The Slow Cooker Stew Mistake You’re Probably Making — And How to Fix It

updated May 11, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

If you’ve been running your slow cooker all the time this winter, you’re not alone. It’s my go-to for big batches of soup and chili, meaty meals, snow-day dinners that practically cook themselves, and of course, beef stew. While you can make a beef stew on the stovetop or also in the Instant Pot, I’m partial to using my slow cooker for beef stew, to give the ingredients that long, unattended time they need to become really tender and delicious.

Slow cooker beef stew requires a little upfront prep, but the process is relatively simple — in fact, you don’t want to chop your vegetables too much. By cutting the potatoes and carrots into larger, sturdier pieces, you will help them hold up better during the long cook times needed to get the beef really tender.

Once everything is in the cooker, it can be left to its own devices to simmer away undisturbed, for up to 10 hours. That long cooking time turns what was a weekend-only dinner into a weeknight possibility — set it before you go to work, and come home to delicious stew!

But what if your stew doesn’t turn out exactly the way you hoped? Maybe your beef isn’t as tender as you hoped. Maybe your veggies are a little too tender. There’s a mistake you’re probably making — and here’s how to fix it.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Stop Stirring Your Stew — And Start Layering Your Ingredients

To make beef stew in a slow cooker, it’s important to not do one thing — and start doing another. First of all, don’t stir your stew! Once you get the ingredients into the slow cooker, set it and forget it — seriously!

Second, you want to layer the ingredients. This isn’t something you have to do with other cooking methods. When you’re making beef stew on the stovetop or in an Instant Pot, you can toss all the ingredients into the pot, add your broth, and let them cook. But when using the slow cooker, the order is important. You’ll want to add the seared beef cubes to the bottom of the cooker, then add the carrots, followed by the potatoes on top.

Because of the lengthy cook time (we’re talking eight to 10 hours, here), layering the beef on the bottom keeps it close to the heat and braising liquid. That gives it time to fully cook and become fall-apart tender. And the vegetables, which sit just a little further from the heat, are able to avoid overcooking and turning mushy or falling apart. It’s a small step, but one that, I promise, will result in a far better beef stew.