Slow good: Oven-braised beef stew

by Terry B on February 6, 2008

Slow, moist cooking in the oven makes inexpensive chuck roast juicy, flavorful and fork tender for this Oven-braised Beef Stew. Recipe below.

A couple of quick notes before I get started:

First, is green the new color of Valentine’s Day? Carmen and Aimee of the website Ecoscene report that Chicago high-end chocolatier Vosges Haut-Chocolat not only makes exotic treats guaranteed to spice up your Valentine’s Day—they do it green. In fact, they’re soon to be LEEDs certified.

Next, a quick little toot of the Blue Kitchen horn. Sometime last Sunday evening, the odometer clicked over to 100,000 hits. Very cool to see. But enough about me—let’s talk about stew.

I work in advertising. In just about every agency where I’ve worked, you’ll either see the following sign [usually in the print production manager's office, if the agency's big enough to have one], or creatives will bring it up when they think the suits aren’t standing up to the clients enough, particularly regarding deadlines:

GOOD
FAST
CHEAP

Pick two.

I know this sign isn’t unique to advertising—I’ve seen it in at least one car repair place, for instance. But wherever you see it, the message is clear. If you want something done good and fast, it’s going to cost you [almost anything can be done fast, if you throw enough money at it]. If you want something fast and cheap, it ain’t gonna be pretty. And if you want something good and cheap, it’s going to take some time.

Which brings me to beef stew meat. Stews were made for the cheap cuts. Chuck roast, the cut most commonly used for stew meat, has lots of connective tissue in it, which requires a long cooking time to break down so the meat will be tender. Conversely [and somewhat perversely], more expensive cuts of beef—steaks, for instance—get tougher the longer you cook them. This is why you should never order steak more than medium rare in a restaurant; and according to Anthony Bourdain, if you order a steak well done, you are guaranteed to get the worst steak the chef has at hand, because the steak is going to be ruined and it’s assumed you wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Here’s what the Restaurants & Institution’s Beef U site says about connective tissue:

“Connective tissues are the tendons and ligaments that attach muscles to the bone, and help give muscles their shape and form. The amount of connective tissue determines the meat’s tenderness; the greater the connective tissue, the less tender the meat. Muscles that are used for locomotion and power (i.e., in the legs and shoulders) have more connective tissue and typically yield less tender meat. The muscles of support (i.e., in the back—rib and loin) move less, are not as important for locomotion or power and, as a result, are more tender.”

Chuck comes from the shoulder, one of those locomotion and power sets of muscles. No problem—you just cook it a long time. Well, except the problem with that is the meat can tend to dry out when cooked a long time—especially, it turns out, on the stovetop. It’s nearly impossible to keep the temperature low enough with the pot sitting right there on the flame.

Blake over at The Paupered Chef wrote about cooking short ribs, another notoriously tough cut—wrote about it twice, in fact, once admitting his failure and once telling how he got it right. I remembered reading the second post and storing away in my brain that the difference was cooking them in the oven instead of on the stovetop.

Now, I’ve cooked stew for years. Good stew, not great stew. Oh, it’s always been hearty and satisfying, and I’ve generally gotten a nice mix of flavors going with wine and herbs. But often, the meat has tended toward the tough, dry, stringy side. Even if I cooked it over low heat for a couple of hours, same deal. So when stew weather hit with a vengeance—a spate of snowstorms, frigid temperatures and howling winds—I decided to solve this problem once and for all.

When meat’s the problem, start with meat solutions. I already knew what vegetables I wanted in my stew and how to prepare them, so instead of looking for stew recipes, I focused on the meat—specifically ways to braise beef, a slow, moist method of cooking. Remembering Blake’s tale of two short ribs, I rejected any stovetop recipes I found. Once I settled on a basic oven-braising recipe, I did what I always do—borrowed from other recipes I’d stumbled upon in the process as well as my own cooking experiences to morph it into my own take. And that take was delicious, if I say so myself—the beef flavorful, juicy and fork tender.

This recipe definitely involves planning ahead. You marinate the beef up to 24 hours and for at least 16 hours. Then you cook it for 2-1/2 hours or so. But check the Kitchen Notes at the end of the recipe—the success of this oven-braised cooking method has me ready to experiment with other versions of stew that don’t involve the marinating step.

Oven-braised Beef Stew
Serves 4 to 6

For beef and marinade:
2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 [750-ml] bottle dry red wine [see Kitchen Notes]
2 medium onions, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced [2 cups]
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 Turkish bay leaves [or 1 California]
4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

For stew:
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
canola oil
2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise and cut into thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 Turkish bay leaves [or 1 California]
2 slices thick-sliced bacon [or 3 slices thin-sliced]
4 carrots, peeled and diagonally sliced into 1-inch chunks
2+ pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut into big chunks [I used Yukon Gold]
1/2 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut in half
2 cups or so of liquid—I used a mix of low-sodium chicken broth and water
additional salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
additional chopped fresh parsley as garnish [optional]

Special equipment: parchment paper [see Kitchen Notes]

Marinate the beef. Put beef, wine, onion, thyme, bay leaf and parsley sprigs in a one-gallon resealable plastic bag [crush the parsley in your hands to bruise the leaves and release more flavor—since you'll have to rinse it, you can do so when you blot it dry in a paper towel]. Seal bag, pressing out excess air. [I held the bag up at this point and said to Marion, "There's an entire bottle of wine in this bag!" Feel free to do the same with anyone within earshot—it's pretty amazing.] Marinate beef, chilled, 16 to 24 hours.

Drain beef in a colander set over a large bowl, reserving marinade. Wipe off any solids clinging to beef, then pat beef dry. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Cook the stew. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Transfer beef to a large plastic bag and add 2 tablespoons of flour. Close the top and shake to coat meat evenly.

Heat a large, heavy ovenproof pot with lid over medium heat, then add enough oil to completely coat the bottom. Brown beef well in batches, without crowding, about 8 minutes per batch, transferring as browned with a slotted spoon to a bowl.

Add onion and garlic to pot, drizzling in more oil, if needed. Cook, stirring, until onion begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Add remaining flour and cook, stirring constantly, until onion and flour are browned, 4 to 5 minutes. it may stick a little at first; don’t worry—just scrape the bottom with a wooden spatula as you stir.

Add reserved marinade liquid, thyme and bay leaves to flour mixture, stirring and scraping up brown bits. Add beef along with any juices accumulated in bowl and cover with a round of parchment paper and lid. Simmer mixture while you prepare bacon.

Cut bacon slices crosswise into 1/4-inch strips and cook in a heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon is beginning to crisp. Transfer bacon with slotted spoon to beef and stir. Re-cover beef with parchment and lid and braise in oven, 2 hours.

[Can be made a day ahead up to this point. Store covered in the fridge. Gently reheat on stovetop before continuing—see Kitchen Notes.]

Prepare the vegetables. Give yourself time to prep the vegetables as the 2 hours of oven time nears an end. Transfer the pot to the stovetop [CAUTION: Even "stay cool" handles get hot in the oven—sounds obvious, I know, but we all forget sometimes]. Add vegetables to pot, along with water/chicken broth mixture and stir. Recover with parchment paper and lid and simmer until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 1/2 hour. Adjust seasonings with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve stew in shallow bowls, with sprinkled fresh parsley, if desired. A crusty baguette makes a nice accompaniment to this hearty meal. Be sure to give diners a fork and a spoon—if you’ve cut the beef and vegetables in nice big chunks, they’ll want to spear them with a fork; and they’ll want to scoop up every bit of the lovely wine-rich sauce with a spoon.

Kitchen Notes

What marinating brings to the party. This particular marinade infused the beef with amazing flavor that went to the very core of each bite, especially the wine, onion and garlic [which is not to say that it tasted oniony or garlicky—not at all—it just tasted, well, wonderful]. The thyme and bay leaves brought less to the party in the marinade and honestly, the parsley was virtually non-existent. Adding these herbs to the cooking process, though, definitely added to the overall taste. I don’t think the marinade did much of anything to the tenderizing process, though—that all came from the long cooking at low heat in the oven. So I plan to experiment with using the cooking technique with other spice/herb mixtures and without marinating in the future. Stay tuned.

The right wine for marinating chuck? Two-buck Chuck, of course. Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wines may not be the smoothest drinking wines you’ll ever have, but they work just fine for cooking. And at $2 a bottle in California [hence "Two-buck Chuck"] and $3 here in Chicago, you can’t beat it. I went with the Cabernet Sauvignon. But any modest dry red will do just fine.

Parchment paper—it’s not just for Ye Olde English documents anymore. Okay, a quick confession here: This is the first time I’ve ever used the stuff. What can I say? I rarely bake, so I’ve rarely had occasions to do so. The verdict? This stuff is fantastic! It really helped seal in the moisture as the beef braised in the oven. And working with it was a breeze. When I needed to add something to the pot or stir it, I just used tongs to pull the parchment paper aside. Then it easily went back into place when I was done. A quick update: Talk about perfect timing, there’s a great article in the Los Angeles Times food section, singing the praises of this humble tool. Thanks to my transplanted Chicago friend Lou for pointing it out to me!

Cooking ahead: Know when to stop. If you want to make this stew ahead of time, only take it as far as braising the meat. The vegetables fare best if they’re served right after cooking. That way, they pick up some of the sauce flavors, but maintain their individual personalities both tastewise and visually. Cooking the entire stew the night before and reheating it causes the vegetables to break down further and the entire dish to take on a less appealing uniformity. The stew is still delicious as leftovers, but for the biggest taste and appearance bang for your buck, finish cooking the stew just before serving.

Join in the fun. Winter is the perfect season for long, slow cooking, either in the oven or on the stovetop. Lia over at Swirling Notions has cooked up something she calls the Braisy Chain. If you’ve got a favorite braising recipe, submit it there; she’ll do occasional round-ups as the recipes come in.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 2/6/2008

Art and food together. “Is this heaven?” There were oodles of both as the global phenomenon Slideluck Potshow rolled into Chicago. See what we mean, at WTF? Random food for thought.

Smoke gets in your ears. A collection of smoky ballads played as only Dexter Gordon could—suddenly it’s three in the morning and nineteen sixty-something, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine February 6, 2008 at 6:13 am

Thanks for the scrupulous notes on your recipe – they are great. I’m wondering, what would you think of making this in a slow cooker?

Sylvia February 6, 2008 at 9:30 am

Your notes are perfect and I agree, muscle and other kinds of meat cuts. if overcooking or cooking for a long time became dry.
Good recipe and well done.

T.W. Barritt February 6, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Great insights on stews and braising. I’ve been trying to teach myself about braising, and recently had some success with the oven braising method. However, I have not tried the red wine marinade — what was I thinking??? This will be a must-try next time around!

Anticiplate February 6, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for the tutorial on stew! I have done a lot of experimenting with short ribs recently. I have tried them with and without the bone, and they are MUCH better with the bone.

I have to disagree with you on the wine, though:) I do not like the taste of Charles Shaw, so to condense the flavor of that would ruin the entire meal. I generally just use something I would drink with dinner.

Kudos to a great recipe.

Terry B February 6, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Thanks, Christine! I don’t have a slow cooker, so I can’t say for sure. I’m guessing it would be great for the beef, but I’d finish the stew on the stovetop so the vegetables don’t lose their identity.

Sylvia—Thanks! The beautiful photos on your multi-lingual blog never fail to impress me.

T.W. Barritt—This was my first shot at oven braising, and I am totally ready to explore it more; next, I think, with an entire pot roast.

Anticiplate—In the past, short ribs have just been something I would add to soups for their nice, beefy flavor. I need to try them as a main course in their own right. I just took a quick look at your blog and saw your recipe for Cabernet-Braised Short Ribs with Gremolata—that might be a good place to start! Regarding Two-buck Chuck, it did a pretty good job here with all the other flavors, but I can understand your point. Still, when cooking with wine, I go with something modest. The whole cooking process alters it enough that—for me, at least—a really good wine is wasted.

Lydia February 6, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Terry, this is a great primer on stew. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned about meat — and this is especially dramatic with chicken, but also with beef — is that you need to cook it until it’s done (i.e., cooked through according to a food thermometer), and then keep on cooking! That’s the great lesson of stew — the stew beef will be “cooked” in less than an hour, but it will be tough and horrible unless you keep on cooking.

I tend to look for some of Trader Joe’s great Argentinian wines for beef stew, in the $5/bottle range. No point in wasting a $30 bottle of wine on a three-hour braise!

Terry B February 6, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Hi, Lydia—I’m with you on cooking tough cuts of meat “beyond doneness” to achieve true tenderness. With tender cuts such as steak, though, we like it so rare that a good vet could still save it, as Marion says. With chicken, dark meat like the leg and thighs can take long cooking and become fall-off-the-bone tender because of their higher fat content. But the leaner chicken breasts quickly become dry and tough with overcooking.

You’re absolutely right about Argentinian wines. Chile is producing some very good modestly priced wines too. And if I’m opening a $30 bottle of wine, it’s going in me—not my food!

Carolyn February 6, 2008 at 4:50 pm

Wow! This takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen where she taught me how to cook tough pieces of meat: forever! She always made her roasts on top of the stove. I would wrap a chuck roast in aluminum foil, toss in everything I thought it needed, including herbs and veggies, put the roast in a 300-degree oven and not come back for days (okay, for hours). This is also a good way to cook while you’re sleeping. You wake to a house glorious with savory odors, and the meat is so tender. Uh-oh. I think it’s close to lunch time.

Thanks for this walk down memory lane, and also for the primer. Blue Kitchen is an excellent resource for cooks both new and experienced.

lia February 6, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Oh please, oh please, Terry, include this in my Braisy Chain! :-) It looks gorgeous. And congrats on the 100,000 mark–impressive!

Blake February 6, 2008 at 6:05 pm

Terry – Glad the oven-braising advice helped! It has definitely become my go-to method. I further bolster the oven-versus-stovetop argument by imagining how cooks long ago would probably do most of their slow cooking by putting their covered pot in the fire, piling coals on top of it–in effect, simulating an oven. I know that’s at least how they did cassoulet. Why give your braising pot heat only from a single direction when you can provide a nice, controlled, over-all heat in the oven? You can hit that sweet spot where the meat breaks down more easily.

And re: the Two Buck Chuck debate, I’ve heard that that actual wine in Two Buck Chuck is rarely the same from case-to-case. Apparently, Trade Joe’s buys up wine from other produces that was for some reason going to waste, and sells it under that brand. So what you’re supposed to do is buy a bottle, cork it in the parking lot, and see how good it is. If it’s vinegar, forget it, but if it’s good, go in a buy a whole case, ’cause you’ve got yourself a deal.

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what I’ve heard.

katie February 6, 2008 at 8:46 pm

And never, ever send a steak back – unless you like charcoal.
Until recently I thought marinating something that was going to cook for hours a waste of time. I not longer think that…it really makes a difference. Amazing how much some of these experts (and old French housewives) know!

Melinda February 6, 2008 at 10:27 pm

Love all the tips for a good stew. I don’t usually marinate before and use wine but why not? I will try this technique soon when our really bad weather arrives. So… that will be Wimbledon fortnight then! LOL!

Helmut February 7, 2008 at 9:39 am

Your stew looks so tasty. Congratulations on your first 100,000 hits. Now that you are noticed and linked to other sites the next milestone will come very soon.

Patricia Scarpin February 7, 2008 at 3:51 pm

My dad would go crazy over this dish, Terry – Joao is a beef eater, but he says he doesn’t like his beef “too wet” (I know, the man is crazy, but I married him anyway). :)
My dad (whose name is Joao, too, I think I’ve told you that), on the other hand, would spread this delicious stew over rice and eat, eat, eat… :)

Terry B February 7, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Carolyn—Thanks for the great memory of your grandmother’s kitchen. Apparently smell is our most powerful sense for evoking memories.

Lia—Thanks for the invite and consider it done!

Blake—Some wineries also take the two-buck Chuck approach for producing their lower end wines, buying up surplus grapes or even wines from other vineyards. So you really don’t always know what you’re getting. And regarding your parking lot ploy, I totally need to go wine shopping with you at Trader Joe’s.

Katie—The marinating does work wonders with this stew, infusing the meat with flavor to its core. Still, I’m looking forward to trying other herb and spice combinations without marinating too. When I was working on this post, a Moroccan braised beef caught my eye—that may well be next!

Melinda—How funny! Here we can always count on heavy clouds anytime some celestial event is coming—an eclipse, a meteor shower…

Helmut—Thanks!

Patricia—We’re big fans of “wet food” at our house. I remember once telling a colleague what we’d had for dinner the night before—Marion had made a chicken in wine sauce. My coworker looked wistful and said she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a sauce with her dinner. I thought for a moment and couldn’t remember the last time my dinner hadn’t included some kind of sauce.

Susan from Food Blogga February 8, 2008 at 1:33 am

Thanks for all the tips , Terry. I don’t make stew often and am not terribly familiar with braising, so I read with interest.
BTW- Does that mean red will be the new color for St. Patrick’s Day? ;)

Mike of Mike's Table February 8, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Looks great! I only recently did something of a stew and was delighted by how much cheaper the “tough” cuts of beef are. For those prices, I could make a lot of stew! Plus, braising is fun–any kind of cooking that gives me an hour or two of down time in the middle is a good thing.

As for marinades and tenderizing, you might want to experiment with more acidic marinades (e.g. like a mojo which will have a lot of citrus) as those tend to begin breaking the meat down a bit before you start cooking whereas I don’t believe wine is quite so “active” a marinade item.

Terry B February 8, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Susan—To me, stew is such amazing comfort food, I’m surprised it’s not on everyone’s radar screen. And no, St. Patrick’s Day will not go red, at least not in Chicago. Here, they dye the Chicago River green. I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, isn’t the river already green?” Yes, but this isn’t just any green—it’s see-it-from-space green.

Mike—One of my favorite favorite comfort foods is pot roast. We do a couple of different versions of it, and both are always happily devoured. The acidic marinades sound interesting—may have to check them out. But honestly, with the slow cooking, all the marinade really needs to do here is add flavor, which the wine does admirably.

Toni February 8, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Terry, you read my mind with this one. I’ve been thinking stew thoughts for the last 2 weeks, when the temperatures here in San Diego have been colder than usual. (I can’t say cold — you’d laugh at me!) I made a chicken stew the other day (coming soon to a post near you), which presents a different set of issues. But my husband used to make short ribs as well as beef stew. I remember that he started the short ribs on the stove top, but always baked them in the oven till they melted in your mouth. I don’t remember him transferring the stew to the oven, and I don’t remember it ever being tough. I DO remember that it bubbled away for hours on the stove, on a very, very low heat in a very very heavy pan. The advantage of using the oven, of course, is that it also helps to heat the house!

Since I don’t drink 2 buck Chuck, but use it for cooking instead, I’m with you on that one. I wouldn’t use an expensive wine for a stew. I’ve never had a bottle which was vinegar. On the other hand, once I got over the novelty of paying a mere $2 for a bottle of wine, I decided that it was definitely worth paying more for wine I wanted to drink with dinner. I’m not in the $30 range, but anything from $5 – $10 will do. I’ve paid more, and sometimes it’s been worth it, and sometimes not.

Terry B February 8, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Toni—Looking forward to your chicken stew post! You’re right, stews have been cooked on stovetops for centuries; the key is low heat and patience. But I was so pleased with the oven-braising results that I’m going to have to explore this approach more.

Rasa Malaysia February 9, 2008 at 9:30 pm

I love stews, any kinds, so tasty and easy to make. A comfort food. :)

Marie February 11, 2008 at 2:09 pm

This looks fantastic! and I love the addition of 3 buck Chuck!!

swirlingnotions February 21, 2008 at 9:20 pm

Terry . . . I’ve got the Braisy Chain roundup up on Swirling Notions–thanks for joining! Now you’ve got me fascinated with the Moroccan braise too . . .

Maninas March 11, 2008 at 5:23 pm

What a beautiful pot!

I love your photographs, btw!

Ron, England March 26, 2008 at 6:47 pm

In culinary terms connective tissue doesn’t refer to ligaments and tendons (and mostly, not in anatomy, either).

Connective tissue, in this context, refers to the sheets of collaginous tissue that supports and links muscle to muscle and allows movement relative to each other – this can be seen to best effect in shin beef, as the silvery lines around the segments of meat and around the outside (You can see it when you skin a rabbit, too, as the silvery membrane just under the skin). It’s this connective tissue that, in long, slow cooking, breaks down and creates a silky-smooth sauce in a stew or braise, and what little remains in the meat becomes meltingly tender.

In theory, ligaments and tendons will also cook down but, being very fibrous, will take an awfully long time – so long that your meat will be soup! Always remove them if possible.

bad bob April 19, 2008 at 2:19 pm

Just put the beef into its marinade, i don’t normally marinade,so keen to see the difference,i did not have thyme so i used rosemary instead, i also left my beef in big chunks, as i experienced in the French alps once it looked wicked, and was soft as melting snow! I made a lamb leg stew a month ago for 10 people and cooked it really low for 6 hours then turned the oven off and left it overnight, that was heaven!

Terry B April 20, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Bad bob—Let me know how it turned out! And the lamb stew sounds wonderful, by the way.

bad bob April 23, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Well that stew rocked, i did get a constructive criticism from my 8 year old son who thought i should have put the veg in later, so it was not to soft! i like it like that but i will adhere to his suggestion next time.The beef was absolutely gorgeous, soft and juicy! i cooked it on gas 3 for 2 1/2 hours:)

Terry B April 23, 2008 at 5:32 pm

Bad bob—Thanks for reporting back! Glad you liked it. And very cool that your son gets food and actually critiques vegetables instead of just pushing them to the side as many kids his age might.

joshua August 6, 2008 at 8:15 pm

“”What marinating brings to the party. I don’t think the marinade did much of anything to the tenderizing process, though—that all came from the long cooking at low heat in the oven.””

i’m a red seal chef and honestly when you marinate with an acid like wine or a bit of lemon juice the acid starts breaking down the connective tissues in the meat making it more tender. that’s why you always had a bit of acid when making a beef stock.

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