I stumbled upon my cheap chuck roast on a recent trip to the grocery store. They had a buy-one-get-one-free, so I ended up with two 2.5-lb cheap chuck roasts for about $18, or $9 each. I love to think I got a decent deal, although I really did not know what I was going to do with them.
I got the cheap chuck roasts home, tossed one in the freezer and pondered what to do with the other. I really love beef stew but it was the middle of summer and stew seemed like something I should save for when it’s really cold out. I wanted something beefy but on the lighter side.
The Onions Called Out to Me
Luckily at this time of year around here we get a wonderful seasonal onion called a Walla Walla Sweet. Its counterpart on the East Coast is the equally yummy Vidalia. These Walla Wallas are typically quite large and make great rounds for topping giant burgers. There’s also a local chain restaurant called Burgerville that turns them into gigantic onion rings. Once I saw these onions I knew that I wanted to try the 70s classic French onion soup but with the a few stew ingredients. This would give me something relatively light but extremely delicious and satisfy my craving for beefy goodness.
How I Crafted This Cheap Chuck Roast French Onion Stew
Since I decided that the stew base would be French onion and I wanted to keep it light, I really did not want to add much else to stew. I settled on the simple base ingredients of the chuck roast beef, a bunch of onions, and a bunch of mushrooms, and some yummy crusty bread to soak up the broth.
I learned to really start building flavors by cooking using recipes from the venerated Julia Childs. I wanted to cook each ingredient individually to maximize its flavor and thereby adding to the whole, which would then be combined and reduced somewhat to create a concentration of flavor. This reduction technique is a staple of French cooking.
Brown the Chuck Roast
I started with the meat, which I had trimmed of all its far and cubed in roughly 1-inch squares. I carefully browned it in butter and a little leftover beef fat in my 5-quart Lodge cast iron dutch oven. Once done I removed it from the dutch oven but kept the fond, which is the browned bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. That fond provides depth of flavor.
Cooking the Mushrooms
Then I cooked the mushrooms, again in a little butter and beef fat. Mushrooms are interesting in that they first soak up all the oil in the pot and then start to release their water, forming a luscious mushroom broth, which reduces as the mushrooms cook and becomes very concentrated. If you cook them long enough they will dry out completely and begin to brown. I wanted some mushroom broth so I pulled them off the heat after they stopped releasing water but before all the liquid dried out. This technique also pulls most of the fond from cooking the meat off the bottom of the pot and add it to the mushroom broth.
Cooking the Onions – This is the Major Key to Success in this French Onion Stew
The preceding two steps came easily but I was now facing the truth of this dish. The onions need to be properly cooked and reduced until they turn a light caramel color.
If you undercook them they will not develop a full and sweet flavor. If you burn them then you will mask all that beautiful onion flavor and your dish will simply taste like burned onions. So, just as in cooking a roux, you will want to stay in the kitchen, stirring the onions regularly until they are done.
I made sure my pan heat was at medium, although if you want to give yourself even more leeway you would go medium low. I then added the onions and more butter and cooked them down, stirring thoroughly every 2-3 minutes for about 20 minutes until they had turned translucent, lost most of their volume and liquid and had just begun to stick to the bottom of the pot. At this point they had just started to take on a slight beige color.
For the next 10-15 minutes I would stir them about every minute, making sure to scrape any onions sticking to the bottom or sides of the pot. I did this until the onions had turned a light caramel color. I thought about cooking them to a darker color but my son’s car battery died I knew I needed to wrap this dish up and get it into the oven!
Combining the Rest of the French Onion Stew Ingredients
With the onions done, I added thyme and a couple of bay leaves and let them cook and bloom in the onions. Then I added white wine and cooked off the alcohol. I then combined the cooked mushrooms, beef and broth. Finally, I added a couple of tbsp of reduced sodium soy sauce, just to add a little more depth to this dish. Soy sauce often can be used in rich dishes in place of salt and you’ll find yourself reaching for it more often in unexpected instances. I brought the whole thing to a boil, turn off the heat, gave it a good stir and popped it into a 300 degree oven for about 3 hours.
How Did The Cheap Chuck Roast French Onion Stew Turn Out?
Everyone in the family found something to love in this dish. My daughter tore through the mushrooms and used several pieces of bread to sop up the broth. My wife and I greedily gulped our portions down, me secretly hoping the kids would not enjoy it so I could have more. She said she wanted twice the onions and twice the mushrooms. My son had the same reaction as we did and reached for seconds as quickly as he could.
The only thing I changed from what I made and the recipe below is I added extra broth to the recipe. My pot needed more as I did not anticipate how much would cook off in the oven.
This really does not need much in the way of condiments as the onions really star in the stew and you won’t want to mask their favor with anything too strong, so skip things like hot sauce or horseradish. You could add a dollop of sour cream, some strands of swiss cheese or even a little cream if you want the broth a little richer.
This dish was a real winner and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
French Onion Beef Stew
- Large Dutch Oven or Soup Pot (Mine is 5qt)
- Cutting Board
- Tongs or Large Wooden Spoon
- 2½ lb Chuck roast, trimmed of all fat Should be left with about 1½-2 lbs of meat. You also could use any other stew meat you find.
- 2-3 chunks Beef fat from trimmed roast You can substitute more butter for this if you don't have the fat trimmings.
- 4 lg Sweet yellow onions I uses Walla Walla sweets but you could use Vidalias or other sweet yellow onions.
- 2 lb White or crimini mushrooms, stems trimmed and sliced
- 48 oz Beef stock or broth
- ½ cup Dry white wine
- 3 tbsp Butter or neutral cooking oil
- 2 Whole bay leaves
- ½ tsp Ground or rubbed thyme You also can use a few sprigs of fresh thyme if you have it.
- 2 tbsp Soy sauce I used low sodium in this recipe.
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 300°
- Trim fat off roast and cut into roughly 1-inch cubes. Reserve a few chunks of fat.
- Put large dutch oven or soup pot on stove top on medium high heat. Add 2 tbsp of butter and a chunk of beef fat.
- Once butter has stopped bubbling, add enough beef cubes to cover bottom of the pan and brown on two side for 2 minutes each side. Use tongs to turn the meat.
- Remove first batch of beef to plate or bowl and do remainder of beef this way (2 minutes per side) until all meat is browned. (It took me 3 batches.) The meat will yield juices as it rests on the plate or bowl. Keep it to add to the stew! Discard the beef fat chunk. You should have some brown bits on the bottom of the pan, which is called fond and adds to the flavor so don't clean it out.
- While you are browning meat, brush any dirt off the mushrooms (don't wash them) and trim about a ½ inch off the mushroom stems and discard. Slice the mushrooms in ¼-inch slices. Place the mushroom slices in a bowl.
- Cut the ends off the onions, cut them in half from end to end, then slice them in ¼-inch slices. You also could simply dice them but this way is really fast and easy.
- Once all the meat is browned, add another chunk of beef fat or a tbsp of butter to the pot, along with the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Stir every couple of minutes until the mushrooms give up most of their water - about 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl along with any remaining mushroom liquid (yes, you want to keep this, too!)
- Turn the heat down on the pot to medium. add another 1 tbsp of butter then add all the sliced onions. They should nearly fill the pot! Stir the onions every few minutes until they release most of their water, turn translucent and start sticking to the bottom of the pan - about 20-30 minutes. They will have lost a lot of their volume by now.
- Once they start sticking to the pan, stir them every minute or so and try not to burn them (this is an important time in the success of this dish). If you burn any, remove them from the pan. Keep stirring them until they turn a light caramel color. (You could try to get them darker if you dare!)
- Once the onions have reached a sweet caramel color, add thyme, bay leaves and cook another minute, stirring.
- Add white wine and cook off alcohol for another minute.
- Add mushrooms and beef back (including any of their liquids) to the onions and stir to combine.
- Add broth and soy sauce, turn up heat to high and bring to a boil.
- Once boiling, turn off heat, stir, and cover pot with tight-fitting lid. Place into 300° oven for 3-4 hours or into crockpot on low for 7-8 hours.
- Remove from oven. If there's a lot of fat on the top, use a large spoon and carefully spoon as much out as you can before you stir the pot. Carefully taste and season with salt and pepper to your taste.
- Serve with your favorite toasted, crusty bread. You could add cheese to the top or sour cream. We found stronger condiments such as horseradish kills the sweet onion flavor.