You're making a stew, so you pick up a package marked "stew meat" at the store — makes sense, right? Not so fast. There are a few good reasons you might want to put down that stew meat and pick up another cut instead.
Mixed Stew Meat is Tricky to Cook
Packages of pre-cut stew meat are often assembled by the butcher or meat department from the odds and ends from other different cuts. While this might sound like a good thing — viva varieté! —this isn't actually the best news for your stew.
All those little scraps from different muscle groups often cook quite differently. Some might take longer or slower, resulting in some perfectly tender bites and some tough and chewy bites. Also, some of the scraps will probably be quite lean, while others contain a lot of fat, and still others have a good amount of gristle. These inconsistencies make it difficult to cook a stew where every bite gives you the same, delicious experience.
What You Should Buy Instead
My top choice for all stew recipes is chuck roast. This cut is from the hard-working shoulder muscles, and while initially quite tough, cubes of chuck roast break down into tender, succulent, richly-flavored bites over the course of cooking. Round roasts, rump roasts, and pot roasts are also all good choices for stews.
Buy the whole roast and cut it into pieces yourself. This is another bonus over buying pre-cut stew meat — you can cut the pieces into uniform sizes and also trim any gristle you come across.
When Buying Stew Meat is the Only Option
If stew meat is the only thing you can find or if the sale price is just too good to pass up, that's fine—you can still make a good stew—just be smart about it. Look at all the packages and try to find ones where the pieces look visually similar, are of fairly uniform size, and have a good amount of white striping (fat and connective tissue) throughout.
Back home, go over the pieces and trim away any big hunks of gristle that you see. Next, cut the meat into pieces roughly the same size so they cook as evenly as possible. Once the stew is simmering, check it every so often to see how the meat is coming along. If you see some pieces starting to fall into tender shreds while others are still stubbornly tough, you can pull the finished pieces out of the stew and add them back in at the end—or let them fall apart and enjoy an extra-thick and meaty stew.