Notes towards a universal stew

Winter is coming, and this is an excellent time to be experimenting with stew. I’ve been experimenting with it a good deal lately, and figured that a public platform such as a blog is the obvious place to share my working notes: Towards a Universal Stew Recipe.

Unfortunately, this is not (yet) a stew which contains the entire universe. It’s more of a template stew recipe, from which one can easily improvise something yummy. Apparently most stews can be reduced to a few common things. The recipe below takes about two hours from start to eating, and makes six servings. I’ll give the universal template along with two successful instantiations of it, a beef stew (a more informal cousin of Boeuf Bourguignon) and a chili.

The core decisions one has to make are: the meat(s), the two spice palates (meat and broth), and the vegetables. Thoughts on choosing these post-recipe.

Universal Stew

  1. The Fat: Either put ~2T of olive oil in a pot, or (tastier but treyf) cut up about four slices of bacon into strips 1″ x 1/4″, and fry them (in the pot) over medium heat; then remove the bacon and set aside, leaving the juices behind.
  2. The Meat: Cut a bit more than 1.5lbs of the meat up into bite-sized pieces, and brown it in the fat over medium heat, together with the meat spices. Remove the meat, leaving the juices behind. (Put it with the bacon)
  3. The Aromatics: Two medium onions (chopped) and 1/2 to 1 head of garlic (minced) are sort of a baseline; adjust based on the recipe. If you’re using hot peppers, they go in too. For a less thick broth, use less onion. If the base is going to be more delicate (e.g. a white wine base for seafood) consider adding more garlic. Any vegetables being added for their strong flavors go in now; so do any things which are meant to impart a deep color to the broth. (e.g., you can add grated carrots to give the broth a deep orangish red color and a good vegetable flavor; grated celery root works for that flavor, too. This is different from the carrots you add later, which are meant to taste like carrots) Sauté over medium heat until thoroughly cooked.
  4. The Base: Add the working liquid – generally, either wine or beer. A good rule of thumb is to pick something you would naturally drink with this dish; e.g., beer for chili, red wine for a beef stew, white wine for a seafood stew. Julia Child had a rule that you shouldn’t cook with any wine you wouldn’t serve at the table, but I actually think this is a bit wrong: in a drinking wine, you’re interested in subtleties of flavor which are going to boil off when you cook. For this, you want rich, robust flavors; e.g., porter makes much better chili than pilsner. Pour in about half a liter – 2/3 of a wine bottle, or 1 1/2 bottles of beer – and bring to a boil. Add the broth spices and herbs, and (if it fits with your other ingredients) about 2-3T of tomato paste. When it boils, add the meat back in*, and cook it down, stirring regularly (so that the burnt bits get mixed back in!) until the liquid is reduced by at least half.
  5. The Broth: Add about 3c of an appropriate kind of broth. (Beef broth for  beef stew, etc) Toss in all of the other vegetables. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer 45-60min.

* There are two approaches, actually. Traditionally, the meat is added in at the broth stage, along with the vegetables. This is important if you want to have a purely liquid broth base, as in a bouillabaise, because you achieve that by straining the base to remove all solids before step 5. However, if you aren’t doing that, it’s often good to add the meat much earlier, before reducing the base; that way, the flavors of the working liquid and the base spices perfuse the meat much more thoroughly. The beef stew below uses this technique.

Choosing Spices

One of the key decisions is the spice palate. The meat spices are going to be cooked directly into the meat; it’s good to pick things which would taste good if you just ate the meat straight, as-is. Salt is obviously going in there, and normally pepper is as well. A good “basic” choice is paprika and cumin; more Middle Eastern flavors can be built with less of those two and a good dose of cinnamon, or by going directly for spice blends like Ras al-Hanout or Qalat Dacca. I’m less familiar with Indian palate choices, but curries and so on can definitely be made to work here; many of those also include adding some ingredients in with the aromatics. Note that herbs shouldn’t go in with the meat; they’ll get burnt or overcooked. Put them in with the base.

For the broth spice, the simplest thing is to use the same palate as for the meat; that’s good if you want the two to merge closely, like in the chili recipe below. Another good alternative is to use the same spices, but add a strong layer of additional spices and herbs on top of it; that can make the broth taste particularly alive (especially with fresh herbs). If one wants a more delicate flavor, as in a bouillabaise, it’s often best to keep the spicing simple – salt, pepper, paprika – and stick to herbs for the broth flavoring.

Some Examples

Here are some examples which have turned out particularly well. (NB this has turned out well with other meats too, but I have a particular fondness for beef)

Beef Stew

One of my favorite recipes of late. It’s very earth-oriented, with all of the onions, carrots, mushrooms, and so on, and very rustic. Goes well with crusty bread. This gets titled “boeuf bourguignon for the lazy” because it’s a simpler cousin of that recipe, harkening back more towards its informal origins rather than the refined dish it has become.

4 strips bacon, cut into strips 1″ x 1/4″

1.5lbs chuck roast, trimmed of all fat and tendons and cut into bite-sized pieces

2 medium onions, chopped medium fine

1/2 – 1 head garlic, minced

0.5L red wine, preferably a Bordeaux or Burgundy.

3T tomato paste

A good handful of fresh thyme leaves

4 bay leaves

3c beef broth

3 carrots, peeled and cut into discs

3/4 lbs mushrooms, cut in halves

Salt, pepper, cumin, paprika

Sauté bacon over medium heat; remove meat. Brown beef in the juices, adding salt, pepper, cumin, paprika. Remove meat. Sauté onions and garlic over medium heat. Add wine, tomato paste, thyme, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and bring to a boil. Add bay leaves and meat, then reduce liquid by half. Add broth, carrots, mushrooms; bring to boil, stirring, then cover and simmer 45min.


Basically the same as the beef stew above, except:

Substitute 1.5 bottles of porter for the red wine.

Add 2 serrano peppers (or other red peppers of your choice), chopped fine and with as many or as few seeds as you like.

No thyme, bay leaves, carrots or mushrooms; instead, 1 150z can of pinto beans, and 1 28oz can of peeled tomatos, drained and chopped.

Cook as per the master recipe; the peppers go in with the aromatics.

For comparison, here’s Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for bouillabaise. The principles are similar. The main differences are that the meat requires no advance cooking, simply being boiled in the broth; the base is filtered to remove solids before being mixed into the broth; and the bulk of the liquid comes from a combination of water added to the base stage, and orange juice in the broth stage, rather than simply adding a larger volume of broth-type fluid later on. Here we see olive oil for the fat; onions, celery and garlic for the aromatics; a first-stage base of fish bones, water, and white wine, spiced with salt, pepper, peppercorns, bay leaves, and thyme; and then, after filtering the base, the full broth is made out of that and orange juice, spiced with saffron, fennel, garlic, orange zest and parsley, and with leeks and tomatos as vegetables.

Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 09:00  Comments (5)  
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  1. This may be too obvious to mention, but I find that the most important thing to remember about braised meat is that you need the right cut. The secret is to choose a cut with have a lot of connective tissue. The connective tissue melts, which makes up for the fact that cooking a piece of meat for hours and hours turns it into shoe leather. Chuck (as you use) is perfect. Anything you would make into steak is a very bad choice.

    • A very good point! And quite worth mentioning.

  2. The typical breakdown by many chefs is: Aromatics (carrot, onion, garlic…), base liquid (wine/beer/stock/spirits), additional liquid (stock, water, milk), and then the base ingredients (meat or dense
    vegetables such as potatoes or turnips) and additional ingredients (herbs, vegetables for eating). The aromatics go in with the base
    liquid (and possibly the main ingredient — if it’ll hold up) to flavor it, and are discarded after. The rest of the steps are exactly as you have.

    I agree with Jeremy on the connective tissue argument. For beef, I typically don’t use chuck, but shank. There are so many wonderful tendons running through them. They take much longer to cook than chuck (typically ~1.5 hours for the first simmer), but the velvety texture of the broth left behind is worth it.

    Do the same when you make a stock for soup. I always make ham stock with either smoked shanks or smoked pigs feet. For chicken stock, save your carcasses and wing tips. At this time of year you should be
    able to get smoked turkey pieces — they make a wonderful “not ham” stock for bean and split pea soup.

    And with either stock or soup, take it slow. These were typically all day dishes set over the hearth. I typically spend 3 hours on a soup or stew. (and make extra for later)

    • Gah; why was I unable to remember the word “aromatics?”

      +1 on everything you say, except that not every stew should have the aromatics removed; the beef stew and the chili given in the examples both taste much better with the aromatics still in there. It gives it a much thicker, heartier flavor.

      • Right. For stock and soup, I’ll remove them. For stew, I usually keep them. Especially when I’m doing something like beef braised with onions. (and now I’m hungry…)

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