I don’t eat much red meat, but when I get a hankering for it, the craving comes on strong. And for me, nothing satisfies a craving quite like a hot bowl of beef stew. That is, as long as it’s a really flavorful beef stew, not the bland kind.
Luckily, long ago I discovered a budget-friendly and simple pantry ingredient that takes my beef stew to the next level. A bit of tomato paste amps up the flavor of beef stew, giving it a richness and a punch of umami that makes the stew truly memorable.
Why You Should Use Tomato Paste in Your Beef Stew
While I’d used tomato paste to deepen the flavor of pasta sauces and chilis, I owe the idea of adding tomato paste to beef stew to this fabulous classic beef stew recipe by Meredith Laurence of Blue Jean Chef.
I contacted Laurence to get the lowdown on why she adds tomato paste to her beef stew. “I include tomato paste in many braised recipes because it adds a depth of flavor without increasing the liquid quantity in the dish,” Laurence explains. “Tomato paste is concentrated tomatoes and as a result has a concentrated flavor even in small amounts.”
How To Upgrade Your Beef Stew With Tomato Paste
Like Laurence, I start by browning the meat in oil in a large pot or Dutch oven, then remove the meat from the pan and brown the aromatics like onions and garlic. I add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, which I cook for a few minutes before deglazing the pan with wine and proceeding with the recipe.
The key to using tomato paste in beef stew and other braises is to cook it briefly, rather than just globbing it into the liquid.
“Because the tomatoes in tomato paste have already been cooked, you don’t have to cook it, but toasting it with other aromatic ingredients (onions, garlic, dried herbs, and spices) does enhance the flavor even more and can bring out more toasted and sweeter notes,” Laurence explains.
Another Secret Ingredient That’s Based on Science
“Whenever I add ingredients to a dish, I always think about the fact that flavors can be water-soluble, fat-soluble, or alcohol-soluble,” Laurence adds, getting into the science behind the deliciousness of her beef stew recipe.
“This means that different flavors come out when combined with each of these different liquids. The flavor you get from tomato paste when you cook it in oil before adding liquid is different from the flavor you might get if you just stirred it into the liquid without cooking it in oil first,” she explains. And as I’ve learned, it’s always best to “toast” the tomato paste in the oil before adding any liquid.
Laurence further reveals that “adding wine or other alcohol brings out different flavors (those that are alcohol-soluble) that wouldn’t otherwise be expressed in the dish. There are flavors in tomatoes that are alcohol-soluble, so adding red wine along with tomato paste also helps to enhance beef stew.”
Laurence has a few other tricks I’ve borrowed to create the best beef stew, including adding Worcestershire, which gets a serious umami punch from anchovies. “By combining tomato paste, red wine, and Worcestershire sauce in this beef stew recipe, you’re capturing as many flavor components as possible and ensuring a delicious meal,” she says.
Other Popular Recipes Call For Tomato Paste
Laurence isn’t the only one who uses the combo of tomato paste with fat and alcohol to bolster the flavor of beef stew. Culinary icon Julia Child uses tomato paste and red wine in her classic Beef Bourguignon and this hearty Irish Beef Stew uses tomato paste in addition to Guinness and red wine.
The great news is that you can use tomato paste to bring a depth of flavor to just about any meaty stew or braise. After you brown the meat and cook your aromatics, simply stir in a few tablespoons of tomato paste and heat it gently to amplify its flavors before continuing with your recipe—it’s a budget-friendly, simple trick that makes all the difference.