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Beef Stew... how to get good fond/Maillard reactions AND tender meat?

I've been working on improving my mediocre beef stew based on tips I found on this board. One tip that I read was that you needed to brown the meat really well and cook in the oven at 350 instead of the crock pot -- the high heat will give you those good Maillard reactions that make it taste good. And I must say it's working -- the flavor sure has gone up a notch -- but now that I'm browning my meat really well and cooking it in the oven instead of the crock pot, I'm ending up with tough meat. Not really surprising, but I don't want to back off on the browning because it makes it taste so good!

I use chuck meat because it has good marbling which I know contributes to good flavor. But I also know it's a tough meat and needs slow cooking to tenderize it. Is it just the wrong cut to use if I want to get any Maillard reactions at all? Or can I get it to be tender if I brown it but then slow cook it afterwards? Help!

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  1. Chuck is definitely the right cut. Searing it-right again. Try going lower with your oven-300 to 325. You can braise it even lower at 275 degrees.
    I'm assuming that you're braising it in liquid. Oh, wine helps!

    3 Replies
    1. re: monavano

      Yes, I've been braising it in beef stock. This time I cooked it at 350 for maybe 30 minutes and then turned down to 325 for another hour and a half. Maybe I'll just jump to 275 the whole time next time. How long would you cook it that low?

      1. re: cottonmama

        About 3 hours.
        Oh, and don't forget to stir the pot once in a while.

        1. re: cottonmama

          I like monavano's suggestion of wine--a nice red will add lots of flavor.

      2. Don't skip the browning. But do lower the heat back to low and slow range. I do 250 "until it's done." Which depends on cut of meat but is measured in hour - maybe 5 for chuck. You have to check it. If you don't buy prime chuck, there is still a lot less marbling then there used to be. So if you cook too long, the meat will be fall apart tender but dry.

        3 Replies
        1. re: sbp

          Just because people call different things beef stew... and because you said 5 hours... do you mean you're cooking a whole chuck roast? Or do you cut into chunks like I do?

          I ask because I wonder if my potatoes would survive 5 hours without turning to mush, even at 250.

          1. re: cottonmama

            Add potatoes towards the end of cooking; I add mine, with the carrots, at the last half hour, when the meat just starts to tenderize. I should really let sbp answer this, but 5 hours of braising @ 250° is not unreasonable, depending on the amount of stew you're making.

            1. re: bushwickgirl

              Feel free to answer for me, you know what you're talking about. And yes, you can't cook the carrots/potatoes the same amount of time as the beef.

              I cut into chunks, but as I said, cooking time is more an art, you have to check. Even if you buy beef chuck and cut into exactly the same sized cubes, two batches might not be the same. Muscles have different density animal to animal. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes shorter.

              By the way, great stew tip: put some dried chinese mushrooms into a coffee grinder and turn into powder. Add to stew.

        2. "Or can I get it to be tender if I brown it but then slow cook it afterwards?" Absolutely.

          Chuck is great for stews, and if the meat is not tender enough to your liking, you just haven't braised it long enough, regardless of whether you brown the meat well first, choose a slow cooker or the oven for braising (either method will tenderize a tough cut of meat, according to how much time you allot for your choice of cooking method;) getting good color on the meat before adding the braising liquid ups the flavor ante and doesn't contribute to toughening. Low and slow braising will give you the tender effect you want. Just give the meat enough time to get there.

          I don't personally advocate using 350° as a oven braising temp, I go with 300° most of the time. Try turning your oven down and allowing the meat to cook longer. I recommend testing a piece of meat for doneness, rather than rely on the clock.

          So, in a nut shell, it's a two fold process, season and brown the meat well, then braise in a flavorful liquid until tender.

          2 Replies
          1. re: bushwickgirl

            Bushwickgirl is on track. Don't go by time, lower the oven temp and get good browning but don't over cook it when browning.

            I recently did short ribs which came out really good. Very tender. I only add liquid up to about half and uncovered the last 30 min to increase browning of the exposed meat. In this dish I removed the short ribs from the bones once cooked and cooled them. The next day I cut the short ribs into 1/2 inch cubes and roasted sweet potatoes diced to the same size. The meat was reheated and mixed with the roasted sweet potato cubes.and some of the braising liquid. It was quite tasty.

            1. re: scubadoo97

              Excellent point. Short ribs have been my go to braising meat (at least for beef) for a while. I just don't think of it as "stew", so I forgot to mention. I find short ribs has a more "beefy" taste than chuck.

          2. All good tips so far. Brown the meat first and then braise it slow and low. Make sure that you don’t overload the pot when browning or you’ll just steam the meat.

            If you’re browning the meat in a pan and then transferring it to a slow cooker, make sure you deglaze the pan with stock, wine or even water and then transfer the results to the slow cooker.

            When you start the braising process, make sure that you have enough liquid in the pot or cooker. You can’t braise dry. Also, make sure that the cover or lid seals tightly and doesn’t allow the steam to escape. If you’re not sure, put a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil between the pot and lid to assure a tight fit.

            Acid helps break down the meat and tenderize it. Use wine as the liquid or add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar to the pot.

            I make beef stew in a pressure cooker. I brown the meat in the pot, add the rest of the ingredients, put the lid on and bring it up to pressure (15 to 20 mins.) and then cook it for 12 mins. After cooling the pot, I add a slurry of 1 Tbs. of flour to 1/4 cup of water to thicken it. It comes out dead same and excellent every time.

            1. Dry your meat (I use chuck) with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper right before it goes in the pan. Sear over med-high heat on all sides, in a couple of tablespoons oil. Remove meat to plate. Add sliced or chopped onions and/or celery and carrots. Saute until soft. Deglaze with wine- about 1/2 to 1 cup. Add back the meat, add enough liquid to go halfway up the meat. Bring up to a simmer, cover tightly, braise for about 3 hours on about 275-300 degrees.

              About an hour before it is done, add your root vegetables.

              This is extremely basic to show proper technique. You can add spices, tomato paste, mushrooms, worchestershire sauce, soy sauce, garlic, etc. to add depth of flavor.