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Weekend Chef: beef stew tips!

Posted 5:19pm on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013

A cold wind blew in last weekend, reminding me that the Stock Show is on its way.

I was born and raised in Fort Worth, and while stock show time is about the the livestock and rodeos, it’s also about the most wicked weather of year. If we’re going to get ice and snow and sub-freezing temperatures, it’ll probably happen in the next few weeks.

Which is why I always stock up on everything I need to make beef stew, that warm and filling winter favorite.

Beef stew is one of those dishes that is more about technique than recipe, and can sometimes be a little counterintuitive. Tender cuts of meat can end up being dry and tough when cooked in stews. The whole process of stewing meat is to use slow, moist heat to break down the collagen (connective tissue) in tougher cuts of meat to make them tender, similar to braising. The collagen turns into a tender gelatin.

On the other hand, tender cuts of meat are usually well marbled with fat, which makes them tender and juicy. But the same moist heat process that turns tough collagen into tender gelatin will melt the fat out of tender meat and make it dry and tough.

So chuck, round and bottom round are all good choices for stew. Meats that braise well like short ribs and beef shanks are also good. But with this being Texas, I have a soft spot for brisket, and brisket is perfect for stew!

Here are some tips and techniques for making a good hearty beef stew.

Cut your own stew meat. Sure, you can save a little time by picking up that pre-cut package of “meat for stew” at the grocery store, but what’s really in it? Maybe you’ll get lucky and they sliced up an extra roast that was lying around… or maybe it is just all the leftover scraps form a days worth of butchering. I say it’s best to just pick out a nice 3-pound roast or brisket and slice it yourself into 1½ inch cubes, no luck needed.

Know your potatoes. Not all potatoes are created equal. Russets are high in starch and can fall apart in stews. Boiling potatoes like Red and Yellow keep their shape, but can be a little waxy. So try Yukon Gold, which will keep its shape and has enough starch to not be waxy.

Time it just right. Stew meat usually takes 1½ to 3 hours to become tender, vegetables take 30 minutes to an hour. So give the meat a head start and put vegetables in the last hour. Also, when using herbs in stew, start with dry herbs at the beginning and finish with fresh herbs at the end. If your stew is not thick enough, add Wondra flour at the last minute for thickening; it does not clump. Just mix a few tablespoons with a little cold water and add to the stew. Give the stew another 5 to 10 minutes and it should thicken nicely.

Give it a rest. Stew tastes better after it has had some time to sit, especially overnight in the fridge. But even an hour or two helps. So if you have time, let it set an hour or two off the heat to let the flavors improve, then reheat and serve.

Stock Show Stew

This stew takes a little time to make, but it is worth it. I used brisket and braised it in dark beer with a whole head of garlic and onions. Add roasted vegetables and stock and we are talking one hearty stew.

For Stew Meat:

  • 2 to 3 pound brisket flat or chuck roast cut into 1½-inch cubes.
  • 4 slices of thick cut bacon, cut into ½ inch slices.
  • 1 medium size onion thinly sliced.
  • 1 head of garlic, pealed and roughly chopped.
  • 1 tablespoon dried Greek oregano.
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme.
  • 1 cup Wondra or all-purpose flour for dredging.
  • 2 12-ounce dark beers; I use Rahr’s Iron Thistle.
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

For Vegetables:

  • 2 to 3 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into 1½-inch cubes.
  • 3 or 4 carrots cut into 1-inch pieces.
  • 3 or 4 ribs of celery cut into 1-inch pieces.
  • 8 ounces white or crimini mushrooms halved or quartered depending on size.
  • 1 large onion cut into eighths (or 2 small onions quartered).
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme.
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves.
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley.
  • 2 to 4 cups beef or chicken stock.
  • 2 tablespoons Wondra flour or corn starch (optional)
  • Balsamic vinegar or Worcestershire sauce to taste.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 300ºF. Season cubed stew meat with salt, pepper and dried oregano, then dredge in flour.

2. Fry bacon in large Dutch oven (or pot with tight fitting lid) over medium high heat until crispy. Remove bacon and brown stew meat in small batches in the leftover bacon fat (add vegetable oil if needed). Remove stew meat once brown.

3. Reduce heat to medium and add sliced onions to Dutch oven and sauté until translucent (3 to 5 minutes). Add garlic and a tablespoon of dried thyme, sauté another 2 to 3 minutes. Add one beer and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to deglaze the Dutch oven (this adds flavor to the stew). Add stew meat and bacon back to the Dutch oven along with the Worcestershire sauce. Stir, then top off with the second beer until meat is covered. Cover with lid and move Dutch oven to 300ºF oven to braise.

This next step is optional, but I like to roast my vegetables before adding to the stew.

4. Coat the vegetables with oil; season with salt, pepper and dried thyme and place in roasting pan.

5. After the meat has been braising for an hour, add the roasting pan with the vegetables to the oven, and pull the Dutch oven out to stir and to make sure the meat is covered with beer. If not, add more and return to the oven. Pull the vegetables out of the oven after 30 minutes and stir. Cook another 30 minutes then pull from oven and set aside.

6. When meat is tender, add vegetables to Dutch oven, and then add stock till vegetables are covered. Add fresh herbs (reserving a little parsley for garnish) and stir. Cover and cook another 30 minutes to an hour.

7. When vegetables are tender, adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and vinegar or Worcestershire sauce (adding a little acid at the end really can brighten up the flavor of the stew).

My stew took about three hours to cook and turned out great! I had plenty of leftovers (enough for 2 days) to keep me warm during those bitterly cold Stock Show days.

Be sure to check out the slideshow above for step-by-step pictures.

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