Making a stew sounds simple enough. Once the initial work is done, the pot just simmers away without needing much of your attention, right? But that doesn't mean it's entirely foolproof. Here are the top mistakes to avoid when making beef stew.
Braising the Beef In Water
Stew is basically meat braised in liquid, along with other ingredients—typically potatoes, carrots, onions, and possibly some sort of tomato. The tomato can be tomato paste, diced tomatoes, or even whole canned tomatoes that you break up with a spoon while it cooks.
But no one said that the main liquid should be water. Ideally, you'll use beef stock, but beef broth is fine too. Veal stock would be divine. Instant bouillon paste will add flavor and is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, even if all you have is chicken stock, it will still be better than water and won't make your beef stew taste like chicken soup. Other options: Vegetable stock, mushroom stock, basically anything but fish stock.
The reasoning behind this is to add flavor. While water is wonderful for a great many things, broth or stock will add a wonderful depth of flavor to your stew.
Using "Stew Meat"
The reason beef chuck is so good for stew is precisely what makes it not so good for grilling: it's tough. That's because it's a muscle group that gets lots of exercise, which toughens the collagen sheaths surrounding the bundles of muscle fibers. It also consists of numerous muscles, fitted together with connective tissue between them.
All that connective tissue makes for mega chewing when cooked over high heat. But when simmered slowly? It melts away and becomes gelatin, which coats the muscle fibers, giving the meat a wonderful succulent mouthfeel, while adding tremendous body to your stew. Beef chuck is also loaded with beefy flavor. So skip the stew meat and go with chuck. Your best bet is to buy a chuck roast, trim the excess fat, and cut it into large cubes. (They'll shrink while they braise.)
Not Searing the Beef
Once you've diced your beef, you need to brown it. Too many cooks add the meat to the cooking liquid and then go away. Yes, that will still make edible stew, but it will be bland and one-dimensional. Searing meat creates all kinds of complexity of flavors, literally by producing new flavor compounds through the magic of heat plus protein.
Moreover, brown meat is more attractive than gray meat, which is what you'll get if you don't sear your meat. Brown all sides of the cubes over high heat in a bit of oil. Don't worry about overcooking it. Braised meat is by definition well-done, and your stew will keep it from being too tough.
There's a misconception that stew ought to be "thick." True, stew is heartier than soup, but this is mostly due to the fact that the pieces of meat, potato, and carrots are bigger than they might be in ordinary soup. That, and there is also a higher solids-to-liquid ratio. But the liquid itself should not be thick in the same way that gravy is thick.
So skip the roux, and don't bother dusting the meat with flour or cornstarch before browning, either, as some recipes will suggest. That will just interfere with getting a good sear on the meat, and gum up the stew with unneeded starch. Simmering the potatoes will contribute all the starch the stew needs, and it'll be plenty thick.
Overcooking the Veggies
Speaking of simmering, it might take an hour or more for the beef to break all the way down, but that doesn't mean you should simmer your carrots and potatoes for that long. Your onions will be fine, but mushy potatoes and carrots are a no-no. Instead, add them about 20 minutes before the end of cooking. When they're tender, the stew is done. If you're adding frozen peas? They only take a minute to heat through, so wait to the last minute before adding them.
Not Using Any Bacon
The notion that bacon enhances beef stew should be self-evident. The best way to introduce bacon to your beef stew is to cube it up and then render it slowly in your pot, then add your carrots, onions, and celery, and sauté them for a bit before adding them. Next, add the now-browned bacon bits to the stew. You might be tempted to try to brown the beef in bacon fat, but it will end up smoking and you'll wish you hadn't.
Forgetting the Acid
The paradox of beef stew is that all that braised goodness can be a little bit heavy on the palate. It's easy to forget to add some sort of wine, vinegar, or yes, even lemon juice, to brighten things up.
Adding some fresh thyme in the last 30 minutes of cooking can help brighten things up as well. But a squeeze of lemon juice at the very end can do wonders. Think of the way osso buco is traditionally served with a gremolata of fresh parsley, lemon, and garlic. It enlivens the palate rather than putting it to sleep.
Serving It Right Away
This is not so much a mistake as a reminder that beef stew is one of those dishes that gets better when you heat it up the next day. The flavors continue to intermingle overnight, especially if you got a good sear on the meat to begin with, so that leftover beef stew can often surpass the original stew in terms of flavor complexity and harmony.
So, yes, by all means serve your beef stew to your hungry family as soon as it's done. That's why you made it, after all. But if you have the foresight and wherewithal to make it a day in advance and then reheat it, you'll be glad you did. At the very least, make a double batch to ensure plenty of leftovers.