Beef stew follows a fairly basic formula: Brown the meat, add some liquid, vegetables and seasonings, and let the whole thing simmer until the meat is tender. After you master the method, there are zillions of ways to vary a recipe. Here are five steps to take when creating your own beef stew.
1. Pick the cut of beef. Those tough and often fatty cuts of meat you would never, ever grill? That’s generally what’s best for stew. Stewing is slow-cooking in liquid, which melts the fat and breaks down the connective tissue, resulting in tender meat. Precut stew meat is usually cut from the chuck (part of the shoulder) and the more well-marbled it is, the more luscious your stew will be. If you want an especially rich stew (and don’t mind a slight splurge), use short-ribs instead of chuck.
2. Choose your vegetables. Most beef stews have onions and carrots. The French also add mushrooms, while the Americans often add potatoes, but there’s no need to stop there. Try adding any other sturdy vegetables you find at the farmers’ markets, like butternut squash, turnips or celery root. Another choice you need to make? When to add the vegetables. In rustic stews, the vegetables are simmered with the meat, infusing them with lots of flavor but rendering them quite soft. Many chefs, however, like to cook the vegetables separately and add them toward the end so they keep their vibrant colors and don’t get mushy. If you ever want to include delicate vegetables, like peas, definitely add them just before serving.
3. Grab a bottle of something. Red wine is the classic choice for many European stews, but white wine works beautifully, too. Or, for an extra-hearty stew, use boozy ruby port. Beer gives the stew a pleasantly sweet-and-bitter edge. Or simply skip the booze and just add stock. If you’re feeling Asian-y, add a splash of soy sauce.
4. Flavor it up. Here is where you can really make a beef stew your own. If you’re feeling Mediterranean flavors, add sturdy herbs, like rosemary and thyme. Central European? Dust off those juniper berries you’ve had on the shelf for years and add a few, then swirl in some red currant jelly at the end. Or go the goulash route, adding paprika and cumin. Feeling Spanish? Go with smoked paprika. Korean? You can’t go wrong with caramelized kimchi. Southeast Asian? Add lemongrass, star anise and chiles.
5. Serve it. While beef stew doesn’t need starch, it certainly does love it. If you’ve got potatoes in your stew, then you’re set. If not, serve your stew over noodles (or add them right to it!). Or add mashed potatoes (white or sweet) or a hunk of crusty bread; or use stew making as an excuse for spaetzle making. You won’t regret it.
Kristin Donnelly is a former Food & Wine editor and author of the forthcoming The Modern Potluck (Clarkson Potter, 2016). She is also the cofounder of Stewart & Claire, an all-natural line of lip balms made in Brooklyn.