For a tender beef stew, timing matters

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

Sometimes less is more, or more aptly, cheaper is better. This is certainly true when making beef stew.

Perhaps you’re having company for dinner and decide to splurge, buying a beautifully marbled tender cut of beef. Tender in, tender out, right? When making stew, though, it doesn’t quite work this way. The fat in those pricey cuts of beef will melt away, and you will be left with a tough, stringy mess.

For the tastiest beef stew you need a lean, tough piece of meat from the shoulder of the cow. This type of meat is low in fat, but high in collagen, or connective tissue. With long slow cooking, this collagen breaks down and produces gelatin, which moisturizes and tenderizes the meat.

Once you have chosen the right cut of beef, the most important cooking step is to sear the beef. Although time-consuming, this step must not be rushed. The meat should be dry and the pan should be hot.

Both these steps ensure that the meat browns rather than steams. This process is known as the Maillard reaction. It changes the amino acids and sugars in the meat to hundreds of flavor compounds that give browned meat its distinct taste and smell.

When adding vegetables to the stew, wait until the last half hour of cooking time. Otherwise, you will end up with mush. When choosing potatoes, pick a low starch boiling potato rather than a russet.

Before you begin, bring the following ingredients to room temperature.

Beef Stew

3 pounds chuck, trimmed of fat and cut into 11/2-inch cubes

5 tablespoons oil, divided

1/3 cup flour mixed with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper to taste

Assorted vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, celery, parsnips, mushrooms

In a 4-quart Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons oil until hot. Add the beef cubes in small batches and cook until browned on all sides. Place the beef cubes in a bowl, and reserve until all the beef cubes have been browned. Toss the meat with the flour mixture.

In the same pot, heat 2 table­spoons oil and add the carrots, onions, celery and garlic. Cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the meat and bay leaf, and just barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Taste for salt.

Cook for 11/2 hours or until the meat is tender. Add the vegetables and cook for 30 minutes more.

Note: The beef stew can be made in a slow cooker, following the same general directions of browning the meat first and adding the vegetables at the end of the cooking process.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.