Hearty Beef Stew Warms Your Heart and Your Stomach
Tips for making this classic winter warmer a winner every time.
Between snow days and football games many of us have our crockpots and slow cookers going strong with chili, soups and stews. Everyone has their famous recipe, secret ingredients and magic dust to make these one-pot dinners the best in their category. Making them so unique is almost as fun as eating them!
Though these dishes are so simple to make, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you get tender and savory results. Many people ask me why they end up with tough bites of meat, despite cooking for several hours. Or why all their potatoes disappear into mush somewhere in the stew. So I thought I would share a few tips for this popular winter dish. Get as exotic as you like with spices, condiments, flavor combinations and ingredients. Now you have the basic building blocks for a savory, melt-in-your-mouth classic beef stew.
TIPS FOR STEWING:
Don’t boil the beef. Stewing (like braising) gently breaks down the connective tissue in tough cuts of meat converting it to gelatin which helps to develop flavor and body. This process takes time... Additionally, an easy mistake that most people make is to start cooking the stew at too high a heat temperature and boiling the meat before it has a chance to start breaking down. This can also happen in a crockpot. It’s ok to bring the stew to a simmer and lower it, but best to just start it off at a low temperature, cover and leave it for several hours.
Cook it low and slow. While most recipes I see state a cooking time of around 3 hours, I find that the longer you can cook it, the better it will turn out. A crockpot or slow cooker is best for this. Leave the meat in the crockpot on the lowest setting either while you’re at work or overnight. Anywhere from 8-12 hours depending on how large your cuts of beef are.
Browning or not browning the beef. This is a step that you can skip to simplify things and save time. You can toss the diced beef in a little flour and then just add it to the crock pot. Or you can skip the flour completely. A bit of flour acts as a thickener and helps to develop the stew gravy. However, it can be omitted to save time or to make the stew gluten-free. For an easy weeknight dish, I don’t bother with flour or browning. I just season the beef well and leave it to cook for the day. (Purists, stop rolling your eyes! Browning the beef, while an important step in developing the flavors, can be saved for the weekends when one has more time.)
Don’t cook all ingredients at once. This is why some people end up with potatoes turning to mush and vegetables that lose their individual flavor. They don’t require as long a cooking time. Slow cook just the beef along with only the ingredients that will create your flavor base (onions, garlic, tomato paste, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, wine, beef broth, etc.). Wait to add the additional vegetables and potatoes until the stew is almost fully cooked.
Potatoes. Cut potatoes to approximately the same size as the beef. When the stew is about an hour away from being done to your likeness, then add the potatoes.
Vegetables. If using fresh carrots, mushrooms, or other root vegetables, then add those at the same time as the potatoes. If using frozen vegetables, wait to add those during the last 10-15 minutes or so of cooking. Since they are already cooked, you will preserve more flavor and texture by just warming them in the stew. I find that using frozen vegetables simplifies the recipe even more. And there are many combinations you can find (peas & carrots, peas & pearl onions, green beans, etc.).