Be sure to grab the right one!

Photo: Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Visualize a warm bowl of beef stew—thick steaming gravy with hearty pieces of potato and small diced cubes of celery and carrot surrounding chunks of well-browned beef. Just one spoonful makes us salivate, and as with anything in the kitchen, the magic of this hearty favorite starts with the ingredients. Fall is the prime time to buy onions, carrots, and potatoes. But the crowning glory of beef stew is the flavor and texture of the meat, browned and slightly crisp on the outside but fall-apart-in-your-mouth tender on the inside.

Not all cuts of beef are the same. Meat is muscle, and muscles differ in taste and texture depending on how the animal used it. As a general rule, the muscles most used by an animal are tougher and darker than the muscles used less. However, these tougher pieces of meat have far more flavor than the other cuts, and they require a longer cook time at a lower temperature to unlock all of the flavor and make the meat tender. For a cow, these flavorful and well-used muscles are the ones that move the legs and neck, while the muscles rarely used are naturally fattier (ribs, sirloin, etc).

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Since beef stew cooks slowly, if you use tender fatty cuts of beef, the fat will quickly render out and the long stewing of the meat will make the pieces chewy. You need cuts of meat from the muscles the cow uses the most to achieve the right texture in a stew—the constant low heat will break down the collagen in the beef, create a rich flavorful broth, and make the meat fork tender.

When you go to the store to pick up meat for a beef stew, look for a round roast, chuck roast, chuck shoulder, or top chuck. Cube any of these cuts of meat into 1-inch pieces and brown them evenly on the outside in a well-oiled skillet before cooking them in your stew. This ensures a flavorful and crisp crust on every piece of meat.