Why “a” beef stew? Because I’ll be posting more than one eventually. Like all soups there is more than one that can be considered a beef stew, and this is one I’d have at least one version on the menu every time.
Now before I go into details, I want to point out that stew is a peasant dish, originally. A lot of the underlying elements are due to that fact. That said, there are a lot of peasant elements that got removed when it became a meal their betters decided wasn’t too bad and wanted on the table as a change of pace. As a specific case of the latter, peasant soup is rarely thick and rich. Richness means it needs more water so it will serve more people – or more meals to the same group of people. Fortunately, I’m not making soup for historical authenticity, I’m making it to feed folk. That said, there is another historical effect. The meat for this is supposed to be the tough pieces high in cartilage. The reason should be pretty obvious – our high nobles took (among many other things) the good parts of the meat animal for their own tables. You use what’s left, doncha know.
With the type of meat we’re using, we aren’t going to eat it rare. Oh, we could get some pretty tasty meat – as we worked our way around the meat bubblegum. Bleah. If on the other hand we cook it for a long, long time almost all the bubblegum turns to juicy goodness in our stew. Now we already got here due to how I make broth, so you’re going to hit extraordinary levels. (On the other hand, peasants would have started with water. Waste all that meat and bone to throw it away? Are you crazy? Oh, no, you’re just not poor.)
So. Beef stews (and for that matter many stews) are long cook affairs. Meat, veggies, and liquid simmered for several hours. A few get some special notice – a particular required ingredient that makes it stand out. That may be a veggie or a spice or it could be some sort of extra thickener.
Let me start with my basic – truly, absolutely BASIC – beef stew. The veggies are potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. If I’ve got them on hand I’ll also toss in a few turnips. Now I want, by weight, as much potato as I have meat. I want half that weight (each) of carrots, celery and onions. EVERYTHING gets cut into bite sized chunks. I’m also going to need several cups of broth (oddly I can get it about right by doubling the weight of everything else combined and then reducing that by about one half pound), and I like to add about a cup of red wine. Yes, a CUP – eight ounces. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The meat gets a special treatment first. I brown it. I toss it with a little bit of oil – just barely enough to make it glisten – and toss a handful at a time into the bottom of my cooking dish. Every minute or two I turn the meat so it’ll brown on more than one side. When it’s brown all around or seems to be getting past medium, which ever comes first, I pull the meat and set it aside, wait a moment for the pan to reheat, and do the next handful of meat. When the meat is done it goes into the stewpot along with everything else – all the veggies, and enough broth to cover everything by about two inches.
I see I need to digress a moment. If I’m at home, this is a crockpot meal. Yes, the dutch oven or deep enameled casserole or even stainless steel stewpot is great for this, but crockpots can be left pretty much to themselves. Unfortunately, you (or at least I) can’t brown meat in the ceramic pot. So what I have to do is brown in a skillet, and as these finish put them into the crockpot. I go ahead and put all the veggies and about half the broth into the crockpot while I brown, and as each pan of meat is browned it gets added as well. When the meat is all done I deglaze the skillet with red wine. I then pour that in, and use the remaining broth to finish rinsing all the good bits from the skillet.
Hey, a digression on a digression – it’s a GOOD day. When you cook meat in a hot pan, it leaves little brown chunks on the bottom. Now these can burn if you’re not careful so try to avoid that. The reason is that these chunks are delicious. They’re nothing BUT the brown from the meat. They are also, unfortunately, difficult to remove from the pan just by using a spoon. Enter deglazing. What you’re doing is washing your pan with an edible liquid and no soap (grin), and then enhancing your final dish by using the resulting liquid and brown bits. If you let your liquid sit over heat too long it’ll thicken and be a bit harder to remove – it may glaze your pan, in other words. This is why I do this ‘double deglaze’ trick. One true deglaze, and then a rinse.
So I’ve got all the meat, veggies, and liquids in the pot. If it’s stovetop I bring it all to a boil then turn it down to a very low simmer. If it’s crockpot it’s on low and I walk away. I check it, either way, every half-hour to hour to see if I need to add more broth so it doesn’t burn. Odds are if I’m using a lid and I’ve got the temperature right I don’t, but I need to make sure.
Cook time is four to six hours. Yes, I said four to six, not one to two. Everything – meat and veggies both – is going to be very close to falling apart at a touch. Heck, some of it will have done so. And that’s just fine.
About half an hour before finish, it’s time to add spices. See, spices are volatile. With a very small handful of exceptions anything you put in at the start of a marathon stewing session is going to be very, very close to gone by the time we’re done. Half an hour is plenty of time to incorporate the flavors without having it all disappear. My preference for a stew is a bay leaf or two, several sprigs of thyme, one sprig of rosemary, a spoon or two of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. I tend to go light on the salt and pepper here as I taste at service time and make a final adjustment – and it’s easy to overdo both salt and pepper.
At service time, take a moment to make three or four quick runs with a potato masher. You’re going to break up some of the veggies into something of, well, you’re going to mash them. When you give your final stir, the stew will thicken a bit more.
Now some comments. What if you want a bit more chew from your veggies? You’ve got two solutions. One is to not cook it as long. To me that’s problematic, but it works. The second thing – and this is related to one I’d do in a restaurant – is to reserve about half of each veggie and add them roughly an hour before service time. Do your mashing just before you add them. That last hour of cooking will still make them tender but they’ll have more resistance. The actual restaurant trick is to put them all in the pot at the start, then remove about half the veggies after an hour and put those into a holding dish in the refrigerator. Service time comes I add them to the servings, give them enough time to warm to stew temperature, and off they go to the customer.