at which the meat is tender, but not falling apart-so, if a recipe says to cook the stew for 2 1/2 hours, start checking it around the 2-hour mark."

Photo of All-American beef stew from Serious Eats by J. Kenji López-Alt

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