I pity the fool who brings fists to a knife fight, knives to a gunfight, and guns to nuclear Armageddon. Similarly, I'll never understand the person who brings lean beef to the stew pot. And that's where the question arises: What is the best cut of beef for stew?
Let's take a step back so I can tell you a story. I'm typing this right now (very, very slooooowly) with my right arm in an incredibly stiff, awkward cast. It's in a cast because I had surgery four weeks ago to repair a ligament after a roughly 170-pound guy fell from standing onto my wrist, which was down by the floor.*
* I know this may conjure all sorts of images, so, for the record, it was a martial arts class.
The result? A partial tear of my scapholunate ligament, a tiny band of connective tissue that holds a couple of small (yet critically important) bones in my hand in precisely the right place. The bad news was that the tear required surgery. The good news: It wasn't a full tear. Now, let's think about that. One hundred and seventy pounds, in free-fall, onto my dainty little wrist. It's amazing more damage wasn't done.
And that gets me to the main point: Connective tissue, like my ligament, is largely composed of a protein called collagen, and it is very, very strong. Collagen-rich connective tissue, though, isn't found just in ligaments and tendons; it's found to varying degrees in muscles, too. The amount of collagen you're likely to find in a muscle is related to how much that muscle is used: The stronger a muscle is, and the more it has to work for the animal, the more collagen you'll find in it. Beef tenderloin? It's a weak muscle, which means that it's low in collagen and very tender—hence the name. A cow's shoulder muscles, known as the chuck, on the other hand, support much of its body weight, which makes them very strong, collagen-rich, and, yup, you guessed it: tough. Other factors also help determine the amount of collagen, like age (younger animals have more of it), but how much a muscle is used and its strength are the biggest predictors within any given animal.
At this point, you're likely wondering what this has to do with stew. And, once again, the answer is collagen. See, collagen is tough as heck when raw—you'll have as much luck chewing through it as my free-falling friend did completely tearing my ligament—but cook it long enough and it'll transform into meltingly soft gelatin, giving the meat a moist and tender texture. That gelatin will also seep into the surrounding stew liquids, increasing their viscosity and giving them rich body. But simmer a low-collagen, tender-when-raw cut like tenderloin for three hours, and it'll turn horribly tough and dry.
To give you a visual, I simmered lean, collagen-poor beef eye round for two hours. As you can see in the photo below, the cut has relatively little marbling—intramuscular fat and connective tissue (i.e., collagen)—when raw. Once fully cooked, it's pretty much a stew's worst nightmare, nothing but tight little bundles of parched muscle fiber.
What's interesting about all of this is that regardless of how much collagen a piece of beef has, it'll lose roughly the same amount of moisture when cooked. I weighed two equal, 630-gram portions of beef, one chuck (lots of collagen and connective tissue) and the other eye round (not much at all), then simmered them for two hours and re-weighed. The chuck lost 254 grams of its weight, while the eye round lost 275 grams, a measly 21-gram difference. That means both cuts dry out approximately the same amount, but the chuck, with the help of its gelatin, seems to be moister when you eat it.
The key, then, is to seek tough cuts of beef with plenty of collagen and fat for stews...which still leaves us with quite a lot of cow to choose from. To find out how each of the six most common tough cuts performs, I browned each, then simmered them all in water until tender, which was about two hours in most cases.
The chuck is a primal cut from the forequarter of the cow and includes the shoulder, neck, and upper arm muscles. When I talk about the chuck here, though, I'm talking specifically about the meat from around the shoulder and not the arm or neck portions. It's a relatively cheap cut, with good flavor and lots of connective tissue and fat, making it a very appealing choice for stews. The downside is that chuck is made up of many different muscles, so you're more likely to get irregular pieces—some leaner, some fattier, some tenderer, some tougher. Overall, it averages out in a good way.
Verdict: This is your workhorse stew cut. It's readily available and affordable, and it performs admirably.
Bone-In Short Rib
Short ribs come from a primal cut on the underside of the cow called the plate, not, as one might expect, from the rib primal. They are, in essence, the ribs right down where they get close to the belly. They tend to be more expensive than chuck, and you have to consider that some of what you're paying for is bone weight, but what they offer is a deep beefy flavor with a beautiful, even grain throughout.
Verdict: If you want consistency in both texture and flavor, short ribs are where it's at, but they come with a high price tag.
Bohemian (Bottom Sirloin Flap)
This cut is a little harder to find unless you go to a good butcher. It comes from the sirloin, the part of the cow right in front of its hind legs. According to one butchery book I have, it used to be left attached to T-bone steaks (it made the steaks look like they had long, thin tails), but these days it's sold separately. A lot of sources recommend high, dry heat for the cut, like grilling, and indeed it's delicious that way—meaty and buttery. But it turns out to work well as a stew meat, too. If I had to describe the taste and texture, it's almost like the love child of a hanger steak and a short rib, tender enough but still with some chew.
Verdict: If you love deep beefy flavor and don't mind chewing a little more, you may like this one.
Oxtails are, to my taste, one of the most delicious cuts to come from a cow—if not the most delicious. (It's a toss-up between them and tongue for me; I can't pick a favorite.) They pack more gelatin and fat than any other cut I can think of, and their flavor...oh boy, their flavor! Each cross section of the tail has a bone in the center that's filled with marrow. As they cook, rendered fat from the marrow seeps out, basting the meat and flavoring everything in amazing ways. The downside, though, is that those bones make up a good deal of their weight, and they add quite a bit of labor, too: If you want a stew made from oxtails, be prepared to fish them all out of the sauce at the end, flake the meat off, and discard the bones before returning it to the pot. The fact that you have to pull the meat from the bones also means you're not likely to get nice little cubes of beef in the final stew; morsels and shreds are mostly what you'll end up with.
One more consideration: In my tests, the oxtails took close to three hours before they were tender enough to serve, and could have easily used another hour if I'd wanted the meat to fall off the bones. Compare that to two hours for the other cuts I tested (except shanks, which also needed three hours).
Verdict: Their flavor is hard to beat, and they'll deliver more gelatin to your stew than you'll know what to do with, but it comes at the expense of an extra-long cooking time, low meat yield per pound, and plenty of bone-picking work.
Brisket ("Point" or "Second Cut")
Brisket comes from the breast of a cow and is most often smoked for barbecue and cured to make pastrami, though braising it whole is also popular. It's divided into two parts: the leaner flat (or "first cut") and fattier point ("second cut" or "deckle"). The lean flat is far easier to find than the point, which is a shame because the point is far juicier and moister, thanks to all that fat in it. For stews, I'd steer clear of the flat, since it'll end up tough and dry, which means that hard-to-find point is what you'd need. One of the best things about brisket is how cheap it is—at my butcher, it cost less than the chuck. After a couple of hours in the stew pot, it was moist and had a pronounced beef tallow flavor, much more so than the other cuts due to its ample fat. The muscle fibers themselves are thick verging on ropy, which I didn't love in a stew context.
Verdict: The point cut of brisket wins on cost and moistness, but it's otherwise not my favorite, given its ropy muscle fibers.
This cut is best known for its use in osso buco, though it traditionally comes from veal in that dish. It's a cross section of the cow's legs, which is why you get that single big bone in the center. Beef shanks aren't usually cheap, and on top of that, you have to account for the fact that a good third of each piece is bone weight (though, as a bonus, you get to eat the marrow after!). As you can see in the left-hand photo above, some of the muscles in the shank have more visible threads of connective tissue than others; those lacking them can come out a little on the dry side after long cooking, though overall the meat is pleasantly moist. Those thicker strands of connective tissue, though, require longer cooking than average—mine took about three hours of simmering to soften up.
Verdict: Given the time it takes to cook these, the cost, the bone weight, and the variation in moistness, I'd avoid using shanks for stew meat.