Cooking School Essentials: Beef Stew Tips & Tricks
Andy Anderson !
But, I’ll eat beef stew any old time of the year.
So, you ready… Let’s get into the kitchen.
How to Make Cooking School Essentials: Beef Stew Tips & Tricks
Ah, the joy of making a wonderful beef stew; that low & slow cooking on the stovetop, sending all those wonderful aromas into the air, driving your guests crazy, wanting to know when dinner will be ready…
That’s beef stew for you.
I doubt that there is a chef out there on Just-a-Pinch that hasn’t made and posted their very own “favorite” beef stew recipe (I’ve posted two myself).
But the difference between an awesome beef stew, a good beef stew, and a horrible beef stew are all about ingredients, cooking times, and cooking temperature. I’ve made a ton of beef stews in my years of cooking. As a matter of fact, I’m working on a new one right now. However, there are certain things that you can change, and there are certain things that you shouldn’t change.
Shall we continue…
- THE CUT OF BEEF
It’s a scary world out there, and there are tons of different cuts of beef that you could use for your beef stew. They twist their way from fatty cuts, all the way to extremely lean cuts. The secret is you need a good hard-working muscle; one that will stand up to a low-and-slow cooking method, and won’t splint.
I’m going to make this simple; if you want consistent results every time, then your best choice is a chuck roast. Full Stop.
If I need to go to a secondary cut, I might try a flank, blade, rump, brisket, or pot roast. These cuts all bring their own nuances to your stew, but chuck would be my first choice.
I’ve tried just about every cut of beef known, and none of them break down in a stew like a good chuck roast. I’ve even tried expensive cuts, like sirloin, and I was left with chunks of tough dry meat, and a sauce that lacked any flavor.
Ah, but the lowly chuck roast has just the right amount of marbling, and because it is a well-worked muscle it is packed with wholesome flavor. Then, as your stew happily cooks away, the collagen slowly melts and flavors the sauce, and the beef becomes fork tender…
- THE SEAR
In my opinion searing the beef is not an option, it is something that you must do, or you will be left with a bland-tasting dish that no amount of spice can salvage.
The technical term for searing is called the Maillard Reaction... You just might want to google that.
When you sear the beef at high heat, it turns brown; however, it’s not about changing the color; it’s about flavor and aroma. The high heat of a sear creates a reaction between the amino acids and sugars, and causes them to react in complex, yet yummy, ways.
The best method for searing is to cut the beef into chunks, and then allow it sit on your countertop for about an hour. If you use meat right out of the refrigerator, it will cool down the pan, and slow down the Maillard Reaction.
Place a pan over medium-high heat, and throw in a splash of oil (grapeseed is my favorite). Dry the beef chunks with a paper towel, and lay in the pan. Allow the beef to sit undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes. When it releases easily from the pan, turn it over, and repeat the process until you have seared all sides of the beef.
Remember to never crowd the pan. If the beef chunks get too close to each other, you will wind up steaming the beef, and you want to sear, not steam. If necessary, sear the beef in batches. Trust me, it will be worth the extra effort.
- Searing Tip:
When you’re searing the beef, do not season it until it is in the pan. Adding even a bit of salt to the beef before searing will cause the beef to release moisture, and you’ll wind up steaming the beef… not searing it. Depending on the type of beef stew I’m making, I’ll sprinkle the beef with a bit of black (or white) pepper while it is searing; however, I am very sparing with the salt.
- Finishing the Sear
When you have finished searing the beef, deglaze the empty pan with some wine, beef stock, or water (more on cooking liquids later), and use a wooden spoon to melt all those yummy brown bits (fonds) stuck to the bottom of the pan, into the liquid. Then add that liquid to your cooking stock.
At culinary school, we made two beef stews: One with seared beef; in the other, we skipped that step. Everything else was the same. After we all sampled the two stews, I decided that I would never make a traditional beef stew without first searing the beef, and I sincerely hope that I have convinced you to do the same.
- ADDITIONAL NOTE ON SEARING
I generally don’t recommend pre-searing lamb. The searing step destabilizes fatty-acids in the cell membranes of the muscle tissue and creates a mutton-like aroma during cooking, which is only great if you like mutton.
In addition, searing chicken breasts is not advisable either. The searing binds the proteins on the outside of the chicken breast, creating a chewy, dry exterior.
However, with beef, it’s a good thing to do.
- WHAT ABOUT FLOUR
Many recipes call for adding flour to the beef before searing. The main idea for this is that the flour will help to thicken the simmering liquid.
On the face of it, this sound logical; however, adding flour to the beef separates the beef from the hot pan, and inhibits the Maillard Reaction from doing its job.
Another reason is that the flour will combine with the juices from the meat, and harden on the surface of the pan, so instead of having nice flavorful brown bits (fonds), you wind up with hardened black bits that will ruin your simmering stock.
I HATE it when that happens.
- THE SIMMERING STOCK
What I refer to as the simmering stock is the liquid that you use to simmer the beef and veggies. If you have some fresh homemade beef stock, then you can stop reading because you have exactly what you need for making an excellent beef stew.
If, however, you do not have fresh beef stock, then allow me make a suggestion:
Let’s say you need two quarts of liquid for your beef stew…
Take a pot over medium heat, and pour in two quarts of water.
• 2 roughly chopped carrots
• 1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
• 1/2 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
• 1 clove garlic, smashed
• 2 sprigs fresh thyme
• A small handful of parsley; including stems
Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer
Simmer for one hour, and then strain the liquid and remove the solids.
While this method will not be as flavorful as using fresh beef stock, it will be a whole lot better than using beef bouillon cubes, or just plain water.
- The Secret to Thickening Stock
Beef stew doesn't need to be a thick gloppy gravy. As a matter of fact, you will probably be using potatoes, and their starch will naturally thicken your stew.
If, however, you desire a thicker stock for your beef stew, let me recommend a method I used at several restaurants: Take several tablespoons of flour, and toast in a dry pan over medium heat until it browns up a bit, about 3 to 5 minutes. Don’t let the flour burn.
Remove from the heat, and allow to cool, then mix with about twice as much liquid (stock, wine, water), and create a slurry. Now, when you need to thicken the stock, add a bit at a time, until you achieve the desired thickness.
If, however, you do not want to use flour, you can always take a few of the potatoes that are simmering with the stock, add a bit of the liquid, blend them together, and then add back to stew. I have many recipes where I like to add flour to the protein before searing, but beef stew is not one of those recipes.
Does this make flouring your beef before searing wrong… OF COURSE NOT! Recipes are made to be interpreted by the chef that cooks them.
- WATCH THAT FAT
An additional step that I like to perform, before serving the stew to my guests, is to get rid of all the “belly bombing” fat. At the end of the process, I’ll take the simmering stock, and pour it into a bowl, and allow it to settle a bit. The fat will rise to the surface, where you can easily spoon it off. I’ll then return it to the pot, and heat back up with beef.
Incidentally, if you created a super thick sauce/gravy, you won’t be able to perform this step.
That’s another reason why I don’t like a super thick sauce.
- IF I AM USING VEGGIES, WHEN DO I ADD THEM
Don’t ask yourself the question of when do I add the veggies; rather ask yourself what kind of veggies you want?
Do you want mushy veggies that break apart when you stick them with a fork, or do you want veggies with a bit of bite to them… I suggest the latter.
Veggies should be added in the last hour of simmering the beef stew, that will cook them, but leave them with a bit of a bite.
- WHAT VEGGIES TO USE
I’m going traditional here and recommend some carrots, onions and potatoes. The carrots I cut into nice big, bite-size chunks, the potatoes I like to leave the skins on and quarter, and for the onions (yellow onions), I remove the skins and medium slice into half rings. To this I will add a few cloves of thinly sliced garlic.
For potato variety, I am a fan of small golden potatoes. They are a waxy variety that stand up well to the simmering process and won’t break down like a russet. For the carrots, I prefer farm fresh; however, I cut them all to the same thickness, so that they all finish cooking at the same time. For the onions, I prefer standard, run-of-the-mill yellow onions… Vidalia’s are excellent, but a bit too sweet for the type of beef stew I like to make.
That’s typically it for me; however, you can add just about any veggies that you want… have some fun with it.
- TEMPERATURE AND TIME
My recommendation for temperature and time are:
350f (175c) for 2.5 to 3 hours.
You could cook it at a lower temperature, but it wouldn’t make the stew any better. Conversely, you could cook it at a higher temperature, but that will dry up your beef.
After about 2 hours, take a bit of meat out and sample… when it has the tenderness you’re looking for stop, and eat.