Stew meat is often cubes of meat cut from lesser cuts of meat, such as chuck, flank and round roasts. Because the stew meat comes from a portion of the animal that is exercised regularly, it is very lean and requires long, slow cooking to become tender. Stew meat will become tough and chewy if cooked at high temperatures in the oven or at a rolling boil in a Dutch oven. The best way to tenderize stew meat of any kind is to braise it.
Braising is slow cooking meat in a small amount of water. The key to braising is keeping the temperature low enough to break down the collagen in the meat fibers but high enough that it will kill microorganisms in the meat. A perfect temperature for braising is between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. On the stove top, this is considered a low simmer. A 300 to 325 degree Fahrenheit oven will accomplish a braise.
Braising Stew Meat on the Stove Top
Stew meat is usually seared, or browned, before braising if done on the stove top. This keeps the meat from having an unappetizing gray look. Put 2 or 3 tbsp. of vegetable oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven, and heat over medium-high. Sear the stew meat in small batches on all sides, taking each batch out of the pot before starting the next batch. When all of the meat is seared, put the meat back into the Dutch oven and add 1/2 to 1 cup water of beef broth. Bring to a boil, cover and turn down to medium-low. Cook on a low simmer for two hours.
Braising Stew Meat in the Oven
Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the stew meat in a single layer in a roasting pan with a tight lid. Season as desired. Add 1/2 cup of water or beef broth to the pan. Place the lid on the roasting pan, and cook in the oven for two hours, checking the liquid level every 30 minutes and adding more if necessary to keep liquid in the bottom of the pan.
Another Way to Tenderize Stew Meat
Marinades are a time-honored way to tenderize and add flavor to tough cuts of meat. The key to a good marinade is the acid content. A marinade should include vinegar, lemon, lime or tomato juice, wine, yogurt or buttermilk as a main ingredient to provide the acid content needed. The acid in the liquid helps to break down the collagen in the meat fibers to make the meat less tough. Any spices desired are added to the liquid to provide flavor. Stew meat should be marinated in a covered container for 12 hours or more in the refrigerator. The marinated stew meat can then be cooked on kabobs on the grill or any other method desired.
A stew uses enough liquid to completely cover the meat and vegetables in the pot. Like braising, stew meat should be seared before stewing. Add the desired vegetables to the pot, cover with water and cook at a low simmer for two to three hours for tender meat stew. If desired, add 2 to 3 tbsp. of flour or 1 tbsp. of cornstarch to the liquid to thicken the broth one-half hour before the cooking time is complete.