Beef stew may be considered old-fashioned, but it remains one of the world’s great dishes, and one of the easiest. Since realizing that I could call it “wine-braised short ribs” and serve it at a dinner party, I have made beef stew in whatever form I find it: rendang and chili, stracotto and birria, daube and galbijjim.
For all of their differences, each of these versions from around the globe perform the same feat, spinning a small amount of meat into a complex, flavorful one-pot wonder. Making, and eating, them again and again has helped me appreciate the wisdom they contain about what works best.
It turns out that a few basic decisions can generate a nearly foolproof formula for beef stew. Is stock better than water? (No; meat makes its own stock.) Cook covered or uncovered? (Covered, but use less water.)
Is a stew different from a braise, a soup or a pot roast ? (Not meaningfully.) Which meats, seasoning and methods generate the kind of dish that you can’t stop eating? (Read on.)
Start with leaner meat.
For a rich, succulent stew, resist the instinct to buy the gorgeously marbled piece of meat you would want for a steak or roast. Look instead for cuts with cartilage, tendons and (at least a few) bones: Chuck, brisket, oxtails, cheeks and shin are ideal. A classic Cantonese stew, such as braised beef with radish, is often made with “rough flank,” untrimmed flank with lots of connective tissue. (American butchers trim the same cut to produce flank steak.). The collagen and gelatin these cuts yield as they simmer will lend body to the stew; fat just floats. (If your finished stew has a puddle of oil on top, strain off all the liquid and chill it. The hardened fat on top will lift off easily.) What grocery stores label as “stew beef” is less succulent but perfectly fine, especially in large pieces like two-inch chunks; with smaller pieces, keep the heat especially gentle to prevent them from drying out.
Beef always gets along with alliums: scallions and leeks, garlic and onions. The last two are nearly the only seasonings in the Jewish American pot roast at the beginning of my beef-stew journey, from the former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton. Her recipe, published in her memoir-cookbook “From My Mother’s Kitchen,” is as compact and straightforward as she is, and I followed it religiously for a time. Eventually I got brave and added carrots, which threw open the doors to other changes.
A recipe from the Manhattan cookbook-store owner Nach Waxman introduced the heretical idea of tomato paste, and the writer Laurie Colwin threw in a hot green pepper; both flavors add notes that make the base of meat and onions sing. Eventually I stopped investing in brisket and switched to chuck roast, cut into large chunks that demand less searing, thanks to unstinting research by the Times cooking columnist J. Kenji López-Alt.
Recipe: Jewish American Beef Stew
Add brightness and depth.
Beef stew can take nearly any seasoning you throw at it, but the most delicious ones have lots of fresh aromatics and spices that balance out the heaviness of meat. For one of New York’s hottest restaurant dishes of the moment, the pastrami Wagyu suya at Tatiana in Lincoln Center, the chef Kwame Onwuachi brines short ribs with coriander and mustard seeds, juniper and garlic, then braises them with ginger, paprika and grains of paradise, and finally dusts them with a Nigerian spice mix of ginger, garlic, cayenne and paprika. “We hold nothing back in our braises,” he said. (Jamaican oxtail stew is also on the menu.)
When trying a new recipe, I lean toward ingredients like tomato paste, which adds sweet and tart flavors. Just as Hungarian goulash is transformed by paprika, Italian brasatos benefit from the rasp of red wine, and some Southeast Asian and Caribbean stews are lifted by the bittersweet edge of caramelized brown sugar. Some Canadian cooks add pickled cocktail onions. Also look for ingredients that layer extra umami underneath the beef’s natural savor, like dried mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce or the dark soy sauces and doubanjiang in Taiwanese beef stew.
Don’t feel you have to brown.
Browning the meat is entirely optional and far from universally practiced. Browning does generate caramelized flavors, but that’s not a priority for everyone. Boiling produces a richer cooking liquid, eliminating the need for stock or bouillon cubes, the Mexican food writer and historian Pati Jinich told me over the phone. She added that in Mexico, as in most countries, the meat in beef stew is traditionally from older animals and off-cuts, and therefore not the focus of the dish. “In Mexico, the best sauce is more important than making the best piece of meat,” she told me. “Cook it hard, until it has no choice and falls apart.”
Mexico has innumerable beef stews — puchero, birria, puntas al albañil — but the most homey, she said, is mole de olla, a true one-pot dish because fresh vegetables like corn, zucchini, cactus and chayote are added at the last minute. (Olla means pot, and the word mole doesn’t refer just to the famous thickened sauces of Puebla and Oaxaca. In this context, as translated by Ms. Jinich, it means “mix-mash of a saucy thing.”) What makes mole de olla a stew and not a soup is the purée of roasted dried chiles, along with epazote and garlic, that both thickens and seasons the stew.
Beef stews in Mexico, like those in other places where pork is a staple, often include a pork rib or two. When beef stew is made mainly from older animals, pork is added to carry flavor and lend richness. (Pork fat tastes neutral, while beef fat can have a distinct taste of tallow.) Since I lack the patience to peel pearl onions, I make a streamlined version of boeuf bourguignon, the French classic anchored by lardons, salt-cured pork belly. Many Italian stracottos and brasatos begin with pancetta. And salt pork features in a remarkable 1866 recipe for “Boeuf a la Mode” by Malinda Russell, a renowned cook who was the first Black person to publish a cookbook in the United States. Ms. Russell, whose mother had been enslaved in Virginia, fled to Michigan during the Civil War, established a successful pastry shop and self-published “A Domestic Cookbook.” She begins her stew by poking “a great many holes” in the meat, then filling them with salt pork seasoned with thyme, salt, pepper and cloves. The result is stewed for five hours in onions, milk and butter until soft.
Give it time.
“Nihari is the only reason I’m not a vegetarian,” said the chef Anita Jaisinghani when I called to talk about the bone-rich, lavishly spiced stew popular for breakfast in northern Indian cities like Jaipur, Lucknow and New Delhi. Scented with clove, ginger and cardamom, nihari is enriched with ghee and bone marrow, then cooked overnight and often eaten to break the fast during Ramadan. The legend of nihari is that its deep flavor comes from saving some of every batch to begin the next, like sourdough starter, in an unbroken chain called taar that some vendors say reaches hundreds of years into the past. Ms. Jaisinghani uses oxtail or short ribs for the nihari at her Houston restaurant, Pondicheri, where — like many chefs — she serves the stew a day or two after cooking. “The flavors in a stew are all dissimilar and fight for attention,” she said. “They need to hang out for a bit to get along.”
Baking can be better.
Ever since I discovered Amanda Hesser’s recipe for Roman oxtails, I have baked all my stews in a covered pot instead of simmering them uncovered on the stove. The heat comes from all directions, instead of just the bottom, which eliminates the need for frequent stirring. And moving that big pot to the oven frees up space on your stovetop and in your mind for other things.
In an oven set at 250 or 275 degrees, a heavy pot behaves like a slow cooker. But the oven’s concentrated, dry heat works even better than the machine, coaxing sinews into submission, transforming water into sauce and adding roasted flavors. (That said, any of these stews can be adapted for a slow cooker.)
When the pot is covered, your ingredients should not be swimming in liquid but wading, waist deep. I am suspicious of stew recipes that confidently call for more than two quarts of water, because the amount of liquid depends very much on the size and shape of your pot. A good rule is to cover the aromatics and vegetables, but leave an inch of meat sticking out above the surface.
Go easy on starch.
Until recently, home cooks didn’t have instant thickeners at their fingertips; starchy vegetables contributed lushness to stews like Egyptian kabab halla and sancochos from Latin America and the Caribbean. A little starch is a good thing, but ingredients like cornstarch, flour and tapioca can also muffle your stew’s most exciting flavors. When everything is cooked through, if the liquid is still thin and soupy, taste it carefully. If the liquid is strongly flavored and well seasoned, by all means thicken it. If it tastes watery, thickener won’t help. In that case, remove all the meat and vegetables and boil down the liquid until it tastes right, then thickens to a saucy consistency.
Mind the meld.
No cook was more entranced by stew’s mysterious power to fuse flavors than the New York chef Floyd Cardoz, who died of Covid early in the pandemic. Growing up in Goa, a state in southern India where the cuisine was influenced by Portuguese colonizers and Malay spice traders, he ate complex stews like vindaloo and sorpotel (meat braised with vinegar, chiles, liver, garlic, clove and cinnamon).
At his Manhattan restaurant Tabla, Mr. Cardoz became a master of the meld, known for bringing ingredients and techniques from around the world to a single dish. His wife, Barkha Cardoz, told me he was always inventing stews at home as well. After having a Filipino kare-kare at his restaurant’s staff meal, he created a haunting, savory recipe for short ribs with peanuts and anchovies, tasting of neither, that bears the hallmark of a great stew: many flavors, distinct but indivisible, in one bowl.
“You’ll know you’ve gotten it just right when they can’t quite put their finger on what the combination of flavors is, or why they feel they must take another bite … and another,” he wrote in his 2016 cookbook, “Flavorwalla.” “That’s the sign of perfectly balanced elements.”