Follow the Rules for the Best All-American Beef Stew | The Food Lab

A bowl of classic all-American beef stew with a fork and spoon on the lip of the bowl. A pot of stew is on the table.
Classic all-American beef stew, optimized. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

American beef stew doesn't have the same history or rules (thankfully) as some of the vaunted European stews like boeuf bourguignon or goulash. So long as the beef is tender and the stew is stew-like, nobody is going to tell you that you made it wrong. But there are a few archetypes. My own childhood experiences with beef stew started with a can of Dinty Moore (with its oddly firm potatoes and carrots) and ended with a homemade version with chunks of dry, stringy beef floundering in a gravy-like broth flavored with tomato paste. I'm not naming names, but the cook's name started with M and rhymed with "nom."

There are two things these versions of American beef stew, and indeed most versions have in common: they are simple, and they prioritize convenience over flavor.

Well, I'm not going to settle for convenient. I want great. You know that scene in the movie where the nerdy hero or heroine finds inner confidence and suddenly becomes much more interesting and much more attractive to the rest of the world? That hero is beef stew and its time for confidence is now. The beef stew of my dreams starts with large, tender, juicy chunks of beef coated in a sauce that is rich and intense but not heavy or muddy (and that sauce had better be clean and glistening). It has vegetables that are more than just filler, bringing a complementary texture and flavor to the party.

After dozens of pounds of stewed beef and scores of experiments, I've gotten a pretty good idea of techniques that can help perfect not just American beef stew, but will improve almost any beef stew recipe you've got. Here are my Beef Stew Rules.

Beef Stew Rule #1: Select Your Meat Wisely

The first step in any beef stew is selecting the beef. Especially for a stew like this that doesn't rely on large quantities of wine or beer or other flavorings, the flavor of the beef is vitally important.

The muscles on a steer vary tremendously depending on what those muscles do during the animal's lifetime. Muscles that get very little exercise tend to be very tender but also quite bland (think: tenderloin). Muscles that do a lot of heavy lifting will be packed with flavor but also contain lots of connective tissue. This is exactly what you want in a stew, where the long gentle cooking will give that connective tissue a chance to break down and soften. But what's the best cut?

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-03.jpg

Here's the scenario: You're at the supermarket and you see those chunks of already-cubed "stew" beef sitting in the butcher display or perhaps in a styrofoam tray in the cooler. You want to buy it. It'll save me time!, your brain says. I won't have to worry about cutting raw meat! The butcher must know what makes good stew meat, and he's already picked it for me!, it goes on.

Here's my advice. Ask your mouth to politely but firmly tell your brain to be quiet—you are not going to listen to it. Buying pre-cut stew meat is a crapshoot at best. It's difficult to tell what part of the steer it came from, which means that it's difficult to tell how it's going to taste or what texture it's going to have (that's assuming the stuff in the display is all from the same part of the steer in the first place, which it probably isn't). Most of the time, that stew beef is cut too small anyway (especially if you use the searing technique I outline in the next section).

So what should you do? Buy your meat in large pieces so that you are certain you know where it's coming from. We tasted our way through every viable stew cut in the market to figure out what the best is. If I were going to pick one single cut that is economical, has great flavor, and a good ratio of fat to lean to connective tissue, it would be a boneless chuck roll, cut from the front shoulder of the steer.

Of course, there are other great options as well. Check out our complete guide to picking cuts of meat for stew for an expanded list of options and descriptions.

Beef Stew Rule #2: Sear Your Beef Before Cubing

Once you've got your beef home, the next step in a stew is generally to sear that beef in a hot Dutch oven. We all know what happens when you try this: unless you've got an industrial strength stovetop, rather than searing, that beef ends up steaming for the first 10 to 15 minutes of cooking. This is bad news. Steam will suppress the temperature of the pan, preventing the meat from browning properly even as it continues to contract and express more moisture. The result is dry, overcooked beef in the finished stew. What's the solution?

Don't cube the meat before searing.

20160118-stew-science-browning-3.jpg

I made three stews side by side: one made by searing a whole chuck roll, one where I first sliced the chuck roll into three steaks, and one made with beef I'd cubed. The whole chuck roll proved to be a little lacking in flavor (not as much surface area for good browning). The cubes, on the other hand, ended up taking a very long time to sear properly and produced a stew that was relatively dry and tough. Steaks offer a good balance between the two, so they're the way to go.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-06-composite.jpg

Because of their lower surface area, steaks brown in a fraction of the time of cubes (less surface area means fewer channels for escaping water which means less steam in the pot). Meanwhile, even though our beef isn't browned on every surface, there's still plenty of browned flavors to mix around the stewpot as it cooks.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-10.jpg

Once the steaks have been seared and rested, I cut them into relatively large pieces. 1 1/2 to 2 inches may seem big, but it helps the meat stay more moist and juicy (and by the time we're done with it you'll be able to cut it with a spoon anyway).

Beef Stew Rule #3: Easy on the Flour:

We've all had extra gloppy-style beef stew at high school cafeterias or perhaps straight out of a can borne of desperation. The culprit? Too much thickener. I've seen some recipes that call for as much as 3/4 of a cup of flour for a quart of liquid. That's more like beef paste than stew. Aside from texture, flour has another downside: it can dull flavors. I want my stew to be bright and bold, not muted and dull.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-11.jpg

I found that about 2 tablespoons of flour for 5 cups of starting liquid was about all my stew could handle before flavor started taking a hit. Tossing the flour with the beef after searing and cubing it was the easiest way to incorporate the thickener without creating lumps. The finished stew still wasn't quite as glossy and rich as I would have liked it to be, but I decided to move on to tackling other problems first.

Beef Stew Rule #4: Separate Your Vegetables

There's a delightful simplicity in the most basic stew recipes that have you add meat and vegetables to a pot, then slowly simmer them until everything melds together. But that method doesn't make for the best stew. Instead of intact pieces of meat and vegetables, you wind up with vegetables that have all but disintegrated, muddying up the broth and giving you nothing to break up the monotony of the meat.

To avoid this problem, I've started making my stews with two different batches of vegetables. One batch intended to be served with the stew and the other there simply to flavor the broth and meat as it cooks. For the vegetables served with the stew, I'm using quartered button mushrooms, chunks of carrots, potatoes, and pearl onion. Simply dumping them into the pot about an hour before it finishes cooking works fine, but it doesn't give the vegetables the kind of rich flavor I'm looking for.

Instead, I sauté them first in the same pot that I used to brown the beef.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-12-composite.jpg

I start by browning the mushrooms, letting them cook until they've really started to brown (this takes longer than most people have the patience for—at least 5 to 10 minutes, so give them time!), using a wooden spoon to scrape browned bits from the pot using the mushroom liquid as a solvent. Next I add the carrots and onions and allow them to brown as well. I transfer those vegetables to a plate and set them aside so that I can add them to the stew (along with the potatoes) later on.

For the stewing vegetables, I use a yellow onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and some herbs, keeping all the vegetables in as large pieces as possible in order to be able to easily fish them out later. I brown them in the same Dutch oven (be careful, the browned bits in the bottom of the pan may start to over-darken. Turn down the heat as necessary) before deglazing the pot with a cup of wine, which brings me to...

Beef Stew Rule #5: Booze Makes it Better

You can skip the booze if you must, but wine, sherry, or vermouth really does add a dimension of flavor—acidity and complexity—that the simplest beef stews lack. You don't need much. A cup of wine will do, and you definitely don't need the pricey stuff. As we've shown in blind taste tests, that old advice to "only cook with wine you'd drink" simply doesn't hold water (or should I say wine?). So long as the wine is dry (that is to say, is not sweet) and has no aggressive off-flavors, you can use whatever wine you'd like.

Once I've selected my booze (I usually buy $7 bottles of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for cooking), I add it to the pot, scraping up the significant amount of browned bits with my wooden spoon, then allowing the wine to reduce before adding my other liquid ingredients. (Reducing wine separately is a step you should take in most cases. Here's why.)

Beef Stew Rule #6: Use Chicken Stock, Not Beef

We're making beef stew, we oughta use beef stock, right? Not so fast. Unless you're making your own beef broth from beef bones, meat, and vegetables, I would highly recommend sticking with store-bought or homemade chicken stock. Canned or boxed beef stock is almost always inferior in flavor to boxed chicken stock with more flavor enhancing chemicals and less actual beef.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-19.jpg

I use low-sodium Swanson Organic chicken stock (you want to use a low sodium stock because we're going to reduce it later on—a full-salt stock will get too salty). Chicken stock is fantastic because it's essentially a blank sauce, stew, or soup canvas. It picks up and enhances other flavors so well. Bolstered with the sautéed vegetables, browned beef, and aromatics, even chicken stock winds up with great, natural beef flavor. But it can still use a little bit of help.

Beef Stew Rule #7: Break Out the Umami Bombs

If you read Serious Eats at all, you knew this was coming. Time to break out the umami bombs. I'm talking ingredients that are naturally rich in glutamic and inosinic acids—amino acids that trigger our sense of savoriness and make meaty things taste, well, meatier. There are plenty of umami bombs in the kitchen. Soy sauce, fish sauce, anchovies, Marmite, Parmesan cheese, and tomato paste are among them.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-02.jpg

For this stew, I went with a mixture of tomato paste (a classic American beef stew addition that also adds some body to the mix), Worcestershire sauce (another classic), anchovies, and soy sauce. Mixing three different umami bombs ensures that none of them dominates the flavor of the final dish, instead fading into the background to do their supporting work.

To incorporate the umami bombs, I started by first trying to mash them into a paste in a small bowl. This is a technique I used when working on a beef stew recipe for Cook's Illustrated a few years back (warning: paywall). It works OK, but it also leads to a slightly grainy stew broth. I was after smooth and glossy.

I considered whether finessing the whole thing would work, using the over-the-top Thomas Keller technique of removing the cooked meat before passing the broth through a series of ever-finer meshes until it is perfectly clear. This is a great technique if you have tons of patience, a large number of strainers, and a personal dishwasher on retainer. Not practical for normal folks.

I decided to go with the brute force method: the blender.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-22.jpg

By blending the tomato paste, Worcestershire, anchovies, and soy sauce directly into the broth, it comes out perfectly smooth with no need to strain.

Beef Stew Rule #8: Don't Waste Flavor!

You know that plate of cubed beef we set aside earlier? Go and take a look at it now and tell me what you see. That liquid pooled under the meat is all flavor, one of the universe's most precious resources. Don't waste it.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-17.jpg

Into the pot it goes.

Beef Stew Rule #9: Powdered Gelatin FTW

I had the beef and the flavor of the braising liquid tackled, now it was time to address texture. I'm OK with a pretty soupy broth for certain types of beef stew. Boeuf Bourguignon, for instance, with its chunks of bacon, doesn't need a thick gravy to help it stick to your ribs. American beef stew, on other hand, should at least be thick enough that it doesn't slosh around in a bowl.

I was already at the limit of where I wanted to take my flour content, which meant that I had to turn towards alternative thickeners.

Can you long-time readers guess what's coming next? You got it. Gelatin. We are just so darn predictable sometimes. If we pull out the gelatin frequently, it's because it works. The very best beef stews I've had in my life were made with veal stock, a stock that is rich with gelatin from calves. It's a common ingredient in restaurants, not so much in home kitchens.

Fortunately we have easy access to unflavored powdered gelatin. Unlike flour, gelatin thickens without dulling flavors or turning the broth muddy. Indeed, it has quite the opposite it effect: it thickens up the broth in a way that it coats your tongue, allowing you to taste it more easily. Gelatin does a good job of thickening liquids on their own, but it's even better at thickening broths that have a good amount of fat in them, helping that fat and the liquid underneath emulsify to create a sauce that is thicker than either component on its own.

These two batches of stew were made with identical ingredients other than the ounce of gelatin I added to the stew on the left.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-20.jpg

The difference in texture is significant, but it's also interesting to note that while the stew on the right looks greasy with pools of fat glistening on the surface of the broth, the one of the left has no distinct fat pockets—it's all been cleanly emulsified into the stew.

Beef Stew Rule #10: Yukon Golds Make for Cleaner Stew

We're entering the home stretch here. Stick with me, though, because our stew gets better. What is American beef stew without potatoes? They bulk up the pot, are great at sopping up flavor, and break the monotony of the meat. Most stew recipes call for russets, the starchiest of the common potato varieties you'll find in the supermarket. Russets are great in classic recipes because they perform double duty, both giving you something to eat in the final bowl and also helping the broth thicken with the starch they give off.

But stews thickened with potato starch have the same problem as those thickened with too much flour: the starch can muddy the flavors.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-18.jpg

Because I already have the stew texture exactly where I want it, I prefer to use Yukon gold potatoes, which have a more buttery flavor and don't release as much starch (even waxy red potatoes or new potatoes would work here).

Beef Stew Rule #11: Use the Oven, Not the Stove (and crack the lid!)

OK, so we've got our browned vegetables, our reduced booze, our gelatin- and umami bomb-enhanced stock, and our flour-coated beef in the pot. Let's add a couple bay leaves and thyme sprigs to there as well for good measure. Next question: Stovetop or oven? And does it make a difference? It does, and it comes down to the amount of energy being pumped into that pot and more importantly, which direction it's coming from.

A stovetop is a constant energy output system. You set the burner to a certain level, and it maintains that level regardless of what's going on in the pot above it. An oven, on the other hand, is a constant temperature system. You set it to a given temperature and it uses as much or as little energy as it needs to get to that temperature and maintain it. A stovetop heats only from underneath. An oven heats from all directions.

The differences are subtle but can have a big impact on your finished stew. Ideally, a stew should be cooked at a very bare simmer. The more vigorously it bubbles, the dryer and tougher the meat will end up and the murkier the broth. 180 to 190°F is the ideal range.

With the constant energy of the stovetop, it's very difficult to maintain this temperature. Put the lid on and even with the lowest heat setting you're going to wind up at a full 212°F in that pot. Remove the lid to allow for some evaporation (thereby suppressing the maximum temperature—evaporation steals energy from the pot) and you run into a different problem: the stew is reducing but you're adding the same amount of energy to it, which means it will get hotter and hotter over the course of its 2 to 3 hour cook time (and of course, the hotter it gets, the faster it reduces, compounding this problem).

Finally, because the heat is only coming from the bottom, no additional browning or flavor production is going to occur in the pot. What you start with is what you've got to work with. (This is one of the reasons why food cooked in a slow cooker tends to come out blander than food slow-cooked in an oven.)

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-23-composite.jpg

The oven, on the other hand, handles all of these issues. First, because it's a constant temperature system, it doesn't matter how much stew you're cooking. You could cook 5 gallons or a pint—it'll still cook at the same temperature. This means that you can crack the lid of the pot to allow the stew to maintain a slightly lower cooking temperature and not be concerned that as it reduces it'll get too hot.

With heat coming from all directions, you'll also find that the stew will continue to brown as it simmers, forming a dark crust on top and around the edges of the pot. This is a good thing as it only adds more flavor (in fact, if you're really lazy, you can even skip the whole searing step and let the beef brown only in the oven. You don't get nearly as much flavor development, but it works).

It took some finagling to get the timing right, but I found that removing the large chunks of braising vegetables about an hour and a half into cooking gives them plenty of time to give up their flavor to the stew. Once I discard the spent vegetables, I add in my potatoes along with the carrots, pearl onions, and mushrooms I'd been holding off to the side.

Beef Stew Rule #12: Don't Overcook It!

The last real rule to cooking beef stew is one that I've seen broken countless times (including by me back in those wild days when I'd stew with reckless abandon): don't overcook it. The idea of a stew simmering away all day sounds appealing. If 2 1/2 hours of simmering makes tender beef, shouldn't 6 or 8 hours make even more tender beef? Unfortunately it doesn't work that way.

When stewing meat, you're playing a racing game between two simultaneous processes. First is the conversion of connective tissues to gelatin. This softens the meat and makes it taste moister. On the other hand, muscle proteins are constantly contracting and squeezing out internal moisture. This hardens the meat and makes it tougher.

Ideally, by the time the connective tissue has softened (and this happens quite quickly and suddenly—your beef stays tough right up to the moment that it isn't), the muscles will still have allowed some natural juices to remain and you end up with soft, tender, juicy meat. Let it cook too long (or simmer too hard) and the muscles will have pressed out so much moisture that even the added lubrication of the broken down connective tissue can't help it.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-28-composite.jpg

The exact timing is dependent on exactly how your oven works and on the exact cut of meat you have, but with large chunks of beef in a 275°F oven with the lid cracked, it takes around 2 1/2 hours to properly tenderize. I start poking my meat at around 2:15 and check in every so often until the meat is just on the brink of being tender enough to cut with a spoon (it'll continue cooking a little even after it comes out of the oven). By this stage, my added vegetables are also perfectly cooked and the broth has reduced into a shiny, rich sauce.

As I discovered through an informal Twitter survey, folks are divided on the subject of peas in stew. I'm in favor of them, but only if they are frozen peas added right at the end so they retain their bright green pop. You can do with them what you will.

Beef Stew Rule #13: Eat it Today, Eat it Tomorrow, it Doesn't Matter

And there we go! Our stew is done stewed. Fish out the thyme sprigs and bay leaves (or leave them in like my mom did), season the broth to taste (it probably won't need much more salt but will need more pepper), and serve it up.

Wait a minute. We've all heard that stews get better over the course of a few days, right? This may be true (and I promise, we've got some testing in the works to determine this), but to be quite honest, I've always found that particular bit of advice to be more of a blessing than a directive. It's OK to have leftovers of this, since they will still taste great when reheated! is what we're really saying. Because honestly, find me a person who can spend an afternoon in the kitchen with the smells of the beef stew filling the house then turn around and say, "Welp, you're done. Into the fridge with you. What are we having for dinner tonight? Because that beef stew is for tomorrow!"

I mean, look at it. You can't see how that beef gives under the slightest pressure from the spoon or how the broth coats your tongue or how the carrots and potatoes pick up the flavor of the meat, but trust me, all that is going on and more.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-01.jpg

So again: letting that stew rest overnight before you dig in? It just doesn't happen. Eat the stew straight away, save the leftovers, and eat it again later in the week.

20160116-american-beef-stew-recipe-32.jpg

Or just eat the whole darn pot in one sitting. This is American beef stew after all, am I wrong?