3 Tips for Making Inexpensive Stew Meat Taste Heavenly

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When putting together the recipe for yesterday's Beef Stew, I realized that there are some key meat-cooking tips that we can take away and apply to many other favorite foods. Other kinds of stews, braised dishes, and even chili rely on tough cuts of meat that can seem difficult to work with, but all they need is a little love in the kitchen. 

First, let's clarify what we mean by "stew meat." These are the tough cuts from either the shoulder or the rump of a steer. These are hard-working muscles that tend to contain less fat than, say, the less hard-working loin muscles. You'll often see packages at the store simply labeled "stew meat," and that likely contain odds and ends of both the shoulder and rump. You can also buy whole chuck roasts, eye roasts, bottom round roasts, or round roasts and cut them into pieces yourself.

Pound for pound, these cuts are usually less expensive than things like steaks and short ribs. This is because they take a little more effort on the part of the home cook to turn them into something tasty. But with a little know-how, accomplishing this feat is not hard at all:

  1. Sear the Meat Very Well: Searing meat takes a long time and it's tempting to skip it. Don't. Searing those cubes of meat until they develop a dark brown crust on the bottoms and a sticky "fond" starts to glaze over the bottom of the pan are both key to creating the kind of rich, caramelized flavors that make stews irresistibly good.
  2. Cook Slowly: Whether you're cooking on the stovetop, in the oven, or in a slow-cooker, it's important to let the meat cook incredibly slowly at a bare simmer over the course of several hours. This gives collagens in the tough muscle tissue time to melt and make the meat tender. Try tasting a bite after an hour, two hours, and three hours — you'll see how the meat goes from chewy to pretty good to fall-apart tender.
  3. Wait to Add Acid: In a marinade, an acid can help a tough cut become tender, but in a slow-cooking stew, too much of an acidic ingredient can actually make the meat take longer to become tender. I picked up this tip from a chef a few years back and have found my stews and braises to be much improved ever since! I find that some wine to deglaze is fine, but I wait to add things like tomatoes until closer to the end of cooking.

Any other tips to add for making stew meat taste delicious?

Related: Recipe to Feed a Crowd: Slow-Cooked Barbacoa Beef

(Image: Emma Christensen)

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