Stew 101

by Jane Wangersky | December 12th, 2014 | Cooking Basics

stew (400x400)It’s easy to see why pretty much every culture that arose in a place with any kind of winter has come up with some form of stew: It’s warming like soup, but more solid, with enough heft to serve as the day’s main meal. And — like ground meat — it turns some of the tougher parts of an animal into something tender and tasty. Believe it or not, it’s also pretty easy to make. The time it takes is way more of a consideration than the work involved.

At the store you’ll see stewing cubes, chunks of beef about an inch on each side. They’re good to start with; later you can get into buying uncut beef and cubing it yourself to save money, or experimenting with other meats.

The meat will be cooking much longer than most of the other ingredients, unless you’re using a slow cooker, and I’m going with top-of-the-stove here. Several hours before you want to eat, you’ll need to toss the meat cubes in a little flour. You know me, I use blending flour for this, but all-purpose will work too. Shake them in a plastic bag till the meat’s lightly coated. It doesn’t have to be perfectly even. But the leftover flour does have to be thrown out to avoid contamination.

Next the floured meat should be browned in hot fat — quickly, so it doesn’t have time to toughen even more (if it weren’t tough already, it wouldn’t be sold as stew meat). There should just be a little browning on all sides — but again, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can use any kind of cooking fat, like vegetable oil or butter, but bacon fat gives a faint smoky taste you may like. If you’ve got a lot of meat, don’t try to brown it all at once, it’ll turn grey instead.

When the meat’s all browned, drain off the fat that’s left, if there is any. I often find myself with none. You can degrease later, after all. But if color’s important to you, you may want to take the time to chop an onion and cook it lightly (separately from the meat) in the leftover fat, then add it to the stew later. This will add a touch of brown to the liquid.

Speaking of the liquid, you’re ready for it now. Stock or broth is good, but if you use commercial versions, water it down till it tastes a little too weak (it will cook down and grow stronger, not to mention pick up flavor from the beef) and add no salt. Canned tomatoes, juice and all, are also good. Add spices now too.

Bring the meat and liquid to a boil, then turn it down low to a simmer. Cover if you want, but make sure it doesn’t boil again. Now all you have to do for hours is stir once in awhile. Add vegetables 20–30 minutes before mealtime; the meat should already be tender. When the vegetables are done, thicken the liquid if it needs it — read how here.

You’ve just cooked a great winter meal in one pot.

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