A tender, savory beef stew is like a big bowl of comfort food hugs. Learn how to make the best beef stew from scratch, using your stovetop, oven, slow cooker, or Instant Pot.

By Vanessa Greaves
October 20, 2020
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Get the recipe Matthew uses in the video: Classic, Hearty Beef Stew.

No matter which cooking method you choose, there are simple steps that ensure your beef stew turns out just the way you want it.

1. Start With the Right Cut of Beef

To make the best stew, you have to use the right cut of beef so your stewed meat turns out tender, not tough. But you might be surprised to learn that the best cuts of beef for stew always start out as the toughest. Here's why. Stewing — or braising — meat means you're cooking it with a little liquid at low temperature for an extended period of time — what I like to call low and slow. This cooking method breaks down the fibrous connective tissue (collagen) in the meat over time, making it literally fork-tender. So, the more collagen in the meat, the better the stew. And which cuts of meat are high in collagen? Beef chuck from the shoulder and beef bottom round from the rear.

Tip: Always buy a whole piece of beef chuck or beef bottom round and cut it up yourself instead of buying packaged pre-cut "stew meat," which often is made of scraps of random beef cuts that will all cook up differently and may not necessarily turn tender.

2. Brown the Beef

Once you've cut up your beef into bite-size cubes (about 1 to 1½ inches), you're going to amplify the flavor two ways: Season the meat and brown it.

  • Place the beef cubes in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper. If your recipe calls for coating the cubes with flour or other seasonings before searing, do it now. (The flour will help thicken the stew liquid as it braises.) Toss to coat all pieces evenly.
  • Heat fat or oil in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear the beef cubes in small batches until they are dark brown on all sides. It's important to work in small batches so you don't overcrowd the pan or pot. If the beef is crowded, it will steam instead of sear, and the flour will end up pale and gummy.
  • If you're making slow cooker beef stew, you'll do this step in a separate skillet before adding the beef to the slow cooker. If you're making Instant Pot beef stew, you can sear the beef in your Instant Pot using the sauté function.

Tip: For best results, sear the meat in an oil with a high smoke point to avoid scorching. Canola oil, safflower oil, or light/refined olive oil are among the good choices. You could also sear the meat in rendered bacon fat to add a touch of smoky flavor.

3. Add the Aromatics

  • After you remove the last batch of browned meat, you can use the fat that's left behind to sauté onions and garlic if you're using them in your recipe. Add the onions first and cook them, scraping the pot to loosen up all the tasty brown bits left behind from searing the beef. After about 10 minutes, add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds.

4. Deglaze the Pan

  • After all that searing and sautéing, the bottom of your skillet or pot will most likely be coated with a thin, crusty brown layer of cooked-on food. That, my friends, is flavor you don't want to waste. This is when you deglaze your pan. Deglazing simply means adding a bit of liquid to the hot pan and scraping to loosen up all the browned bits.
  • You can deglaze a pan with any liquid, including stock and wine. To concentrate the flavor, boil the liquid in the hot pan until it's almost but not quite evaporated. Don't worry — you'll add a little more liquid in the next step.
  • If you're finishing your stew in a slow cooker, transfer the beef, onions, garlic, and deglazed liquid to your slow cooker now.

5. Add Liquid and Seasonings

  • Add the herbs, spices, and other seasonings along with the braising liquid your recipe calls for.
  • If you're braising the stew on your stovetop, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the the heat to a low simmer. Follow recipe directions for cook time.
  • If you're braising the stew in the oven (my preferred method), bring to a boil, cover, and place the pot in a preheated 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) oven or lower, depending on recipe directions. Follow recipe directions for cook time.
  • If you're braising the stew in a slow cooker or Instant pot, follow recipe directions for cook time.

6. Add Potatoes and Carrots

  • While the stew is braising, peel the root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, or parsnips to add to the stew. Cut them into to 1-inch chunks.
  • After the stew has braised on the stovetop or in the oven for about 1½ hours, stir in the root vegetables, cover the pot and continue braising until the vegetables are tender, usually for about 30 minutes more.
  • If you're using a slow cooker or Instant Pot, follow your recipe's directions for when and how to add the root vegetables, and how long to cook them.

Tip: The kind of potatoes you use makes a difference in your stew. Waxy potatoes such as Yukon Golds will hold their shape during braising. Russet potatoes (aka Idaho or baking potatoes) will break down and dissolve at the edges.

7. Finishing Touches

When your stew is cooked and ready to serve, there are a couple of things you can do to give it that final boost of flavor and texture.

  • Stir in fresh or frozen peas (optional).
  • Add fresh herbs such as parsley, rosemary, and thyme.

How to Thicken Up Beef Stew

If your beef stew sauce isn't quite as thick as you'd like it to be, you can thicken it with one of the following methods:

  • Whisk a teaspoon of cornstarch with enough water to make a slurry. Stir it into the simmering stew and let it cook until the sauce is thickened.
  • Mash 2 tablespoons of softened butter with 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour to make kneaded butter (beurre manié). Break up into tiny bits and whisk them into the hot stew liquid. Simmer on low until the sauce is thickened and the flour taste is cooked out.
  • Remove a few potato chunks and mash them until smooth. Stir back into the sauce.

Related: Get beef stew recipes made with stovetop, oven, slow cooker, and Instant Pot methods.