Excellent Beef Stew on a Weeknight? Thank Your Pressure Cooker

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Through rigorous testing, we already know that cooking your stew for too long can be detrimental to the quality of the meat. Just about a couple of hours is enough to take a collagen-rich cut of beef, like chuck, from tough to tender. Cook it longer and it becomes shreddable and soft; still longer, and it turns into a chalky beef mash that's not good for much more than feeding the dog (and even that depends on how badly the dog has been behaving). This is good news for those folks who want a great beef stew, but are turned off by the thought of having to wait all day for it.

But what if you want it even faster? What if it's 4 p.m. on a cold, blustery winter's Wednesday, and you're at work, heading home in an hour, and thinking to yourself, "Man, it would be great to have beef stew for dinner tonight"? What then? Well, you could hop in your DeLorean, hope that there's a big enough stretch of empty road during rush hour to get it up to 88 mph, zap back to the weekend, make yourself a big beef stew on Sunday, then throw it in the fridge for Future You to enjoy on Wednesday.* Or you could do it the higher-tech-than-a-Dutch-oven-but-lower-tech-than-a-time-machine way, and pull out your pressure cooker.

* But do be aware that it probably doesn't taste all that different after three days from how it does the day you make it.

With the aid of a countertop or stovetop pressure cooker, you can make incredibly satisfying and tasty beef stew, with tender beef and rich, browned flavors, in just about an hour and a half. That's even with pulling out all the stops and taking no shortcuts in the name of efficiency, like I did for my All-American Beef Stew. It takes just a little bit of tweaking to get it there.

Don't have a pressure cooker yet? You oughta fix that. It'll quickly become one of your most used pieces of kitchen equipment, I can guarantee it. See here for my review of the best countertop and stovetop pressure cookers.

Step 1: Better Browning for Better Flavor

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Browning your beef and vegetables is the first step to developing good flavor. As with my beef stew recipe, I like to brown beef chuck that's been cut into thick steaks, rather than cubes of beef. Cubed beef has a ton of surface area through which moisture can escape, and all that escaping moisture draws energy from your pressure cooker, causing the meat to steam rather than brown efficiently. By leaving the chuck in larger pieces, you can develop lots of great browned flavor in a fraction of the time. All you've got to do is cut it into chunks after you've browned the exterior. This has the added bonus of producing more tender beef pieces in the end.

After browning my beef, I set it aside and brown the vegetables that are going to be served in the final stew. I start with quartered button mushrooms, letting them cook until all their moisture has been expelled and they start to brown before adding diced carrots and pearl onions—frozen pearl onions work fine for this. After browning all the vegetables, I remove them from the pressure cooker and set them aside. (Letting them cook in the stew the entire time would reduce them to mush.)

Next, I brown the vegetables I'm going to use to season the broth base: a halved onion, some celery sticks, some carrots, and some whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic. These vegetables are used for flavoring purposes only. After the stew is cooked, I fish them out and put their spent remains in the compost (well, the carrots and celery go in the dogs' food bowls).

Step 2: Boosting Umami

Once my meat and vegetables are browned, I can turn to building the liquid base. I start with some wine or sherry added directly to the pressure cooker, using the liquid to deglaze any excess flavorful browned bits that have stuck to the pot. Next, I add my broth mixture, which is a little more complicated than a can of beef stock. Because liquids don't reduce in a pressure cooker, I modify my original beef stew recipe here, using only three cups of stock as opposed to four cups.

For my broth mixture, I start with store-bought chicken stock (which has a much more natural flavor than store-bought beef stock), to which I add a few glutamate-rich ingredients for their umami-boosting punch: anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, and soy sauce.

Hearing those ingredients all listed together, you might think, ugh, but trust me on this one: Once they've all cooked down in the pot together, they form a harmonious broth that's richer and deeper in flavor than you can imagine. Even assuming you can imagine quite a lot.

I find that beef stews thickened with too much flour can taste dull and pasty. Instead, I use a combination of two ingredients: just a touch of flour, which I toss with the cubed beef before adding it back to the pot, and a few packets of unflavored gelatin. Gelatin is naturally produced when connective tissue is cooked for a long time. It adds a mouth-coating texture and rich flavor to stews and sauces. But store-bought stock is very low in gelatin compared to homemade stock, so adding a few packets of pure gelatin can improve texture, while not interfering with flavor.

I blend all of my broth-base ingredients together before pouring them into the pot along with a bay leaf and some fresh thyme sprigs, sealing the pot, and letting the contents cook at high pressure for about half an hour.

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After that half hour is up, I rapidly release the pressure by opening up the vent on my cooker, then unseal the lid. At this point, the beef will be mostly-but-not-quite tender, and the vegetables will have given up all their flavor. I make a swap, trading the spent vegetables for the ones that will actually be served in the final stew: the mushrooms, carrots, and pearl onions, along with a couple of cubed Yukon Gold potatoes. (I like the way their texture holds up in a stew better than that of russet potatoes.)

Another 15 minutes of cooking at high pressure is all it takes to finish tenderizing the beef and cook the added vegetables through. I'm the kind of guy who likes a few peas in his stew, so I add some frozen peas right at the end to allow them to retain their bright green color.

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Because a stew cooked the traditional way in the oven develops more browned flavors (due to being heated from above), a pressure cooker stew is never going to be quite as flavorful, but you'll get 90% of the way there in a fraction of the time, which, for a weeknight, is a reasonable trade-off to make.

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Someday, sometime, all of this can be yours. That day is probably today, and that time is approximately two hours from now.