It’s stew season! We’ve been taking advantage of the chill in the air, and making warm, cozy dishes like chili, posole, and chicken stew for dinner. But there’s one stew to rule them all: beef stew.
Though it’s a staple in most households, this rich, hearty meal can sometimes fall short. It can be too thin or too thick; the meat can be dry and stringy or gray and flavorless; veggies can be too mushy or not cooked enough. It’s a tough balance to strike, but you should know how to cook this classic cold-weather dish like a pro.
We asked senior associate food editor Alison Roman for advice on making the best batch of stew humanly possible, and she pointed out the 7 deadly sins everyone should avoid. Trust us: When you’re digging into your flavorful stew with tender morsels of beef on that first truly cold night, you’ll be grateful.
1. Mistake: Using any old cut of meat
Using the wrong cut of beef is probably the worst mistake you could ever make when it comes to beef stew. We’ve even tried using cuts of meat that are good for braising—like sirloin—and they just didn’t break down in the same way in a stew. You’re left with chunks of tight, dry meat rather than meltingly tender beef. The only cut you should use? Chuck. Period.
2. Mistake: Throwing in raw beef
We’ve said it a million times, but it’s always worth repeating: flavor comes from a good sear. Scraping up those caramelized brown bits from the bottom of your pot is going to give your stew a deep, rich flavor. Another important tip: make sure to cook your beef chunks in batches, giving each piece enough room to get really browned. Otherwise, they’ll steam, resulting in gray lumps. Yuck.
3. Mistake: Throwing in all your ingredients in at the same time
Personally, we like a little bite on our veggies, so we add them with about 45 minutes in cooking time left. This way, they won’t fall apart and get mushy. But they should be fairly soft—otherwise, the stew will be a little more on the soupy side. Also, don’t think you’re restricted to just beef, carrots, and potatoes. Go crazy with hearty herbs like rosemary and thyme, and experiment with veggies like fennel and squash. And don’t be afraid to use spices to give everything a little Indian, Thai, or Moroccan spin. Just make sure you save tender herbs like tarragon, chives, and parsley for last—those are the bright notes that will make your stew more dynamic.
4. Mistake: Thicken stew to your heart's desire
Beef stew doesn’t need to be super, super thick. You’ll most likely be using potatoes, and their starch will naturally thicken your stew. It’s not a gravy—you shouldn’t be adding a roux or flour or cornstarch. If you do prefer your stew on the thicker side, though, you can toss your beef in flour or cornstarch before you sear it—the bits left behind will thicken your stew and add deeper flavor.
5. Mistake: Leaving the fat
You want your stew to be rich, but not so decadent that it’s a gut bomb. Skim the top of your stew and remove as much of the fat as you can before serving. If you’re making your stew ahead, skip this step—when you refrigerate, the fat on top will harden, making it easy to get rid of. And just be careful: If you make your stew too thick, it will be too hard to skim.
6. Mistake: Cook ’til the cows come home
Yes, it is possible to overcook a beef stew. As much as we like the idea of a stew that sits on the stove all day long, too much time will result in dry beef and mushy veggies. It depends on how much stew you’re actually making, but the sweet spot is about 2–3 hours.
7. Mistake: Serving the stew by itself
C’mon—you need some crusty bread to sop up the leftover bits in the bowl.
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