The best beef stew starts with a flavorful beef stew meat. Tougher cuts are used because the connective tissue that makes them tough breaks down when stewed for a long time. When this happens, the beef stew meat becomes fork-tender and imparts rich flavors to the stew. You can start with an economical whole chuck, round, or pot roast (any roasts that have the words chuck or round in them will do), trimming and cutting the roast into 1- to 2-inch pieces yourself. Or simply purchase precut and packaged beef stew meat to save time.
Techniques for making stew vary, but these are the basic principles used when making classic beef stew (Old-Fashioned Beef Stew). Variations occur with the vegetables and seasonings used.
1. Browning the meat Sometimes, the beef is coated with flour and seasonings before it goes in the pot. This helps create a browned crust on the beef and helps to thicken the final stew. Coated or not, brown the beef in small batches in a small amount of hot oil. Make sure not to crowd the meat. There should be space between pieces to allow for even browning. Crowded pans result in gray steamed meat. Turn the pieces as they cook to brown all sides. They do not need to be cooked through. Remove the browned meat from the pan and set aside in a dish. There will be browned bits on the bottom of the pan—you want that!
2. Sauteeing the vegetables Classic stew vegetables include onions, carrots, mushrooms, and parsnips. They should be chopped or cut into similar-size pieces for even cooking. Add the desired vegetables to the hot pan. If necessary, add extra oil. Cook the vegetables until crisp-tender, stirring occasionally. Add minced garlic at the very end so it doesn't burn.
3. Deglazing the pot Remember those browned bits in the bottom of the pan? Here's what to do with them. Add a small amount of liquid, such as red wine, broth, beer, apple or tomato juice, or water to the pan. Use a wooden spoon or whisk to quickly scrape the bottom of the pan, loosening those browned bits. That browned layer adds rich flavor and color to the stew.
4. Simmering Return the meat and any collected juices in the dish to the pot. Add beef broth and desired herbs (thyme, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, oregano) and seasonings (salt, pepper, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce). Bring to boiling, then reduce heat and cover or partially cover the stew. Let it simmer until the beef is tender. This takes about an hour depending on the cut. If the meat is not fork-tender, continue simmering, checking the meat every 15 minutes or so. Vegetables like potatoes or green beans can be added during simmering so they do not overcook.
5. Serving Enjoy beef stew alone in a bowl. Or serve it over mashed potatoes, hot cooked noodles, polenta, or couscous. You can also add barley or another grain to the pot to cook while simmering.