Slow-Cooker Beef Stew — Down-Home Comfort

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

Virginia Willis' Slow Cooker Beef Stew for FoodNetwork.com

Photo by: Virginia Willis ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Right Reserved

Virginia Willis, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Right Reserved

Opening the door on a cold night and being greeted by the inviting smells of stew from a slow cooker can be a dream come true. But winter is not the only time a slow cooker is useful. In the summer, using a slow cooker avoids heat from a hot oven — and it takes less electricity. Slow cookers are a modern mom’s favorite weeknight helper.

Some chefs peer down their nose at them, but there are so many recipes that are updated for today’s farmers-market sensibilities and farm-to-table tastes, proving that using a slow cooker doesn’t automatically involve also using a can opener!

I grew up eating beef stew Mama prepared in her slow cooker: rich hunks of meat bathed in dark brown gravy, thickened with flour and flavored with a generous slug of my grandfather’s homemade wine. She’d make a big batch and we would enjoy it for several nights, each providing a richer, fuller stew with the flavors increasingly mingled and married. She would often serve it with rice, potatoes or buttery egg noodles. It was simple, satisfying country cooking.

Get the Recipe: Slow-Cooker Beef Stew

This remains one of my favorite dishes in the entire world. Food memories are precious things. The sense of smell, more than any other sense, is intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion. One whiff of this and I am immediately transported to my childhood.

All stew meat is not the same. First, you need to purchase a large piece of meat and ask your butcher to cut it, or cut it yourself. Never choose stew meat already in precut cubes. It’s more expensive and you have no idea if you’re getting, for example, leftover bits from the shoulder or from the rib eye, two wildly different cuts that won’t cook at the same rate.

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

Virginia Willis' Slow Cooker Beef Stew for FoodNetwork.com

Photo by: Virginia Willis ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Right Reserved

Virginia Willis, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Right Reserved

The best cuts for stew are rump roast, chuck pot roast, sirloin tip, top round and bottom round. Also, you may have seen the USDA stamp on your meat, a purplish-blue insignia made of food-safe ink stamped directly on the beef. Young beef is categorized as prime, choice, select or standard. The terms commercial, utility, cutter and canner refer to more mature meat. I don’t advocate eating anything less than select.

Prime meat, the fattiest, is not readily available at your local grocery store and is primarily sold to restaurants and gourmet markets. It would be a waste of money to use prime meat in a stew such as this. Choice is the grade most widely available. The lowest USDA grade I suggest is select. Select is a leaner and healthier but tougher cut of beef that has been gaining in popularity. Select would have a fat content similar to that of grass-fed beef and is excellent prepared by long, slow cooking such as in this stew.

Don’t be tempted to skip browning the meat; the resulting stew will be thin and tasteless. Browning the meat makes all the difference. Serve it the day-of, or as Mama did, over the course of a few days.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

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Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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