There are some comfort foods that are so ubiquitous, most of us don’t even give a second thought to the finer details of how they’re made. We’re talking about those staples like chicken pot pie, baked ham, and spaghetti and meatballs that we’ve made a million times and never really questioned. But what if it turned out that there are some mistakes you’ve been making with one of your favorite comfort food dishes for years? When it comes to beef stew, there are actually a lot of little details you need to pay attention to if you want your dish to be a hit, not a disappointment.
If you’re not paying attention, your stew can come out a mess: tough meat, bland broth, a gloppy texture, vegetables that have been cooked until they’re total mush. Luckily, rectifying these mistakes doesn’t take a lot of work. You can churn out tureens of stew that are worthy of serving company by making a few tweaks to your standard recipe. Major things to pay attention to? The cut of meat you use, the consistency of your broth, and the types of seasonings you include in the mix, for starters.
Read about some of the common mistakes you’re probably making with your beef stew, and the next time you make it, your taste buds will thank you.
You use the wrong cut of meat for beef stew
While a well-marbled ribeye steak or a luxurious filet mignon might catch your eye at the supermarket, if you’re making beef stew, you should pass these prized cuts right on by. That’s because those tender steaks would be wasted by a slow braise or simmer. Filet mignon is too lean and tender to benefit from slow cooking, and if you try to braise a rib eye, all of that luscious fat will render right out of it, leaving you with shriveled up pieces of dry beef you’ll want to pick out of your bowl.
Instead, you should look for a heartier, tougher cut of beef. You want meat that has a lot of collagen-rich connective tissue, which will break down over the low and slow cooking period, leading to chunks of beef that are unctuous, tender, and flavorful, not dry and tough.
Turn to cuts like chuck roast (the front shoulder) or a round roast (from the rear). Both of these meats are tough and chewy if you cook them up quickly, but cook them slowly and the collagen and fat within melts and tenderizes the protein, while also adding lots of flavor and body to the broth of your stew. An added benefit? These cuts are usually much cheaper per pound than the fancier steaks on the market.
You cook your veggies for too long for beef stew
Many of us turn to beef stew when we want to make an easy, low-stress meal that can be made in one pot, but you shouldn’t be too cavalier about how you assemble your stew. There’s a lot more that goes into a proper beef stew than just meat and broth. You need to add vegetables. They add a balance of flavor, from earthy potatoes to sweet carrots and fragrant onions, and they also help add body to the broth of your stew. But you can’t just throw them in the pot and assume everything will cook up perfectly.
That’s because the meat you use in your beef stew needs to cook for a lot longer than your vegetables before they become tender. If you add the veggies at the same time as the meat, by the time the beef is ready your carrots and potatoes will have turned to mush — we don’t even want to think about the state of the peas.
Instead, you should prepare the meat for your stew and start the braising process. Then, about 45 minutes before the meat is done cooking, add your chopped veggies to the pot. This will give them just enough time to cook through until tender, without turning them into a pile of mush.
You don’t sear your beef stew meat
It’s definitely tempting to throw all of your beef stew ingredients into the pot all at once and to start cooking right away — and many recipes tell you to do just that (we’re looking at you, slow cooker recipes). But if you simply set and forget your stew, you’re missing out on a lot of flavor.
To add a depth of savory, meaty flavor to your beef stew, you should always sear your meat before you start the braising process.
If you’re using a pan on the stove top or using a dutch oven, you can brown your beef right in the pot. Add the cubed, seasoned meat in batches to a pot over medium high heat (you don’t want it to overcrowd, or it will steam instead of browning), letting it caramelize on the outside but not cooking it through. Remove the seared beef and repeat until all of it is finished.
The caramelization process adds extra depth of flavor to your stew, and the brown bits at the bottom of your pan can be scraped up with a wooden spoon when you add the broth, which will infuse the liquid with even more rich flavor.
If you’re using a slow cooker, it’s still worth it to sear your meat before adding it to the pot — and don’t forget to deglaze the pan you used to sear the beef, adding the prized liquid to the slow cooker too before continuing on.
You overcook your beef stew meat
There’s something romantic about letting a stew simmer away on the stove top all day, but if you actually let it cook all day long, chances are you’ll wind up with tough, dry, stringy meat. There are actually a surprising number of ways to overcook the meat in your beef stew.
The first is simply letting your stew go for too long. In some ways, this is a matter of preference — do you like your meat so tender it falls apart into stringy, individual muscle fibers when it’s done, or do you like it tender enough to cut with a spoon but without it falling apart into the broth? Definitely don’t push your meat past the point of stringiness, though — it’s a short jump from there to inedible, dry meat.
The second way to overcook your meat is to cook it at too high of a temperature. If you don’t leave the beef simmering at a low and slow temperature, the proteins in the meat will seize up and become tough, and the collagen and fat won’t have time to break down, leaving you with a rubbery, inedible product. Instead, make sure you’re using low heat — you don’t want your stew to ever come to a rolling boil.
You undercook your beef stew meat
Stew meat is supposed to be silky and tender, not like a toothsome bite of steak you might carve from a T-Bone that’s straight off the grill. That means that, yes, you need to cook your meat to well done and beyond.
The key here is using a low and slow method of cooking. It’s hard to be patient with the mouthwatering smell of your stew filling your home, but waiting for the collagen, connective tissues, and fats to break down will result in beef stew with meltingly tender chunks of meat that you don’t need a knife to cut through — in fact, you’ll know your meat is ready when it’s finally tender enough to cut with a spoon.
For those of us who have been told time and again that steaks should never be cooked past medium, it can feel sacrilegious to intentionally cook beef well done. But you have to keep in mind that it all depends on the type of meat you’re cooking. Yes, a ribeye cooked until well done will be tough and chewy, because all of the fat will run out of it. But a chuck roast just won’t be tender until the collagen, gelatin, and connective tissues woven through the meat break down completely. Once they do, the muscle proteins are layered with unctuous, silky textures that keep everything moist and delicious.
You forget the aromatics for your beef stew
A little extra time and effort can take your beef stew from tasting like something that could have come out of a can — bland — to something you could imagine serving company alongside a nice bottle of red wine and some crusty bread.
The secret? You need to cook with plenty of aromatics, like onion, garlic, fresh herbs, and spices.
Sear your beef first. Then, saute onions, garlic, carrots, and celery in the beef fat, scraping the browned bits up from the bottom as you go. This will layer in the flavor before your stew even starts simmering.
When the veggies are somewhat softened, add your spices. This way, their flavors will infuse the oil. You can go in several directions with the spices you use — garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, smoked paprika, and dried bay leaf all work well, or you could take things in another direction and add cumin, coriander, star anise, and cinnamon for a more Moroccan flair. The choice is up to you, and you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.
Finally, after adding your liquid and adding the meat back to the pot, you can add sturdier fresh herbs, like fresh thyme, rosemary, or bay leaf, to the simmering stew to add further flavor (just make sure to remove the woody herb stems and any bay leaves from the pot before serving).
You use salty store bought stock (or plain water) for your beef stew
Unlike with a roast or a steak, where the flavor of your dish is concentrated on the surface of the meat, in a beef stew you need to focus on the liquid that all of the ingredients are being cooked in if you want to make sure it’s infused with flavor.
That being said, there are some things to look out for.
Store bought stock can be overly salty. If you’re already salting the rest of the ingredients as you prepare them, adding a store bought stock can make the dish a little too salty. This is especially true if you plan on reducing your stew to thicken the broth. As the water evaporates out of the stew, the salty flavor will become concentrated. If you want to use a store bought stock, look for "low sodium" or "unsalted" varieties, so you can adjust the seasoning to taste instead of having to rely on whatever’s in the can or carton.
You also shouldn’t use plain water to make your beef stew. Yes, the meat and veggies will be able to impart some flavor in the liquid, but it still won’t reach its flavor potential.
If you need a substitute for beef stock, even swapping it for chicken, veggie, or mushroom stock is better than nothing. You can also use plain water with bouillon cubes, paste, or powder added, though again, you’ll need to watch out for the salt level.
You don’t check for seasoning before serving your beef stew
You added a bunch of spices and aromatics to your stew pot, along with flavorful liquids and your seared beef. So it’ll probably come out of the pot tasting perfect, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Even if you think you’ve packed your stew with flavor, it’s important to taste it once the beef is done cooking, before you’ve ladled it into bowls and rang the dinner bell. That’s because your stew might need some adjustments.
One of the most common things you’ll need to change about your stew is the salt content. If you’ve proceeded with caution, using a modest hand with the salt and adding low-sodium stock or broth, then there’s a chance you’ll need to add more salt before serving.
If it’s almost salty enough but missing a bit of a depth of flavor, a few drops of soy sauce, Gravy Master, Maggi, or Worcestershire sauce might be the secret ingredient needed to set your stew over the edge. Sometimes, your stew might even call for a pinch of brown sugar, the slight sweetness adding a hint of caramelized flavor if you didn’t brown your meat or onions enough before stewing, or if it’s already salty enough and needs something to balance it out.
It’s an easy step to skip if you’ve been smelling stew all day and are ravenous, but adjusting the seasoning before you serve could save you and your taste buds from regret.
You thicken your beef stew too much
When we think of a perfect beef stew, we imagine succulent bites of meat, slightly sweet, tender vegetables, and a rich, silky broth holding everything together.
You want a velvety, slightly thickened broth that has a lip-smacking viscosity, not one that turns to a thick paste once it starts to get cold.
Some recipes advise using flour, a cornstarch slurry, a roux, or a beurre manie to give your stew’s broth some heft, but those starchy solutions can lead to trouble. Your beef stew shouldn’t be thick and gloppy like a can of dog food when it’s done cooking, and using a heavy hand with those shortcut thickening methods can do just that. They can also dull the flavor of your broth, obscuring the reach, meaty umami you worked so hard to develop with a palate-coating blandness.
Your stew broth should naturally thicken while cooking, thanks to the release of starch from the potatoes in your stew, and also from the collagen that cooks out of the meat, adding body to the liquid.
If you really want to thicken up your broth, you can try dusting your beef in flour at the very beginning of the cooking process, before you sear it, or you can simply let your stew simmer without the lid on for a bit so the liquid has a chance to reduce. Both of these options can help add body to your stew without sacrificing flavor or texture.
You don’t skim the fat from your beef stew
Choosing a well-marbled cut of meat means that your stew will have a luxurious, rich texture, thanks to the collagen, gelatin, and beef fat that renders out as your stew cooks at a low and slow temperature. But it can also mean that when your stew is done cooking, there’s a thick sheen of fat floating on top, which is not exactly appetizing.
That extra fat can coat your palate when you take your first spoonful of stew, dulling the flavors that you worked so hard to develop.
That’s why, once your stew is cooked, you should use a spoon to skim off the fat that’s floating on top of the broth. You can also trim off any large pieces of fat that are on your stew beef before you sear and cook it, so that it never ends up swamping your stew in the first place.
If you want to make the process even easier, you can pop your stew in the refrigerator. The fat will rise to the top and congeal. Then, you can scrape the firm layer of fat from the top of your pot. When you reheat the stew, that extra fat will be gone, letting the meaty richness of the broth shine through.
You don’t add acid to your beef stew
There’s one thing that a lot of comfort foods have in common: they’re heavy. Rich meats, thick broths and gravies, sides of bread, rolls, and biscuits — they can weigh down your palate.
The solution? You need to add a little acid to your dish.
This is true even with beef stew. You might initially shudder at the thought of adding a sour, tangy element to your stew, but if you use a discerning hand, the effect is subtle and highlights the other flavors in your pot.
There are a few different ways you can add acid to your beef stew. Add diced tomatoes, tomato paste, or some red wine into the pot at the beginning of cooking. As the stew simmers the harsh acidity will be toned down, until you’re left with just a kick at the end of cooking, which will liven up the flavor and add some brightness to the dish.
Alternatively, you can add a splash of vinegar at the end of cooking if you taste your stew and realize it still needs that little extra something. A splash of apple cider vinegar can add acid without changing the flavor of your stew too much, but if you think your broth could use a little sweetness, you can try balsamic vinegar as well. Just steer clear of plain white vinegar — you don’t want to overwhelm the rest of the flavors in your stew with a vinegar flavor that’s too harsh.