The weather is changing, fall is upon us, and football season is ramping up. Christmas is only three months away. Hard to believe, right? This is the time of year when Southerners begin to have hankerings for those hearty soups and stews we so very much enjoy when the weather turns colder. Chili, vegetable soup and beef stew form the fundamental soup/stew trifecta that any cook worth his or her salt ought to be able to whip up without so much as a glance at a cookbook. Unfortunately, most cooks are clueless, and the result is widespread terribleness.
In my life I have been served shockingly terrible soups and stews that I would not feed to a mangy dog, or even to a healthy cat, but maybe to a mangy cat, which will generally eat anything. They have ranged from oily, greasy, gloopy pots of terror to watery, tasteless concoctions of misery to bowls of awfulness so salty and gross they taste like failed lab experiments. I have often pondered why an otherwise perfectly respectable person will happily serve dreadfully terrible food, but the answer eludes me. Whatever the reason, however, after reading this essay at least there will be no longer be an excuse.
In a previous essay I led you out of the darkness of hamburger failure and into the light of hamburger perfection. Unfortunately, the journey to beef stew perfection cannot be adequately conveyed in an essay, so my goal is to merely teach you how to make beef stew that is not terrible. Believe me, this is a very big step for many beef stew makers. Once you apply the principles found herein, you may not quite be out of the woods, but at least you will be on the right path. The rest of the journey is up to you.
Pot selection is crucial, because if you start out with the wrong kind of pot then you’ve torpedoed yourself from the get-go. A heavy-bottomed, deep stainless steel pot works best, and I would go so far to say that it’s integral. A cast iron Dutch oven (preferably ceramic glazed) will work fine, but I strongly prefer stainless steel. Do not use non-stick. You will learn why momentarily. If you try to make beef stew with a non-stick pot, then you might as well open up a can of Hormel and call it a day.
I prefer a chuck roast for my stew meat, and by “chuck roast” I mean one that is not already chopped up. Buy a two-pounder and chop it up yourself into 1-inch cubes. You will be amazed at how easy and painless this extra step is, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the taste and texture benefits of the finished product. A chuck roast that you chop yourself will very likely be fresher than a “pack-o’-cubes” chopped up by a machine who knows when, and by self-chopping you can control cube size and ensure size consistency. So sharpen your knives and go to chopping! It’s mildly therapeutic, and you’ll feel like a real chef.
Once the meat is chopped, put it into a bowl and season it generously with salt and fresh ground pepper. Toss with ¼ cup of flour. Heat a couple of tablespoons of extra-light olive oil in the pot over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the meat to brown. The meat should brown in a single layer with at least one-half inch of space between each cube. If the meat cubes are too close together they will begin to steam, which will not produce the desired result. Be patient during this step; it will take 6-8 minutes at the very least. You will very likely need to brown the meat cubes in two batches, and maybe even three if you are using a tiny pot.
During the meat-browning step (if you are doing it properly) you will begin to notice something magical happening in the bottom of the pot. Light brown particles will begin sticking to the pot to form a coating, which will slowly become darker and thicker. Inexperienced cooks will panic and begin scraping the particles away, thinking that the stew has burned and is ruined. On the contrary, these browned particles are exactly what you are looking for. There is highly-concentrated flavor in the particles which will elevate your beef stew out of the realm of terribleness.
After the meat cubes have browned, add two cups of chopped white onions, a couple of chopped celery stalks (leafy parts included – they are very flavorful), and three or four chopped garlic cloves. Season with salt and pepper, then cook the vegetables for 5-7 minutes until wilted, but not browned. Deglaze the pot with about four cups of dark stock, preferably beef or veal, scraping the browned particles away with a metal spatula. If you used a non-stick pot then the browned particles would never have formed, you would not be able to scrape them away, and all hope would be lost.
Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add two Turkish bay leaves, McCormick brand (thanks to http://funandfiber.wordpress.com/ below for reminding me!). Add two or three cups of chopped potatoes and a couple of chopped carrots. Do not use “baby-cut” carrots for your stew. These are nothing more than weeks-old chopped up and processed mature carrots, and have no flavor. Buy fresh carrots with the stalks on them and chop them up. They are cheaper and actually taste like carrots. Remember: the only reason “baby-cut” carrots exist was to figure out a way to use part of a carrot that was rotting at the other end.
With all the ingredients in the stew, cover and simmer on low for about two hours, then taste and re-season if necessary. I recommend serving with cornbread, which, incidentally, could also be the subject of an instructional essay. For sake of time, I will only give two cornbread rules here, both of which are absolute: (1) only cook cornbread in a well-seasoned, pre-heated cast-iron pan, and (2) do not, under any circumstances, add sugar to the cornbread batter.
If you have followed the above instructions, then you will have a beef stew that is not terrible. Please understand that I have given you the fundamental process for a very basic beef stew. Once you learn the fundamentals, then feel free to experiment a bit, perhaps with the addition of tomatoes, or by a using homemade stock. However, as Nick Saban would say, if you want to produce a consistent winner, you must adhere to the process. So above all, remember: cows are noble creatures, and if we go to the trouble of killing them, chopping them up, frying them, and boiling them with vegetables for consumption, then we should do those things in a way that is not terrible.
 Point of clarification: None of these came from my family members, obviously, who are all excellent cooks. Where do you think I acquired my skills? I learned from the best! Shame on the perpetrators, though, who shall remain nameless.
 Notice I said extra light olive oil, not extra virgin. Extra virgin tastes better, but it will smoke like crazy over high heat. Save the extra virgin for your salads, and use extra light for frying. Canola oil also works well.
 Please do not use Vidalia or other varieties of “sweet” onions during this step. They are perfectly fine for salads but have absolutely no flavor after the cooking process. I prefer white onions, but non-sweet yellow onions are fine.
 Homemade stock is clearly superior, but I am a realist, and I recognize that most people do not have a bunch of beef bones stored in the freezer to make stock. Boxed stock will work, but I cannot overemphasize the importance of using low-sodium boxed stock. You must retain control over your stew’s salt content.
 Use a waxy potato variety here, such as red or Yukon gold. I would stay away from the mealy varieties (e.g. Idaho), because they will begin to disintegrate while boiling.