Published January 1, 2010.
Despite hours of simmering, most beef stews fall flat. How could we pack in more flavor?
Whether it’s a quick-and-easy version or a multi-hour marathon of a recipe, the taste of beef stew is rarely as complex as its rich aroma.
We wanted an approachable, home-cooked meal with tender meat, flavorful vegetables, and brown gravy that justified the time it took to prepare.
The process of making beef stew is pretty straightforward, so the key to developing complexity is to maximize flavor in every step. Our first task was choosing the right cut of meat. Chuck-eye roast shined in our tests and is one of the cheapest and most beefy-tasting cuts in the supermarket. It also turns meltingly tender when it’s properly cooked.
Step one for achieving rich meaty flavor is proper browning. If you crowd the pan, the meat releases too much moisture and 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, we caramelized the usual choices of onions and carrots (rather than just adding them raw to the broth) to start the stew off with as much flavor as possible. We also left the meat in the pot while cooking the vegetables—its residual heat helped the onions and carrots cook faster and more evenly.
Among 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. Tasters agreed with the additions, praising the stew’s newfound beefiness and depth.
One problem remained: texture. We wanted 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). Theoretically, powdered gelatin should work just as well as the real deal, but we had to use an exorbitant amount to thicken the stew sufficiently. Instead, we used a combination of flour and gelatin. We whisked the flour into the pot after sautéing the vegetables and added the gelatin after removing the stew from the oven. It took only a few minutes of simmering on the stovetop for the liquid to develop a rich, glossy sheen that looked (and tasted) every bit as rich as a homemade stock-based version.
With our stew perfected, 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.list of recipes