A simple, hearty, satisfying beef stew generously brimming with mushrooms and crisp bacon is the stuff on which dreams are made when the skies turn grey, the leaves turn crayon-coloured, and the weather turns cooler. There is something soul-satisfying about walking from the crisp outdoor air into a warm house filled with the enticing aroma of our Best Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Bacon swirling around my head. Those moments, I just want to close my eyes and drink in that scent. Everyone in the house eagerly awaits the moment we sit down to the table to bowls brimming with tender beef, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, peas, and crispy bacon in a velvety thick beef gravy.
Please don’t let the ingredient list length deter you. Look it over… there really isn’t much prep work involved in the making of our Best Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Bacon. In fact, you’re really just chunking up the potatoes, laying them in the slow-cooker, piling on the baby carrots, then tossing the beef with a flour and spice mixture before browning it in bacon fat, piling THAT in the slow cooker, and adding the sauce ingredients to the pan you used to brown the beef in order to get all the lovely browned bits un-stuck from the pan. It’s very little work for a VERY large payoff…
One of the most common questions I get here on FWF is “Why do we need to brown meat before adding it to the slow cooker/crockpot? Why can’t we just toss it all in?”, so I want to dig into the science of why it actually matters because it really, really does matter.
Why do I need to brown meat before adding it to the crockpot or slow cooker?
- First and foremost, it’s a matter of science and taste. When you drop meat into a very hot pan (300 to 500°F), the surface of the meat cooks first. In scientific terms, the proteins on the surface of the meat are becoming denatured then recombining with the sugars present changing the colour of the outside of the meat and creating a concentrated strong flavour. This is called The Maillard Reaction. What this means in plain English is that the meat tastes meatier when you brown it first. By extension, this means that -in the case of our Best Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Bacon- it will have a fuller flavour in the final beef stew. That makes browning the meat first non-negotiable for me.
- Second, it’s a chance to introduce even more flavour to the meat in the form of the fat you choose to brown it. In this case, we are using bacon fat (oh GLORIOUS bacon fat) to brown our beef, adding a hint of that smoky, salty goodness to our browning beef.
- Third, when we brown beef that has been tossed in seasoned flour, we are effectively building the base for the thick beef gravy that will form around our ingredients as the stew cooks away. How so? The base of most gravies is starch (usually flour) cooked in fat, then whisked with stock or broth. In the case of our slow-cooker, we are cooking the flour in fat as we brown the beef, then letting it bubble merrily with the stock as the whole shebang cooks together.
- When I say largish chunks of potatoes, I mean that when faced with a medium sized Yukon gold potato, I cut it in half first, then cut each half into two or three pieces. This ensures that the pieces are not so small that they’ll fall apart in the slow cooker, nor are they so large that they will remain raw in the center or be too large to eat easily.
- Baby carrots are a perfectly legitimate short cut for our Best Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Bacon. They’re already the perfect size and all you have to do is chuck them into the slow cooker on top of your potato layer. If you prefer to use whole carrots, just scrub or peel them and cut them into chunks about the size of a baby carrot.
- I find it easiest to mix the flour, paprika, salt, and pepper in a gallon sized zipper top bag. That way, I can toss the beef into the bag, seal it, shake it around a bit, then transfer the coated beef to a plate to await browning. Repeat until all the beef has been coated with the flour. Less mess!
- As always, use a red wine you’d be happy to sip for the best results. If you are opposed to cooking with wine, substitute an additional 1/2 cup of beef broth or stock.
- The reasoning behind bringing the gravy/sauce ingredients to a boil in the pan you used to brown the meat is two-fold. First, you get to loosen all those lovely bits of brown goodness that stuck to the pan. Those are flavour bombs. We don’t want to miss those! Second, it combines the sauce without stirring. We want to preserve the potato and carrot layers as they are on the bottom of the slow-cooker.
- Cremini mushrooms are also sold as baby bella mushrooms. If you can’t find them, feel free to substitute white button mushrooms.
Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Bacon
- 2 1/2 pounds of Yukon gold or red potatoes about 8 medium potatoes, cut into largish chunks
- 2 pounds of baby carrots or about 8 carrots peeled and cut into largish chunks
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons Hungarian paprika
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 1/2 pounds of top round beef cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 pound of bacon cooked 'til crisp and drained, fat reserved
- 2 cups beef broth or stock
- 1/2 cup chianti or dry red wine
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 large onion peeled and cut into wedges
- 1 pound cremini mushrooms quartered
- 3 sprigs of thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cups frozen peas
- chopped parsley and chives
- Layer the potatoes and then carrots in the crock of a 6.5 to 8 quart slow cooker. Cover, but do not turn on yet.
- Combine the flour, paprika, salt, and pepper in a zipper top bag, close, and shake to combine. Open the bag, add the beef cubes, and shake to coat evenly. Remove the beef from the bag, shake off excess flour, and set on a plate. Heat 2 tablespoons of bacon fat in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add a single layer of beef cubes, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Let the beef cubes rest on the one side, undisturbed, until you can lift one and it is brown on the bottom, rotate the cubes to brown on all sides. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to transfer the beef cubes to the slow-cooker, and repeat with remaining cubes, adding more bacon fat if needed.
- While the beef is browning, whisk together the beef broth or stock, wine, tomato paste, fish sauce or soy sauce. When all of the beef has been browned and added to the slow cooker, return the pan to the heat and pour in the liquid ingredients, scraping the pan to release any flavourful fond from the pan. As that comes to a boil, scatter the garlic slices, onion wedges, quartered mushrooms, thyme sprigs, and bay leaf over and among the beef cubes. Once the liquids reach the boiling point, pour it over the contents of the slow-cooker, cover, and cook on HIGH for 3 to 4 hours, or until the beef, carrots, and potatoes are tender. Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs (if you used them). Stir in the frozen peas, replace the lid on the slow-cooker and cook for 10 minutes, or until the peas are hot all the way through.
- Just before serving, crumble the reserved crispy bacon over the top of the bowl. Garnish with parsley and chives, if desired.