Beef, in its finest cooked forms, is not some elusive fancy, big ticket item that is difficult to prepare or needs to cost an arm and a leg. You just need to choose the right cut of beef and know how to prepare it. Since it’s winter, we’re smack in the middle of stew season. The important thing when selecting beef for stew is to choose a cut of meat with enough fat on it—this isn’t the time for lean meat.
Chuck roast is one option. It is well-marbled with fat, which helps it stay juicy throughout hours of cooking. The problem with chuck roast is that once the fat melts away, the meat itself can become tough as it cooks. Short ribs typically avoid this scenario, since the meat has lots of connective tissue and collagen, which gelatinize and make the stock taste incredibly rich and full-bodied. Lastly, brisket is a great way to go. Don’t have the butcher cut it up, but rather leave it whole so that it cooks very slowly in your stew, breaking down bit by bit until it releases all of its fatty, succulent juices. Get a brisket with the fat cap on, if possible—this provides the necessary fat for the searing. Just remove it before you serve it, and—if you have especially good taste—eat it secretly.
The searing is possibly the most overlooked part of the beef stew process. Without it, the beef can become mushy and insipid. With it, however, the beef keeps a thin crust that retains its caramelization and crunch even through hours of stewing. Plus, the brown bits that stick to a pan as a result of searing create a flavorful base for the stew (known as fond). To properly sear the beef, dry your rinsed, raw beef on a paper towel, lightly dredge in flour, and then toss into a very hot stockpot with just a drizzle of oil. Make sure that all of the edges get a nice brown sear, then remove the pieces of beef and put them on a plate. Add a bit more oil to the pan to brown your veggies, and you can start building your stew.
Onions, carrots, and celery are non-negotiable, but from there the ingredients are up to you. Use star anise, ginger, and soy to make an Asian-style braise. Add chile powder, chipotles in adobo, and masa for a truly Texan chili. Or go for red wine, small red potatoes, and some fresh parsley for a French-style beef stew.