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Feb. 9, 2023, 3:20 p.m.
Audience & Social

The New York Times’ most popular recipe is…Old-Fashioned Beef Stew?

“All of your other piddly recipes are just David in the face of beef stew. It keeps trucking.”

The most popular recipe in the New York Times Cooking database is not Sheet-Pan Gochujang Chicken. Nor is it Black Sesame Shortbread, Rigatoni and Cauliflower Al Forno, or Youvarlakia Avgolemono. (That is, Lemony Greek Meatball Soup.) The company has cultivated a diverse roster of chefs who celebrate flavors, starches, and aromatics that proudly clash with standard mid-Atlantic orthodoxy, and I honor each of them by making weekly trips to some of the more unfamiliar crannies of my grocery store. (Trending now: Coconut Chicken Curry, Green Shakshuka with Avocado and Lime, Kung Pao Cauliflower — can’t recommend that last one enough.)

But for decades now, one recipe has loomed large above the paper of record. It is strikingly un-Instagrammable, sublimely banal, and requires four primary ingredients. It is everything the modern New York Times’ cooking section isn’t. It’s Molly O’Neill’s “Old-Fashioned Beef Stew,” originally published in 1994.

There are no curveballs in O’Neill’s method; no demands to gut your pantry; no mentions of julienne vegetables, mandolins, or the Maillard Reaction. You’ll need potatoes, carrots, onions, and — yes — beef, alongside a fistful of North American mainstays (flour, red wine, oil, herbs). “There is no high drama about simmering a stew,” O’Neill wrote in her 1994 column, titled “A Simmer of Hope.” “However fine, stew is a homey, intimate exchange, a paean to the way living things improve when their boundaries relax, when they incorporate some of the character and flavor of others.” It’s true. You likely don’t need a recipe to make beef stew, unless you’re taking your first few nervous steps toward the stovetop.

The New York Times published 700 recipes last year, but hardly any of them match the vise grip Old Fashioned Beef Stew holds on the cooking division’s search metrics. The recipe, with more than 19,000 reviews and an average rating of 5 stars, has been viewed over 24 million times since 2019, with 6.7 million of those visits occurring in 2022 alone. That averages out to around 18,000 hits per day, the sort of SEO ubiquity that S’Mores Crispy Treats could only dream about. Internally, Times food and cooking editor Emily Weinstein says the dominance of O’Neill’s stew serves as something of a benchmark for the other recipes published by their chefs. “If a recipe happens to have more traffic in a particular week, we’re like, ‘Watch out, beef stew!'” she said. “It’s a Goliath. All of your other piddly recipes are just David in the face of beef stew. It keeps trucking.”

I am part of that flock. The recipe entered my life in late 2020. I had barely explored any of the kitchens I inhabited until the Covid lockdown, when the threat of malnourishment encouraged me to expand my horizons. I graduated from collegiate spaghetti boils to tasteful stir-fries as the months passed in that hallucinogenic year, growing in confidence by deducing the hieroglyphics of food preparation. (Ah, so that’s what it means to reduce a sauce.) So the wintry mix outside my window was the exact sort of calendar excuse I needed to take a half-step up in my epicurean journey. A good beef stew remained just outside my nascent culinary instincts, which is why I Googled up a recipe and became one of O’Neill’s innumerable students. If there is one common attribute among the millions and millions of people who’ve landed on Old Fashioned Beef Stew, I imagine it’s a desire to officially call themselves a cook — which, for my money, can only occur after you’ve simmered broth over the course of a languid afternoon.

“It has a touch of occasion to it, because it’s hearty and going to take a bit of time to cook, but it’s not complicated. It will likely taste the same as beef stew you ate as a child,” said Alicia Kennedy, a food writer who authors a smart, wide-ranging newsletter, when I asked her why she believes O’Neill’s recipe technique reigns supreme. “My hypothesis about really successful recipes is that they’re not usually too complicated or too out of the box. People cooking at home crave novelty at times, sure, but the thing that’ll make a recipe a go-to classic is that it will be simple, accessible, and filling for a family. Does it say something about the demographics of the Times cooking section readers that this wins out, an American classic with a European flavor profile? Absolutely.”

Kennedy is spot-on there, though it should be said that nearly every eating tradition on the planet includes some version of a beef stew (beef bourguignon, Taiwanese lanzhou, Moroccan tagine, Dominican carne guisada. O’Neill’s version possesses a chilly Midwestern vibe — everything, from the “old-fashioned” pretext on down, is designed to feel nostalgic, rustic, and wholesomely American — but an unctuous bowl of braised vegetables and murky chunks of protein ought to be a fixture in any cooking section, regardless of its homely pedigree. I wondered if that ever humbles those who make a living in a pop-culinary expanse. Home cooking has gotten more adventurous over the course of the last 20 years. The New York Times is publishing recipes for foods like vegan chorizo, which call for steps like reconstituting dried chiles. (One reader comment on the Times’ recipe for Homemade Hamburger Helper: “After spending a good hour and a half in the kitchen — on a recipe inspired by a convenience product, of all things — my teen son and I decided it would more accurately be titled ‘Hamburger Complicater.'”) Perhaps the pervasiveness of the Old-Fashioned Beef Stew is just more proof that in a media ecosystem that enumerates its market value by pageviews, the people will always tell us what they want — even if it’s something that we, the professionals, are not especially interested in writing about.

“As writers and editors we are drawn to interesting ideas. Or writing about things that our audience might know less about. We’re excited about new things. It’s the newspaper. We want to tell them about a new method, or making a case for a technique that has fallen out of fashion. If you’re a culinary professional, you don’t necessarily want to be making the simplest foods,” said Weinstein. “But at the end of the day, the vast majority of home cooks want to be making food that’s straightforward. Beef stew isn’t hard.”

Weinstein also believes that O’Neill’s recipe is still delicious. It has avoided many of the pitfalls of other culinary relics from the ’80s and ’90s, in the sense that it isn’t studded with sun-dried tomatoes, or choking on cream, or paired with baked brie. “You can buy a leather jacket that will still look good 10 years from now,” adds Weinstein. “There are not a lot of bells and whistles in that recipe. A lot of recipes from that era feel dated. But not beef stew.”

O’Neill died in 2019, after a struggle with cancer, at the age of 66. She enjoyed the enormous life of a New York food writer, soaking up the flavors of the city and spilling those ideas back into an extensive bibliography. Poke around the internet and you’ll find her guides to pork dumplings, empanadas, and Vietnamese sweet and sour soup. Veterans at the Times remember her as a spiritual ancestor to globetrotting bon vivants like Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold, who nurtured the conviction that the best meal of your life will likely be found a long way from the Four Seasons. “She planted such an incredible flag for food writing in the ’90s,” said Weinstein. “It wasn’t just beef stew. She wrote some amazing, very journalistic pieces.”

Food culture moves at hyperspeed in 2023. A zillion recipes clip through my Instagram feed in the blink of an eye. But piercing through the morass of feta pastas and whipped coffees, Molly O’Neill tells the world the order in which they should simmer their vegetables. We have questions, and she’ll always have the answer.

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. See his previous stories for Nieman Lab here.

Photo by Simona Sergi on Unsplash.

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2023, 3:20 p.m.
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