Beef stew is traditionally made from cuts of beef that increase in tenderness and flavor during the long, slow cooking process. Stewing, which means to simmer slowly, breaks down the muscles and fibers in the meat as it absorbs the flavorings from the liquid and vegetables with which it is cooked. It is important to use spices and seasonings that complement the natural beef flavors.
Herbs and Spices
Two of the best and most common spices to add flavor to beef stew are salt and freshly ground black pepper. They add depth to the flavor of the meat without masking it. Bay leaves add a subtle aroma and delicate taste to the stew as they soften slightly during cooking. They should be removed before serving as they have a bitter taste when bitten. Thyme is a good match with stew ingredients based on its strong flavor that enhances rather than overpowers other tastes. If you use dried rather than fresh thyme, use about a third as much and add it early so it has a chance to fully release its flavor. A 1/2 tsp. each of paprika and either allspice or ground cloves adds rich color and complexity to the dish.
Onions and garlic are excellent in beef stew. Sautéing them briefly before adding them to the other ingredients caramelizes them and accentuates their flavors. Be careful not to scorch or burn them, as this will ruin the overall taste of the stew. Cut the onions in fairly large chunks to keep them from disintegrating during the long cooking time. Carrots add a sweetness that contrasts well with the savory components in the stew, celery provides texture and flavor and potatoes nicely absorb the tastes of the cooking liquid. The latter three vegetables should be added to the stew during the last hour or two of cooking to prevent them from becoming mushy.
Other Flavoring Components
Some cooks add 1 tsp. of sugar to beef stew to accentuate the salty and savory aspects of the mixture. A dash of Worcestershire sauce adds depth to the taste of the beef. Canned tomatoes are favored additions to beef stew but use them sparingly to avoid masking more delicate flavors. Using beef broth, beer or wine for the stewing liquid adds another layer of taste.
Beef Stew Tips
Never try to rush beef stew, as it will result in tough meat and partially cooked vegetables. Make sure the ingredients are always immersed in liquid, adding more as needed as the stew cooks. If the stew is too salty in its final stages, add a few chunks of raw potato to absorb the saltiness and remove them before serving.