Beef stew should be rich an satisfying. My goal in developing a recipe for it was to keep the cooking process simple without compromising the stew’s deep, complex flavor. I focused on these issues: What cuts of beef respond best to stewing? How much and what kind of liquid should I use? When and with what do I thicken the stew?
Experts tout different cuts as being ideal for stewing. I must have tried 12 different cuts of beef during the last few years. Chuck proved to be the most flavorful, tender, and juicy. Most other cuts were too stringy, too chewy, too dry, or just plain bland. The exception was rib-eye steak, which made good stew meat but is too expensive a cut for this purpose.
My advice is to buy a steak or roast from the chuck and cube it yourself. The names given to different cuts of chuck vary, but the most commonly used names for retail chuck cuts include boneless chuck-eye roasts, cross-rib roasts, blade steak and roasts, should steaks and roasts, and arm steaks and roasts. I particularly like chuck-eye roasts, but all chuck cuts are delicious when cubed an stewed.
Having settled on my cut of beef, I started to explore how and when to thicken the stew. Dredging meat cubes in flour is a roundabout way of thickening stew. The floured beef is browned, then stewed. During the stewing process, some of the flour from the beef dissolves into the liquid, causing it to thicken. Although the stew I cooked this way thickened up nicely, the beef cubes had a “smothered steak” look.
I also tried two thickening methods at the end of the cooking – a beurre manié (softened butter mixed with flour) and cornstarch mixed with water. Both methods are acceptable, but the beurre manié lightened the stew liquid’s color, making it look more like pale gravy than rich stew juices. Also, the extra fat did not improve the stew’s flavor enough to justify its addition. For those who prefer thickening at the end of cooking, I found that cornstarch dissolved in water did the job without compromising the stew’s dark, rich color.
Pureeing the cooked vegetables is another thickening method. Once the stew is fully cooked, the meat is pulled from the pot and the juices and vegetables are pureed to create a thick sauce. But I find that this thickening method made the vegetable flavor too prominent.
Ultimately, though, I opted for thickening the stew with flour at the beginning – stirring it into the sautéing onions and garlic, right before adding the liquid. Stew thickened this way did not taste any better than that thickened at the end with cornstarch, but it was easier. There was no last minute work; once the liquid started to simmer, I was free to do something else.
I next focused on the stewing liquid. Throughout the years, I have tried water, wine, canned beef broth, canned chicken broth, combinations of these liquids, and beef stock. Stews made with water were bland and greasy. The stew made entirely with wine were too strong. The stew made from beef stock was delicious, but I decided that beef stew, which has many hearty ingredients contributing to its flavor profile, did not absolutely need beef stock, which is time-consuming to make. When I turned to canned broths, the chicken outscored the beef broth. The stew made entirely with chicken broth was good, but I missed the acidity and flavor provided by the wine. In the end, I preferred a combination of chicken broth and red wine.
I tested various amounts of liquid and found that I preferred stews with a minimum of liquid, which helps to preserve a strong meat flavor. With too little liquid, however, the stew may not cook evenly, and there may not be enough “sauce” to spoon over starchy accompaniments. A cup of liquid per pound of meat gave me sufficient sauce to moisten a mound of mashed potatoes or polenta without drowning them. I tested various kinds of wine and found that fairly inexpensive fruity, full-bodied, young wines, such as Chianti or Zinfandel, were best.
I also prefer to add the vegetables partway through the cooking process. This way, the vegetables don’t fall apart, and they have enough time to meld with the other ingredients. There is one exception to this rule. Peas are added just before serving the stew to preserve their color and texture.
One final note: The meat passes from the tough to tender stage fairly quickly. Often at the 1-hour mark, I found that the meat would still be chewy. Fifteen minutes later, it would be tender. Let the stew go another 15 minutes and the meat starts to dry out. Taste the meat often as the stew nears completion to judge when it’s just right.
Click HERE for my Hearty Beef Stew recipe.
Click HERE for my Beef Goulash recipe.
In the video below, McCormick partnered with television personality Holly Resnick who shows us how to make a Hearty Beef Stew with Roasted Winter Vegetables the healthier (and tastier!) way.