Every winter, I lock myself in the kitchen with a piece of beef chuck, vegetables, and my Dutch oven and set about the alchemic task of turning a tough cut of beef tender. And every winter, I emerge a few hours later, disappointed. It’s the smell that keeps me going at it: As the stew simmers, it fills the house with a rich aroma, but the taste is never as complex as the scent would lead you to believe. It’s not that my beef stew is bad—the tender meat, flavorful vegetables, and brown gravy are good, but nowhere near good enough to merit the several hours of waiting.
Of all the dozen or so recipes I tried, ranging from quick-and-easy versions with canned beef broth, heavy thickeners, and tiny pieces of beef to better (but still disappointing) four-hour versions, the only one that delivered truly satisfying flavor came from the famed Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller. The problem? It took four days, a dozen dirty pots and pans, and nearly 50 ingredients to make. Sure, the results were fit for royalty, but it was hardly the approachable, home-cooked meal I was aiming for. There had to be a reasonable compromise between the dim, underdeveloped flavors in the shortcut recipes and Keller’s no-holds-barred version.
The basic process for beef stew is straightforward: Brown chunks of beef in a Dutch oven, add aromatics and thickener, cover with liquid, and simmer until everything is tender and the flavors have melded. The key to developing complexity is to maximize flavor in every step. American beef stew is first and foremost about the beef—all other ingredients exist merely to support or complement it—so picking the right cut is essential. Using packaged “stew meat” from the supermarket was a nonstarter; the jumble of scraggly bits and large chunks was impossible to cook evenly. Cuts like tenderloin, strip, or rib eye turned mealy with prolonged cooking; they’re better for searing or grilling. More esoteric cuts like hanger or skirt steak offered great flavor, but their texture was stringy. While well-marbled blade steaks and short ribs (favored by Keller) worked well, in the end they were no better than chuck-eye roast. It’s one of the cheapest, beefiest cuts in the supermarket, and it turns meltingly tender when it’s properly cooked.
The first key to rich meaty flavor is proper browning, which means searing in two separate batches for a big pot of stew. Otherwise, the meat releases too much moisture and ends up steaming in its own juices. After browning the beef, I decided to caramelize the usual choices of onions and carrots (rather than just adding them raw to the broth, as many recipes suggest) to start the stew off with as much flavor as possible. Though at first I planned to remove the meat while sautéing the vegetables, I found that by leaving it in the pot, its residual heat helped the onions and carrots cook faster and more evenly. Crushed garlic, I decided, was essential. I sautéed it with the rest of the ingredients for 30 seconds before adding 1⁄4 cup of flour to lightly thicken the stew. I then deglazed the pan with 2 cups of red wine, scraping the bottom of the pot to release the flavorful browned bits and allowing the liquid to reduce for just a few minutes to give its raw flavor a chance to dissipate. I then added 2 cups of chicken broth (favored over tinny canned beef broth) and let the stew simmer for 21⁄2 hours in the oven (which provides a more even heat than the stovetop).
The stew was bare bones, but I’d worry about other additions later. For now, I wanted to see how the flavor of the broth was developing. Not very well. Despite the little tweaks in the browning steps, my stew still lacked real meatiness. I decided to attack the problem in a more scientific manner.
Souping Up the Broth
We’ve long known that ingredients rich in glutamates—compounds that give meat its savory taste—can enhance the flavor of a dish. Tomatoes are one such ingredient. I experimented with various canned tomato products, finally landing on tomato paste, which lent just the right background note.
Thinking of other glutamate-rich ingredients, I wondered about cured meats, like bacon, that have a super-concentrated flavor. Bacon was too smoky for the dish, but salt pork worked well. A small piece added a subtle depth to the broth and the beef. Then I remembered another salted product that’s packed with glutamates: anchovies. I mashed one up and incorporated it along with the garlic and tomato paste. It was a smashing success, with tasters praising the newfound beefiness. In fact, I found I could add up to four fillets with increasingly better results before the fishiness revealed itself. Finally, my stew was packed with the depth I was looking for. But one problem remained: texture.
Science: Fishing for Flavor
To boost meaty flavor in food, we often add ingredients high in glutamate. Thus it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the addition of two such glutamate-rich ingredients—tomato paste and salt pork—to our beef stew intensified its savory taste. But when we added a third glutamate-packed ingredient, anchovies, the beefy flavor seemed to increase exponentially. Evidence published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains why: Besides glutamate, anchovies contain the compound inosinate. Scientists have found inosinate has a synergistic effect on glutamate, heightening its meaty taste by up to fifteenfold.
Through Thick and Thin
Keller’s stew starts with homemade veal stock. As it cooks, collagen in the veal bones is transformed into gelatin, which gives the final stew a luxurious, mouth-coating texture—something that my flour-thickened broth lacked. Theoretically, powdered gelatin should work just as well as the real deal. But once I removed the flour, I needed to add nearly 1⁄2 cup of gelatin powder to thicken the stew sufficiently. Flour or gelatin alone didn’t work, but what about a combination? I made the stew with 1⁄4 cup of flour just as before but added a single packet of bloomed gelatin after removing the stew from the oven. After just three minutes of simmering on the stovetop, the liquid developed a rich, glossy sheen that looked (and tasted) every bit as rich as the veal stock–based version.
What Is Gelatin?
Gelatin is a flavorless, nearly colorless substance derived from the collagen in animals’ connective tissue and bones.
With my stew perfected, the rest of the recipe was simple: I added a handful of frozen pearl onions toward the end of cooking along with some frozen peas. As for potatoes, starchy russets broke down too easily, turning the stew grainy. Medium-starch Yukon golds added halfway through cooking were the way to go. As I ladled myself a steaming bowl of the supremely meaty and satisfying stew, I couldn’t help but appreciate that, sometimes, the little things really do matter.