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:
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
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
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.
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?