Why It Works
- Searing the meat in large steaks gives you browned flavor without overcooking or steaming.
- Gelatin adds body to the sauce without muddying flavors.
- Using two batches of vegetables ensures optimum flavor and texture in the finished dish.
I'm a fan of goulash in all its forms, and there are many. There's the American dish of ground beef, tomato sauce, peppers, and pasta—a dish that I knew as American chop suey while growing up in the Northeast. Then there's the classic Hungarian version, with small cubes of beef or pork in a brothy, soup-like stew flavored with paprika. But in the winter months, the version I'm after is the rich, hearty, rib-sticking Hungarian-American version, made with big chunks of beef, carrots, and potatoes in a stew flavored with onions, garlic, peppers, and plenty of great paprika.
Once you realize that, technique-wise, there's not a huge difference between goulash and beef stew, it's a pretty straightforward preparation. I go deep into the new rules of beef stew in this article, but here's a quick summary of the most important techniques:
- Sear your meat before cutting it into cubes. Searing beef that's been cut into steaks (we like to use boneless chuck, for its flavor and plentiful connective tissue) allows it to brown more efficiently, giving the stew more flavor while also ensuring that the beef stays very tender.
- Keep your thickeners to a minimum. Stews loaded down with flour taste muddy and muted. We use only a small amount of flour, and rely instead on powdered gelatin to add body and richness to store-bought stock.
- If using store-bought stock, go with chicken, not beef. Store-bought beef broth tastes nothing like real beef—its main flavoring agents are yeast extracts and other enhancers. Chicken stock has a more natural flavor that picks up the flavor of the beef well as it braises.
- Use two sets of vegetables. We add one set of vegetables to the stew at the very beginning to flavor it as it cooks. We then discard those spent vegetables and add a fresh set to the pot toward the end of cooking. This delivers maximum flavor, while ensuring that the vegetables are perfectly cooked (and not turning to mush).
- Use umami bombs. Adding a few glutamic acid– and inosinic acid–rich ingredients to your stew can beef up its flavor significantly.
- Cook it in the oven, keep the lid cracked, and don't overcook it! The oven provides a more even temperature, with all-around heat that will help the stew develop more flavor as its surface undergoes the Maillard browning reaction. Keeping the lid cracked will enhance this effect, while also ensuring that the stew stays a little bit cooler during the cooking process (thus preventing the meat from drying out too much). And however you cook it, make sure to stop as soon as the beef is done. Even in a stew pot, beef will dry out and turn stringy or mushy if cooked for too long.
With those basic rules in mind, the rest is merely a matter of adjusting flavoring. To start, I sear the beef in a Dutch oven with a little oil, then add diced carrots to the pot, cooking them until lightly browned. I set aside both the beef and the carrots for later. Next, I add thinly sliced onions and red peppers to the pot, sautéing them until they've softened. I considered using Hungarian peppers for this, but they can be pretty difficult to find (feel free to use them in place of the bell peppers if you can!). In one Cook's Illustrated recipe (paywall), the author suggests using a can of roasted red peppers that have been puréed. It's an interesting idea, and the stew tastes good, but roasted red peppers have a very distinct flavor that comes through even with all the other flavorings I add down the line. Fresh peppers are the way to go.
I also add a couple of celery sticks and carrot sticks (both will get fished out later on).
Next up, the paprika. From my testing for chicken paprikash, that other Hungarian classic, I knew that the quality of the paprika would be of utmost importance to a dish like this, where there are really no other major flavoring elements. Many recipes I've found for goulash call for a meager few tablespoons of paprika. Tasting the dish when it's made with your typical supermarket-grade paprika makes me understand why: It's not a flavor you want a lot of.
Really great paprika, on the other hand, you want a lot of. I use a full half cup for my stew. If you have a local spice importer, buy your spices there fresh. If not, you can order them online from Penzeys, the best source I've found for real Hungarian paprika.
After the paprika goes in, I add a quart of chicken stock into which I've dissolved an ounce of gelatin. Next are my umami bombs: in this case, soy sauce and fish sauce (though Marmite or anchovies would also be great). Bay leaves and thyme also hit the pot.
Now back to that beef. Once it's rested a bit, I cut it into cubes for the stew. Meat for goulash is typically cut quite small—as small as half-inch cubes—but I prefer to use larger chunks, as I find it easier to manage their texture as they cook. (Plus, there's something very satisfying about breaking into a spoon-tender chunk of beef in a bowl of stew.) I toss the cubed beef with a little bit of flour, then into the Dutch oven it goes, along with any accumulated juices.
With all my ingredients added, I set the stew in a 300°F (150°C) oven to cook, with the lid of the pot slightly ajar. An hour and a half in, I fish out the spent carrots and celery stalks and replace them with the sautéed diced carrots I've set aside, along with some cubed Yukon Gold potatoes. Once those vegetables have softened (with a little luck, that happens exactly as the meat achieves ideal tenderness), I remove the pot from the oven.
I prefer my stews to be rich, but not stodgy—I want them to flow on the plate with plenty of brothy liquid—but, if you like your stews a little thicker, you can get there by rapidly reducing the stew on the stovetop right at the end of cooking. In any case, you'll want to skim off any excess fat that's accumulated on the surface.
A splash of cider vinegar helps brighten up the flavor, as does a sprinkle of parsley.
Comfort is served.
This recipe originally called for an oven temperature of 275°F, which has worked for us through dozens of rounds of testing in multiple kitchens and ovens. But based on reader feedback, it has become clear that some home ovens are too unreliable at such a low temperature, leading to greatly prolonged cooking times. To address this, we've increased the oven temperature to 300°F.
4 cups (950ml) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
4 packets powdered unflavored gelatin (1 ounce; 30g)
2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil
3 pounds (1.25kg) whole boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 3 steaks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 medium carrots (10 ounces; 275g), 2 split lengthwise, 2 cut into bite-size pieces
2 small stalks celery (3 ounces; 85g)
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced (10 ounces; 275g)
2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced (8 ounces; 225g)
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup sweet Hungarian paprika (about 2 ounces; 55g)
1 tablespoon (15ml) soy sauce
1 tablespoon (15ml) Asian fish sauce
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
2 tablespoons flour (about 3/4 ounce; 20g)
1 pound (450g) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30ml) apple cider vinegar
Chopped fresh parsley leaves, for serving
Sprinkle gelatin over chicken stock and set aside. Adjust oven rack to lower position and preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season beef all over with salt and pepper and add to Dutch oven. Cook, turning occasionally, until beef is well browned on 2 sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer beef to a rimmed baking sheet or large plate and set aside.
Add diced carrots to Dutch oven and cook, stirring, until well browned on all sides, about 4 minutes, lowering heat as necessary to prevent scorching. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then transfer to a bowl and set aside. Add split carrot, celery stalks, onion, peppers, and garlic and cook until onion and peppers are softened and lightly browned, about 8 minutes.
Add paprika and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken stock/gelatin mixture, followed by soy sauce, fish sauce, bay leaves, and thyme.
Cut seared steaks into 1 1/2- to 2-inch chunks and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with flour. Add beef and any juices accumulated in the tray or plate to the Dutch oven. Stir to combine and return to a simmer over medium heat. Transfer to oven, cover with lid partially open, and cook until beef is starting to become tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Liquid should remain at a slow, steady simmer throughout. Adjust oven temperature if necessary during cooking.
Remove stew from oven. Using tongs, fish out and discard carrot, celery, thyme, and bay leaves. Add potatoes and reserved sautéed carrots to stew, return to oven, and continue to cook, partially covered, until beef, potatoes, and carrots are tender and broth has thickened, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Using a ladle, skim off any excess fat from the surface of the stew and discard.
Remove stew from oven. If necessary, place over a burner and simmer for up to 15 minutes to reduce to desired consistency. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons vinegar (to taste). Season to taste with salt and pepper if necessary. Serve immediately, sprinkled with parsley. Alternatively, let cool overnight or refrigerate for up to 5 days and reheat to serve.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 41g||52%|
|Saturated Fat 15g||75%|
|Total Carbohydrate 34g||12%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||25%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 77mg||385%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|