How to Make a Great Stew Recipe
Nothing hits the spot on a cold, snowy day than a rich, steaming bowl of stew. But what is a stew, exactly, and how to stew properly?
Stew is the name of a dish and a cooking method. Stew, the dish, is loosely defined as meat or fish and vegetables cooked by stewing. Stew, the cooking method, is a moist heat cooking process by which meat and vegetables are slowly simmered in a flavorful liquid.
Stews v. Braises
In a stew, the meat is generally cut into chunks, while meat is often left whole in a braise. In a stew, the liquid usually covers the meat, and in a braise, the liquid might only come halfway up the sides of the meat. Those are differences in degree, though. These two cooking methods - and the dishes created using them - are almost identical for my money.
A Little Stewing History
Cooking by boiling has occurred for literally tens of thousands of years. This technique has been refined over the years, of course, and references to more modern stews can be found throughout recorded history, from the lentil stew in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to Hungarian Goulash with paprika in the 1700s to Byron’s reference to Irish Stew in 1814.
Stews exist worldwide, although they might not be called “stew.” Other names you might have heard include Kentucky’s burgoo, French Cassoulet, Ratatouille, Beef Bourguignon and Bouillabaisse, India’s infinite number of curries, Louisiana’s gumbo, Hungary’s famed goulash, and Mexican/Tex-Mex Chili con Carne. Furthermore, people all over the world stew every day without a recipe and without calling it a specific name.
What to Stew
The best cuts of meat for stewing are the toughest ones found nearest the “hoof and the horn.” Prime stewing candidates include shank, brisket, chuck, oxtail, and round. Don’t limit your stews to beef, though. Irish stew shines because of lamb or mutton, and carnitas is a fantastic crispy pork stew. And don’t forget the chicken. After all, dark-meat chicken is the star of Coq au Vin.
The best fish to stew is thick, meaty steaks. Since all seafood is relatively lean, you don’t want to cook a fish stew for as long as you would a beef or pork stew. Consider cod, halibut, snapper, grouper, shark, and sea bass appropriate for stew. Stewing time may be as short as ten minutes, so be prepared and read your recipe carefully.
You can also stew vegetables. French Ratatouille is just stewed vegetables, and good individual candidates for stewing include eggplant, tomatoes, celery, celery root, leeks, cabbage, fennel, and almost any tough greens, such as collard greens, chard, kale, or mustard greens.
How to Stew
The general method of preparing a stew is:
- Dredge chunks of meat in seasoned flour (this will help thicken the stew later.
- Sear meat on all sides in a bit of oil in a Dutch Oven (or whatever pan you’ll be stewing) until deep brown. Set the meat aside.
- In the same pan, cook chopped mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery) or trinity (onions, celery and green pepper) until golden brown. Add any dried herbs and spices at this point.
- Deglaze with liquid - beef stock, chicken stock, water, wine, beer - whatever the recipe, or your taste, calls for.
- Add the meat back to the pan. Pour enough liquid to cover the meat, and bring it to a simmer.
- Cover tightly, and finish stewing in the oven at a low temperature - around 300 degrees F, is a good target. This could take anywhere from just 10 minutes for some vegetables and fish to upwards of two hours for tougher cuts of beef or mutton. Again, check your recipe.
- Remove the pot from the oven, and skim off any unwanted fat. If the liquid is thinner than you want, you may thicken it with some cornstarch dissolved in cold liquid or some buerre mani - this is just a fancy French term for equal parts of butter and flour kneaded together to make a dough. Whichever method you use, bring the cooking liquid to a boil so the starch can thicken the cooking liquid.
The vegetables in a long-cooking stew are useless at the end of the process. You can either discard them and add “new” vegetables during the last 30 minutes or so of the stewing process or leave some of the spent vegetables in the stew and use your stick blender to blend them into the sauce to help thicken it.
You can stew in a Dutch Oven or a crock pot. Don’t knock the crock pot - these long, slow, moist cooking methods were what they were made for, and they are very good at it.
You will note that I said you want to brown your meat and vegetables in the pot you’ll be stewing in. When using a crock pot, this isn’t an option. In this case, do all the browsing in a sauté pan, deglaze with the liquid specified in the recipe, and scrape up all the fond (browned bits). This is where all the flavor is. Now, you can pour the vegetables and the deglazing liquid into the crock pot.
You will be fine if you don’t have a crock pot, but ensure your Dutch oven is completely oven-safe. If it has plastic or other composite handles, err on the side of caution and stew on the stovetop on a very low setting, but it is worth your time to seek out a sturdy, all metal Dutch oven that is suitable for use in the oven.
One of the best ways to develop deep and wonderful flavors in a stew is to sear the meat and the vegetables before stewing. Since a stew is a moist heat cooking method and never rises above the boiling temperature of water, the meat will never get hot enough to brown. The boiling point of water is 212 degrees F at sea level, and the browning reactions don’t start at temperatures below 330 degrees F, so it’s essential to use a dry heat cooking method to encourage the browning that will result in an intensely flavorful and satisfying dish.
Some “blond” stews - fricassee, for one - do not call for browning. If you want to remain faithful to the recipe, don’t brown the meat or the vegetables for these types of dishes. Just know that the final product will have a more delicate and less complex flavor than stews that start with browning the meat and vegetables.
Classic Beef Stew
There are infinite recipes for beef stew. If you just did a Google search, it would come back with over half a million hits!
This is one that I like to make. I use some red wine for depth of flavor and homemade chicken or turkey stock. Sometimes making a beef stew with wine and beef stock makes it almost too rich. Using a lighter stock is a good compromise.
Beef Stew Recipe
- 2 pounds beef suitable for stewing - chuck is nice for this - cut up into 2 inch cubes
- 1 cup all purpose flour well seasoned with salt and pepper.
- 2 tablespoons canola oil or other neutral oil
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 4 oz fresh mushrooms sliced, try crimini or button
- 2 medium carrots chopped
- 2 ribs celery chopped Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flake more or less, to taste
- 1 shallot minced (you could use garlic, if you prefer)
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning or herb blend of your choice
- ½ bottle dry red wine
- chicken stock or turkey stock, enough to just cover the meat
- 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes scrubbed, (peel them if you want to) cut into large chunks
- 4 carrots scrubbed, (peel them if you want to) cut into 1 ½ inch chunks
- 1 can pearl onions drained (or, about 2 cups fresh pearl onions, skins removed)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil extra virgin, optional
- Preheat the oven to 300° F.
- Dredge the beef chunks in the well-seasoned flour. Knock off the excess.
- Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat for 3 - 4 minutes.
- Add 2 tablespoons of the canola oil and heat the oil until the oil shimmers in the pan. Brown the meat in batches but don't crowd the pan. Sear on all sides until a deep brown.Remove and reserve.
- In the same pan, fry the bacon for a couple of minutes. You don't have to get it crispy, you just want to render out some of the fat. Pour off some of the fat, leaving about 2 tablespoons in the pan.
- Sauté the onions, mushrooms, carrots and celery in the same pan along with the bacon and a heavy pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Add the tomato paste and dried herbs. Saute for another minute or two. Watch your heat and turn it up or down, as needed to keep a good "sizzle" going without any smoking.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine. Reduce the wine by half.
- Add the meat back into the pan, and add the chicken or turkey stock to barely cover the meat. Heat on the stove top until simmering. Cover the Dutch oven tightly, and put it on a rack in the lower third of the oven. Stew for about 2½ hours.
- Take the stew out of the oven. Working quickly, carefully remove the meat to a platter and cover tightly with foil. Strain the cooking liquid and skim off the fat. Pour the strained and de-fatted cooking liquid back in the Dutch oven. Add back about half of the spent vegetables, leaving the bacon. With a stick blender, puree the liquid.
- Put the meat and the liquid in a large container. Cool it down quickly. I put float ice packs in gallon-sized zipper bags in the stew to chill it quickly. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, pull off any additional solidified fat from the top of the stew.
- Put the stew back into a Dutch oven and add the cut up potatoes, carrots and the pearl onions. Bring up to a simmer and simmer on low heat, covered, until the vegetables are tender.
- Stir in the olive oil always do as a nod to my heart, but you are welcome to leave it out.
- Serve in bowls with some hearty bread and a salad.
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