First, chefs use really good meat. If you want to make the best stew you've ever eaten, buy some grass-fed beef. Whole Foods is a reliable source for this ingredient, which you can often buy already cubed for stew.
Second, chefs saute vegetables to form a flavor base for the stew; this is called a "mirepoix" (pronounced mir-pwa'). A lot more vegetables than you would think necessary (usually onion or leeks, celery, carrot and garlic) are diced and cooked in a bit of fat until they are softened.
Third, chefs sear the meat. When meat is seared, a "Maillard reaction" occurs, creating even more flavor. When searing, they space the meat in the pan so that it does not touch. It takes 2-3 batches to do this, but if you add too much meat at once, the meat throws off water so that instead of searing, it actually steams instead, and you lose out on those flavors.
Fourth, once all the sauteing and searing is done, chefs remove everything and "deglaze" the pan with a liquid, usually wine or broth. This not only captures all the flavors created above, but - bonus - it cleans up the bottom of the pan very nicely!
Fifth, chefs add fresh herbs. Thyme is great, but sage and rosemary play well too as does some fresh flat-leafed parsley at the end. More complex flavor!
Finally, chefs braise. They put all the ingredients back in the pan, add enough beef broth or wine to cover much of the beef and bring it a boil. Then they cover the pot tightly with foil or parchment, put the lid on and slide it into a 325 oven until the beef is meltingly tender and irresistible. If adding potatoes, they wait until about 1 hour before the end and add the potatoes in 1-1/2" cubes, cooking the stew until the potatoes are just done.
It's not every night that you want to cook like a chef, but for those nights that you do, beef stew is a great recipe to try.
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