Winter is coming, and that means one thing! It's time to get stewing. Nothing quite beats a hearty, rich, warming beef stew on a cold, dark, winter's evening. Beef stew is comfort food for the cold, but before you crack out the cooking pot, you might be wondering: what is stew meat, and what is the best cut of meat for beef stew?
In today's article, we'll explore what stew meat is and why it's so essential for your beef stew that you get the right cut of meat. Grab your Dutch oven from the cupboard, prepare the potatoes, and get ready to start stewing!
Spoiler: the best stewing beef might not be the beef that's actually labeled 'stewing beef.'
Keep reading to find out more!
Stew meat, or stewing meat, is the principle cut of meat placed into a stew. Stewing is one of the oldest forms of cooking on the planet. It's been around for as long as we've had firepits and pots. It's a simple, yet effective way of cooking that can leave tough cuts of meat as tender as a tenderloin steak!
The premise behind stewing is slow cooking. Cuts of meat are slowly, slowly simmered in a broth, soup, or gravy. This gives the meat time to be slowly tenderized as it's exposed to low heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. The best stews take the longest time to prepare, but there are relatively few ingredients that need to go into a good stew.
Stews are found all over the world. There's Irish beef stew from Ireland, beef stroganoff from Russia, and goulash from eastern Europe. Every country has its national stew, and traditionally, it's been the country's poorest that have eaten it. That's because stew meat is often considered to be the lowest quality meat. It's the leftover scraps and morsels that have been scrounged or scavenged.
You can technically stew any part of the animal, but that's not necessarily the best thing to do. Equally, the most expensive beef cut isn't going to be the best option for stewing (and you're wasting your hard-earned money and a good cut of beef by cooking it the wrong way). As you'll see, though, the best stewing meat isn't the worst meat either, but we'll take a good, cheap stew over a rare and expensive wagyu cut any day!
And while a beef stew is the most popular style of stew, it's not the only ingredient. You can have chicken stews, sausage stews, cabbage stews, and so much more.
Beef stew is a hearty, winter-warming favorite. Irish stew is served in a rich, gravy-like sauce with carrots, potatoes, and any other leftover vegetables you can find. In France, beef bourguignon might sound very fancy, but it's really just a tender, slow-cooked beef stew. Even chili con carne is technically just a slow-cooked beef stew with a Tex-Mex twist.
Beef is clearly a stewing favorite, and that's because when it's slow-cooked and simmered in thick sauces and gravies, you can really bring out the flavors while producing tender parcels of meat. But to bring out the flavor and tenderness through stewing, you need to know what kind of beef for stew to choose.
Before we tell you the prime cut of beef, we're going to tell you which cut not to use!
You've probably picked up a packet of beef labeled 'stewing meat' or 'stewing beef'. It's commonly packaged up and sold in supermarkets, and it's remarkably cheap. It's also the worst kind of beef you can buy for stewing (yes, despite its name!).
'Stewing meat' is comprised of the worst parts of the animal. It's the offcuts, the scraps, and the leftover gristle and fat from the better cuts. The butcher simply throws everything into a packet and labels it as fit for stewing. Unfortunately, it's not the best option, purely because it's made of all the leftovers.
It's also a good idea to keep your chunks consistent. If the pieces of meat aren't uniform in size, they will cook at different rates. If some of the cuts are not suited for stewing, you'll be left with an uneven stew. Some parts will be tender, other pieces not so much.
Equally, you don't want to be using the most expensive cuts, either. These cuts tend to be the tenderest to begin. While what we're aiming for by stewing is a tender outcome, we actually need cuts of meat that aren't already tender. The most delicate cuts of the beef are the cuts that are going to be toughened up by the stewing process. Tender steak is good for grilling quickly at high heat, but it's not made for stewing slowly at low heat.
So, what is the best stewing beef if it's not 'stewing beef' and not the tender cuts?
There are a few contenders. You need a cut that's not fatty or tender, but that's lean and full of what's called collagen. This is your secret stewing ingredient. The more collagen, the better the cut is for stewing.
Collagen is also known as connective tissue. Collagen takes a long time to break down, but it gives you an incredibly tender cut of beef when it does. That's why collagen-rich meat is best for stewing. The slow stewing process allows the collagen to slowly breakdown, gently tenderizing the meat as it does.
Now then, there are a few cuts of beef that do the job well when you're looking for stewing meat, but the best cut is always going to be the classic chuck roast. The chuck roast is a collagen-heavy cut that comes from around the shoulder. It's great for stewing and is also commonly used for roasting.
The high collagen content allows you to simmer the beef for hours, slowly breaking down and tenderizing for a fall-off-your-fork finish. You buy the chuck roast as a large, whole cut, so you have to do the chopping yourself. However, that works in your favor as you're able to dice it up into even-sized chunks for a uniform stew.
Other contenders include the oxtail, which is packed full of collagen but is also quite fatty. Oxtail is incredibly bony, too, so you'll have the de-boning process to deal with if you opt for this cut. The brisket is also a good choice for stewing and is often a great value too. You can get a lot of brisket for not a lot of money. Brisket cooks best when it's cooked slowly, but it can be quite tough to break down due to a lack of collagen compared to the chuck roast.
Whichever type of stewing meat you choose, you'll need to make sure that it's as evenly cut as possible before you start cooking. Uneven pieces will result in parts of the stew being cooked through and others being tough.
Stewing beef should be lightly braised before you add it into your stew. Heat up the skillet with a drizzle of oil and sautee your beef on either side. It doesn't need long, just until it has a brown outer layer.
When it's browned, you can add the meat to the rest of your stew and allow it to simmer in the gravy slowly. Stews can have various other ingredients, so this depends on what sort of stew you're looking to cook. Irish stews are heavy in seasonal vegetables, while a beef bourguignon is awash with red wine, mushrooms, and bacon!
So there we have it, now we have a decisive answer to the question, 'what is stew meat,' and let's be honest, the best stewing meat isn't always the meat you would expect it to be.
Our beef stew investigation's key takeaway is that any meat labeled 'stewing meat' in the supermarket probably isn't the best for stewing. That sounds counterintuitive, we know, but that's what you get when you throw all the offcuts and worst parts of the cow together.
The best stewing meat is, without a doubt, the chuck roast, a large, tough cut of meat that's packed with collagen—slowly stewing a chuck roast releases all that delicious collagen juice, giving you a tasty and tender beef stew!
Why not bookmark our beef stew meat guide for later?