As the days shorten and the temperatures drop, a hearty stew with its rich sauce and perfectly tender meat is an ideal comfort food. Stews come from all cultures, where they were originally peasant food – the rich got the best cuts for roasting.
Braising and stewing are interchangeable terms; both mean long, slow cooking in liquid, usually in the oven to ensure even heat. The best cuts for stewing are the tougher ones, which have more flavour and texture. Think beef chuck, shoulder, shanks and short ribs; pork butt, shoulder and belly; lamb shoulder, shank and breast. Tender cuts dry out more easily. Don’t be misled; more expensive meat doesn’t mean better results. Vegetables can make a great stew, too. Cut them in larger pieces and continue as below. Use some exciting spicing, such as berbere or garam masala.
Choosing the right pot is important. Too large a pot causes the gravy to evaporate too quickly; too small means the meat cooks unevenly. Cubed stewing meat should sit in two layers, while one whole piece of meat should fit snugly inside the pot. Trim off most of the fat and cut the meat into uniform pieces for even cooking.
Pat the protein dry with paper towels and season on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat a film of vegetable or olive oil on high heat until smoking, then add the meat a few pieces at a time, browning on all sides. Do not crowd the pot or the heat will drop, causing the meat to release its juices and produce steam. This results in a greyish, flat stew. You may need to do this step in batches. If all the oil has been soaked up, add more and reheat before continuing.
Remove browned meat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Lower the heat to medium and saute chopped onions and carrots if using. Add flavourings such as spices, garlic, ginger, or herbs at this point and toss together. Return meat and any juices to pot, then add other liquids such as stock to come halfway up meat. Do not immerse the meat totally, or the gravy will be weak and thin. And don’t use water – it makes for an uninspired sauce.
After browning, transfer the pot to the oven and use gentle heat (325 F) to cook the meat slowly. Turning the heat up will only toughen the meat; the dish won’t cook any faster. The stew is cooked when the meat can be pierced with a fork, usually about 2 hours for beef, 1½ hours for lamb or pork.
Root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and onion chunks, can be added about 1 hour before the meat is finished. More tender vegetables, such as zucchini, cabbage, mushrooms or peas, are added about 15 minutes before the end of cooking time. I like a meat-to-vegetables ratio of 2:1.
Thicken the stew with flour, cornstarch or arrowroot. If you use flour, add it to the oil after the meat is browned and cook for a minute. (Alternatively, toss the meat with flour before browning.) Cornstarch and arrowroot should be mixed with water then stirred into the stew when it is finished cooking.
You can also let the stew thicken naturally by boiling down the stewing liquid or pureeing the stewing liquid with some of the vegetables.
Stews reheat beautifully and taste even better the next day. They also freeze well.
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