Crock pot beef stew. Easy. Filling. Boring. Can you help?
February 19, 2013 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I like to put cubed beef and chunked potatoes, onions and carrots in the crock pot and end up with dinner. I've tried lots of variations on liquid: water, broth, wine, coffee, beer. They all end up tasting meh, although the meat and veggies are usually delish. I'm tired of experimenting -- what do you use? One thing: I'm not going to dredge the meat in anything and sear. If I were up for that it wouldn't be a crock pot dinner. We have no food limitations except No Cilantro. Thanks!
posted by kestralwing to Food & Drink (53 answers total) 118 users marked this as a favorite
I tend to add a lot of salt (in various forms: actual salt, soy sauce, Worcestershire) and seasonings (I particularly enjoy Onion Soup mix).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:58 AM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Brown gravy mix, water, and a bit of wine.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:58 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bay leaves and a couple of bones with marrow. +1 on salt, salt, salt.
posted by katie at 12:00 PM on February 19, 2013

I'd still brown the meat, even if you don't dredge it in anything.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:02 PM on February 19, 2013 [11 favorites]

Experiment with a bunch of different pre-bagged mixes (which are cheap, usually less than a dollar each) in combination with different types of stock/wine.

+1 for bay leaves, too.
posted by jbickers at 12:02 PM on February 19, 2013

Have you done canned tomatoes? That seems like that would be at the top of the list, but you don't mention it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:04 PM on February 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

To my beef stew I add: 2/3 of a beer (drink the other 1/3), a couple bay leaves, tablespoon each of oregano and thyme (all herbs tied up in a cheesecloth bag), a crushed tomato, 1/3 can of tomato paste, and beef broth. Salt and pepper to taste.

The bulk of the stew is beef, onion, carrots, celery, parsnips, turnip and potato.

But yeah, you gotta brown the beef or it's going to be bland. Ditto the onions.
posted by bondcliff at 12:04 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, tomatoes. And some tomato paste even, why not. Make it like a stifado and add cinnamon too.
posted by mskyle at 12:08 PM on February 19, 2013

Best answer: Long slow cooking tends to kill nuanced flavor, though it's great at bringing out rich deep flavor - it kills volatiles.

So plan to come home, take off the lit, and add a final hit of fragrant herbs - oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary - and some salt and pepper. Maybe a dash of cayenne. If you put these in at the beginning you'll never taste them.

I have to agree that not browning stew beef is just never going to give you the best flavor. The process creates compounds that just don't exist in the food unless you do this process. It takes 5 minutes and its worth every one.

As far as browning onions, it's easy to caramelize onions in the crockpot. Make a big batch one Sunday out of an entire bag of onions, portion them out, and stick them in the freezer. You can throw in a frozen portion with your other ingredients when you make stew, and you don't have to worry about pre-browning those.
posted by Miko at 12:08 PM on February 19, 2013 [25 favorites]

Best answer: I use a mixture of wine and beef broth. I also often add a few anchovies - it adds a depth of flavor without explicitly tasting fishy.

Try making sure the liquid doesn't totally cover the meat - that should get you some browning on the meat over the course of cooking (or, it would in a dutch oven, not sure about a crock pot).
posted by yarrow at 12:09 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Apple cider or apple juice. Throw in some crushed dried rosemary the last half-hour, and this will become your favorite beef stew ever (although I've always browned the meat first). Delish.
posted by faineant at 12:12 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd add mushrooms, unless you hate them. And tomatoes, as others have said. Red wine, bay leaf or two.
posted by mareli at 12:14 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A good slosh of balsamic vinegar right at the end can really liven things up.
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:15 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Red wine, beef broth and thyme - but it just won't be stew if you don't brown the beef and onions first. That's just slow cooked soup.
posted by Space Kitty at 12:15 PM on February 19, 2013

Best answer: well you've discovered the issue with a crock pot. Since you won't sear and a crockpot itself doesn't get hot enough to do the job, you have no carmelization/maillard going on and no evaporation to concentrate flavors.

I accidentally did a little experiment along these lines over the last month. Superbowl Sunday I made an Irish Stew from the Colman Andrews "Irish Country Cooking Cooking" that called for lamb, onions, potatoes and carrots to be layered in a dutch oven and cooked at 250 for four hours. It called for water as the liquid, but it sounded so bland I subbed a bottle of bitter for the water. It was good, little plain, but good.

On Saturday I made a Carbonnade de Flamand from Ed Behr's "The Art of Eating" - Fundamentally the same recipe (ex carrots and potatoes) except that it calls for you to brown the meat like crazy and then brown the onions quite well before adding a bottle of gueze (Belgian Beer) and cooking at 250 for three hours.- the taste difference between the two was amazing.

So now you've said you won't sear - so how to replicate those flavors without using a packet (which is basically what gravy mix or something like that would do for you)
1) Use a really rich dark brown stock where you've roasted the shit out of the bones first
2) Take a few tablespoons of tomato paste and cook it until it is brown in a bit of oil and then and then add that to your slow cooker.
3) A bit or Worcstershire
4) Anchovies
4) A little caramel - i.e. sugar and water you've cooked until almost black + some soy. Fish Sauce if you don't mind that.
posted by JPD at 12:17 PM on February 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Browning does add a nice dimension of flavour. We brown, then freeze the meat to be able to make a quick recipe. plop in crock still frozen, with other ingredients. I have made it without browning, it's just less tasty.

I always use Worcestershire. It has a lot of flavours that accent beef really well. I also use parsnips, which are great for a little more flavour. They aren't as strong tasting as turnips, but sort of similar in taste.

An acid added at the end of cooking can really brighten up flavours in soup and/or stew. Vinegar, as Space Kitty suggests, or maybe even a citrus juice. I do this with soups all the time. Some traditional recipes call for an acid, for example Hoppin' John.
posted by annsunny at 12:22 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Japanese curry cubes! We love 'em. Drop a few in there and enjoy. Japanese food, in my experience, is never particularly spicy, so the super-hot-flaming-curry-of-death version is merely lively (contrast with Thai food, where that label should be taken extremely seriously).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:22 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could also experiment with commercial demi-glace, dirty secret of many a chef.
posted by Miko at 12:25 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try adding a spoonful of marmite, and a bunch of worcestershire sauce. Those two things have made my veggie chili taste like its full of beefiness, so would probably help your actual beef dish to taste better.
posted by Kololo at 12:27 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

My go-to:

Add some mushrooms, Montreal Steak Seasoning, and beef Better than Bullion.

Also consider some or all of the following: cayenne pepper, mustard powder, A-1, Worcestershire, garlic. Maybe add some corn starch near the end to thicken.
posted by The Deej at 12:32 PM on February 19, 2013

I add parsnips to mine. It adds a nice earthy kick to the stew.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:35 PM on February 19, 2013

Fish sauce, brown sugar, star anise, lemongrass -- Boom, you've just made a reasonable simulacrum of Bo Kho, the best Vietnamese dish ever.
posted by neroli at 12:47 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

You need umami!

- brown the meat and onions (a must)
- tomato paste
- soy sauce
- cheese rinds (to be removed before eating)
- mushrooms
- a few dried chili peppers never hurts
- fresh ground mustard seed
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:49 PM on February 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Yes yes yes. Umami and salt. Anchovies will do both. Don't worry; they'll melt into the sauce completely. Probably won't even get a fishy taste/smell.

Marmite, soy sauce, fish sauce, parmesan (even just the rind) will all do the trick.

Don't forget about acid; balsamic, cider vinegar, rice wine, lemon juice-- doesn't matter. Not enough acid is the new not enough salt.
posted by supercres at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Acid is my secret weapon, and some sugar. Don't use expensive stuff - cheap balsamic, lemon and/or lime, plain old white vinegar (the secret of my pulled pork), fish sauce. Then sugar in the form of ketchup, molasses, plain old sugar.

Garlic. I buy the mayo-jar size chopped garlic specifically so I can throw in spoonsful in situations like this.

Sriracha. More than you'd think. And most meats love mustard.

You may just need to use more of everything. Being cooked for 6-8 hours kind of destroys the integrity of what you're using. You might also want to go two-stage with some flavors - some to start, and a top up halfway through or the last hour if you can.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2013

marmite or vegemite
tomato paste
posted by gaspode at 1:10 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you aren't using celery salt you are doing it wrong.
posted by sanka at 1:16 PM on February 19, 2013

Best answer: I've been known to make a stew using orange juice. If you're doing beer, a 3:1 combination beer:vinegar gives an o.k. approximation of a sour beer, which is nice for a change. For other solids, dried fruit is nice, especially raisins (you get little beef flavored grapes). Oh, and I love a nice been stew. In general though if all you're doing is the basics, Bouquet Garni is a classic for a reason.

Salt is good, salt is necessary. That said, if you're using a store-bought broth or stock, chances are you've got more than enough salt in there already.

Also, I know you don't want to dredge and sear, but maybe consider just searing. And you know, almost everything listed so far adds flavors that you get from browning the meat, so if you've got the time, energy, notice, and space, it's worth making the stew in advance, browning the meat, and then just freezing\sticking in the fridge and reheating it. Especially since every stew I've ever made has been better as leftovers.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:20 PM on February 19, 2013

V-8 Juice! It adds both flavor and salt. I use a large bottle (32 oz) and then add whatever additional liquid is needed depending on what's handy (beer, wine, broth, etc.). It does really help to brown the meat. I've tried both with and without flouring first and I don't taste a difference.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:39 PM on February 19, 2013

A jar of hoisin sauce as the liquid. Rinse out the jar with a little soy sauce or water.
posted by Swisstine at 1:55 PM on February 19, 2013

I use both about a cup of red wine (like a burgundy or merlot --- those tiny bottles that come in 4-packs? one of them is perfect for this) plus canned tomato chunks. Also try cooking it with a bay leaf or two in there.
posted by easily confused at 1:57 PM on February 19, 2013

Yeah, I think dredging is gilding the lily and that searing would do most of the same things. The only thing missing would be a bit of thickener, but you can make up for that by making a little flour-and-water slurry and stirring that in with your final spices.
posted by Miko at 1:57 PM on February 19, 2013

I'm not gonna lie: when I make crockpot stews and don't want to dredge and brown, I slog in some commercial stock concentrate. I buy it by the giant bottle at a restaurant supply store, it's basically just ultra-reduced stock, and it's delicious. It feels a bit like cheating, but the results are hard to argue with.
posted by KathrynT at 1:59 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I throw in a can of Chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce. Really spices things up. (Serve stew with a dollop of sour cream if too spicy-hot). No need for any other seasonings. I usually use crushed tomatoes, beer, onion, carrots, the peppers. Brown the meat--it does make a difference.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 2:09 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I use the same ingredients as you (beef chunks, potatoes, carrots, onions) in my crock pot without searing, and it turns out great. I don't want to spend the time searing either, but the instructions from Pinterest that I use don't require it.

After spraying the pot with cooking spray, I put a little olive oil in the bottom, turn it on high and toss in the beef. Then I mix 1/4 cup flour with 1/4 tsp black pepper and 1/4 tsp garlic salt in a measuring cup and sprinkle this mixture over the beef. I stir it around with the olive oil to (sort of) coat the beef. Then I dump the potatoes, carrots and onions on top, and pour in a 32oz box of Swanson's chicken broth (it's the only one I like and works equally well with beef or chicken). I put the lid on, adjust the temperature and walk away. A few hours later, dinner is ready.

I like to use the Yukon Gold potatoes because they have a buttery, sweet taste to them that really does well in a stew or soup. If they're the baby ones and small enough, I don't even cut them up and just dump them in whole. If they're too big for that, I cut them in half or quarters. Either way, I leave the skin on for more flavor.
posted by JaneL at 3:02 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I brown the beef (no dredging!) while I'm chopping potatoes & carrots. Also, ketchup, which I usually don't like, but which seems to add just the right note.
posted by epersonae at 3:09 PM on February 19, 2013

I borrow some ingredients from cuisines that have dishes that don't always involve browning, particularly Korean, Chinese and Filipino food. I'm heavy on the umami and the acid. I often use things like kimchi and pickles, which I will process with spices, herbs, and aromatics to add to the crock pot. My favorite lately is homemade harissa + kimchi + tomato paste + mint + freshly ground black pepper and cumin + tamari + shallots + garlic+ preserved lemons. Chinese black bean paste, Korean Gochujang, black garlic, and pickled Hungarian peppers are other favorites of mine to add to the crock pot. I would assume ingredients like mine would have the same effect as KathrynT's commercial stock given their high concentrations of glutamate.
posted by melissam at 3:24 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Parsnips, a whole bag. They cook down.

Get a box of lousy wine! Put it in!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:13 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

No need to brown the meat, I don't. Not as good as with browned, but **shrugs**. Use onion soup mix. If it is not rich tasting enough, I add some beef bullion. I also use parsnips, carrots, onion, waxy potatoes, and a lot of parsley.
posted by fifilaru at 4:24 PM on February 19, 2013

Best answer: Dredges? We don't need no stinking dredges!

But yeah, definitely brown the meat. It adds so much to the finished product and it SMELLS SO DAMN GOOD while you're browning it.

And put a lot of different ingredients in, but not so much of any one that it dominates: Anchovy paste, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, salt, plain old black pepper, summer savory, smoked paprika, chipotle in adobo (really doesn't take much of that to get the upper hand, though), garlic, etc.
posted by bricoleur at 4:36 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know if anyone mentioned this already, but I noticed that I get more flavor by using better/not the plainest base ingredients -- "stew beef" and white potatoes always give somewhat bland results, although frozen veg mixes and carton broth are fine with spices.
posted by sm1tten at 4:36 PM on February 19, 2013

I add a bottle of Newcastle brown ale and a packet of French onion soup mix.
posted by zombiedance at 4:45 PM on February 19, 2013

Caramelize the onions in the crockpot for 4 hours and then add everything else.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:38 PM on February 19, 2013

Club House Beef Stew For Slow Cookers seasoning mix is real good, don't know if it's available where you are, but it makes a great tasting stew and it's real easy.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 7:57 PM on February 19, 2013

I use a whole 10-12ish ounce jar of pepperoncini, juice and all.
posted by The Potate at 2:27 AM on February 20, 2013

Best answer: Slow Cooker from Scratch posted a bunch of links to beef stew variants just today. Something there might catch your attention.
posted by Su at 2:44 AM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If one thing that's making the liquid meh to you is how watery or runny it is (that is, you want something more concentrated and thick/gravylike), thicken it at the end with something like beurre manie (equal parts softened butter and flour you "knead" together before whisking in to hot liquid, usually only a tablespoon or two each) or Wondra. And I agree about adding a fresh hit of herbs or something tangy like a tiny bit of lemon or vinegar just before serving to spruce up the crock pot's typical deep but sometimes muddy/muted flavors.

Also, do you marinate/overnight rub the meat ahead of time? That's pretty hands off but helps. Find a good blend (I love Penzey's Mitchell Street, which has orange zest, yum) or make your own to store.
posted by ifjuly at 3:41 AM on February 20, 2013

Best answer: Stew without browned beef is traditionally called a daube, and there are a wide varieties of recipes for it. It isn't some unknown quantity never seen since people started watching Alton Brown.

Adding some balsamic vinegar is a great way to boost the flavor of a sauce like this, as is finishing with a bit of butter after the cooking is finished.
posted by OmieWise at 5:47 AM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Spice it up. Add some peppers, or some Sofrito base to give it a more tomato-y but deep flavor.
posted by corb at 5:49 AM on February 20, 2013

Easiest tip is to use a nice fatty and cartilage filled cut of meat, that stuff cooking down long and slow in a slow cooker is what makes the sauces delicious. If you are cooking a leaner cut of meat, the meat really isn't adding a lot to the sauces. Also make sure your meat isn't that water added crap like they do with some chicken breasts, that can make the sauces taste blergh.

My favourite recipe, that works great with chuck, lots of peppers and onions, a bunch of smokey Hungarian paprika (think 3 or 4 tablespoons at least I go up to a 1/4 of a cup) a good glug of red wine, lots of garlic and some tinned tomatoes (or even tomato soup) in with the meat. Works best if you brown the whole lot up with the meat, even the paprika but I've done it the lazy way and just thrown it all into the crock pot and it tastes almost as good.

If using a tomato base a big dash of balsamic can add a nice flavour to it.

Are you up for reducing the liquid a little after pulling the meat out, tip it in a pan and simmer it down for a few minutes before serving, because that will make almost any sauce taste better and you can season it up on the fly as needed, or add some cornstarch/water mix to thicken it.
posted by wwax at 10:09 AM on February 20, 2013

Response by poster: Wow. I expected to get some specific ideas, but got a mini-education as well. I've marked the ones I'm going to try first, but I've printed out all the answers and will probably work my way through them. Yes, even the suggestion of adding kimchi. Why not? And I'm just about completely converted to "sear the meat, for goodness sake!" Especially if I can sear the meat before freezing it. Great ideas -- thanks to everyone who took the time to answer!
posted by kestralwing at 10:25 AM on February 20, 2013

Ever since I read this comment from Heston Blumenthal about star anise, I've been putting it almost everything I make with beef. Like he says, it just adds such a nice meatiness and depth of flavor, especially when combined with caramelized onions. It's great for stews and roasts.
posted by albrecht at 11:31 AM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know this is old, but it's still open! I recently ran out of worcestershire sauce when making meatloaf and, in a fit of inspiration, substituted Chinese black bean sauce with garlic -- the kind that's just a foul black slurry. OMG BEST MEATLOAF EVER. Now I slog in a spoonful of that whenever I make soup or stew, and it really just boosts the flavor up and gives it some more "there," you know, like there's more "there" there. It doesn't add what I think of as an Asian flavor profile; I put it in a beef stew made with red wine, parsnips, turnips, celery root, bay, and thyme last night, and it was delicious. For an added bonus, it's vegetarian, so you can add it to veggie soups and stews without putting off your vegetarian friends.
posted by KathrynT at 9:24 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

« Older Is there such a thing as a hip hip bag?   |   Boost my in-law's WiFi signal (from 1500 miles... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.