Making Beef Stew? 5 Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them

A good, trusty recipe for classic beef stew should be in every cook's repertoire. When developing our Best Beef Stew recipe, featured with video and photo tutorials in America's Test Kitchen online cooking school, we learned a lot of things along the way. Here's 5 easy ways to take your beef stew from so-so to spectacular.

MISTAKE #1: Wrong Cut

Potential Problems: The meat is dry. The meat is bland. The meat is tough.

What You Should Do: Don't underestimate the importance of using the right cut of beef. Purchase a chuck eye roast or blade steaks--both are from the shoulder--and cut the meat into chunks yourself. Aim for pieces that are 1 1/2 inches in size; smaller pieces are liable to overcook and won't have much presence in the stew.

MISTAKE #2: Underbrowned Meat

Potential Problems: The sauce is not very beefy. The meat is bland.

What You Should Do: When browning the beef, make sure to heat the oil until it begins to smoke before adding the meat. Once the meat is in the pot, avoid moving or turning the pieces before they've had a chance to brown deeply. The more browning the meat acquires and the more fond that forms in the pot, the richer and fuller flavored the stew will be. If you find that the beef takes longer to brown than the recipe indicates, don't fret--there is no chance of overcooking the meat at this stage.

MISTAKE #3: Omit Anchovies and Salt Pork

Potential Problems: The sauce lacks complexity and depth of flavor.

What You Should Do: Admittedly, anchovies and salt pork are unusual ingredients for a classic all-American beef stew. But rather than assert their own distinctive qualities, they remain in the background, and boost the meatiness and round out the flavors of the stew.

MISTAKE #4: Irregularly Cut Vegetables

Potential Problems: The vegetables are undercooked. The vegetables are overcooked. The vegetables are unevenly cooked.

What You Should Do: When prepping the vegetables for the stew, cut them to the specified sizes. Although minor variations in shapes and sizes are unavoidable, try to cut uniform pieces to ensure that the vegetables will cook at the same rate.

MISTAKE #5: Shortened Simmering Time

Potential Problem: The meat is chewy and tough.

What You Should Do: There's no speeding up the time it takes for the beef to become tender. When checking the meat for doneness, test more than just one piece, and be sure to test one of the larger pieces. If the larger pieces are done--a fork meets just a little resistance--you can be pretty certain that the rest is ready, too.

RECIPE: BEST BEEF STEW

Best Beef Stew by America's Test Kitchen

Why This Recipe Works: We wanted a rich-tasting but approachable beef stew with tender meat, flavorful vegetables, and a rich brown gravy that justified the time it took to prepare. Step one for achieving rich meaty flavor is proper browning. If you crowd the pan, the meat ends up steaming in its own juices, so for a big pot of stew, it's important to sear the meat in two separate batches. After browning the beef (beefy-tasting chuck-eye is our preferred cut for stew), we caramelized the usual choices of onions and carrots, rather than just adding them raw to the broth. Along with traditional stew components like garlic, red wine, and chicken broth, we added ingredients rich in glutamates like tomato paste, salt pork, and anchovies. Glutamates are compounds that give meat its savory taste and they contribute considerable flavor to the dish. To mimic the luxurious, mouth-coating texture of beef stews made with homemade stock (provided by the collagen in bones that is transformed into gelatin when simmered), we included powdered gelatin and flour. The rest of the recipe was simple. We added frozen pearl onions toward the end of cooking along with some frozen peas. As for potatoes, medium-starch Yukon Golds added halfway through cooking beat out starchy russets.

SERVES 6 TO 8

Use a good-quality, medium-bodied wine, such as Côtes du Rhône or Pinot Noir, for this stew. Try to find beef that is well marbled with white veins of fat. Meat that is too lean will come out slightly dry. Four pounds of blade steaks, trimmed of gristle and silver skin, can be substituted for the chuck-eye roast. While the blade steak will yield slightly thinner pieces after trimming, it should still be cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Look for salt pork that is roughly 75 percent lean. The stew can be cooled, covered tightly, and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat it gently before serving.

2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)

4 anchovy fillets, finely minced (about 2 teaspoons)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 boneless beef chuck-eye roast (about 4 pounds), trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, halved and cut from pole to pole into 1/8-inch-thick slices (about 2 cups)

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)

1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups red wine

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 ounces salt pork, rinsed of excess salt

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups frozen pearl onions, thawed

2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin (about 1 packet)

1/2 cup water

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

Table salt and ground black pepper

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine garlic and anchovies in small bowl; press with back of fork to form paste. Stir in tomato paste and set mixture aside.

2. Pat meat dry with paper towels. Do not season. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over high heat until just starting to smoke. Add half of beef and cook until well browned on all sides, about 8 minutes total, reducing heat if oil begins to smoke or fond begins to burn. Transfer beef to large plate. Repeat with remaining beef and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, leaving second batch of meat in pot after browning.

3. Reduce heat to medium and return first batch of beef to pot. Add onion and carrots to Dutch oven and stir to combine with beef. Cook, scraping bottom of pan to loosen any browned bits, until onion is softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add garlic mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until no dry flour remains, about 30 seconds.

4. Slowly add wine, scraping bottom of pan to loosen any browned bits. Increase heat to high and allow wine to simmer until thickened and slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, bay leaves, thyme, and salt pork. Bring to simmer, cover, transfer to oven, and cook for 1 1/2 hours.

5. Remove pot from oven; remove and discard bay leaves and salt pork. Stir in potatoes, cover, return to oven, and cook until potatoes are almost tender, about 45 minutes.

6. Using large spoon, skim any excess fat from surface of stew. Stir in pearl onions; cook over medium heat until potatoes and onions are cooked through and meat offers little resistance when poked with fork (meat should not be falling apart), about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle gelatin over water in small bowl and allow to soften for 5 minutes.

7. Increase heat to high, stir in softened gelatin mixture and peas; simmer until gelatin is fully dissolved and stew is thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste; serve.

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