Stew is the quintessential comfort food. There is something about the rich sauce, tender meat, and flavor-infused vegetables that warms the soul and nourishes the body. The versatile, virtually one-pot meal works both for family nights and entertaining. Best of all, stews are simple to make; success just depends on following a few simple but important steps.
1. Use the Right Equipment
Although no fancy equipment is needed to make a good stew, it's great if you have a Dutch oven. These are heavy cast-iron or stainless steel pots with tight-fitting lids. Some of the best are cast-iron with an enameled coating. The enamel prevents any reaction that might occur between ingredients and metal that could give your stew an off flavor, and it keeps the cast iron from retaining the scent or flavor of stews past. Two other good-to-have tools: tongs work well for flipping the meat as it browns, and a flat-edged wooden spatula is good for deglazing.
2. Choose the Right Cuts of Meat
If cuts are too lean, the meat might end up tough in the stew.
For beef stew, purchase readily available beef stew meat. These chunks of beef come from tougher parts of the cow-the shoulder, leg, and butt-which are sometimes collectively referred to as "chuck." As they simmer over low heat, they become tender and offer great flavor to the stew.
For lamb stews, purchase a boned leg of lamb, trim it well, and cut into cubes. A friendly butcher might even do this for you. Or look for lamb stew meat, which is usually cut-up scraps from leg of lamb. Meat from the leg adds great flavor to any stew.
When searching for pork for stews, seek out pork shoulder, often called Boston butt pork roast, which is a fattier cut with a lot of flavor that needs to cook for a long time. Or choose lean pork tenderloin, which becomes tender in a shorter amount of time. Use a combination of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs for chicken stews. The breast meat has a pleasantly firm texture, while the thighs offer meaty richness similar to that of pork.
3. Sauté the Aromatics
Begin the cooking process by sautéing onions, garlic, leeks, or shallots until golden brown. The caramelized, browned surface on these aromatics infuses the stew with rich flavor and fragrance. Remove from the pan once browned.
4. Dredge in Flour
Dredging the meat-placing the pieces in a bowl of flour, tossing to coat, then shaking off the excess-results in a tasty crust. When the meat is seared, the flour coating cooks quickly, sealing juices inside the meat. It also makes an instant mini roux that sticks to the bottom of the pan-a roux being a flour-and-fat combo that thickens stews.
5. Brown the Meat
Brown the meat to create a delicious crust that locks in juices and establishes flavorful browned bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. Make sure there is a thin layer of oil in the bottom of the pan. Cook the meat over medium-high heat, so the edges of the meat quickly sear and brown, but the meat remains uncooked. Brown the meat in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan; if the pan is too crowded, the meat will steam and not brown. Don't worry if the bottom of the pan develops a thick dark brown coating-as long as it does not burn. You actually want this to occur; the browned bits will add a deep richness to the gravy. Remove the browned meat from the pan so you can deglaze.
6. Deglaze the Pan
Deglazing refers to the process of adding liquid, usually wine, to the pan, and boiling while scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. The browned bits dissolve and add flavor to the gravy.
7. Keep the Heat Low
After you return the meat and aromatics to the pan and cover them with the desired liquid, it is very important that the stew must simmer, and not boil. As mentioned, stews are best made with tougher cuts of meat. Slowly cooking stew over low heat so the liquid barely simmers breaks tissues down into tender morsels. If cooked too fast, the meat will become overly firm and tough.
8. Add Vegetables Later
It's best to add vegetables such as potatoes and carrots to stews after the meat has had a chance to cook for a while. This ensures that the meat will be fork tender, while the vegetables retain their shape and character without becoming overcooked.
More Stew Facts:
Stew vs. Braise
Most of us think of a stew as a mixture of meat and vegetables in a rich, meaty sauce. Technically, a stew consists of small pieces of meat that are seared and then cooked while immersed in liquid. A stew differs from a braise in that a braise involves one or a few larger pieces of meat that are seared and cooked in liquid that comes less than halfway up the sides of the meat. Both a stew and a braise result in a rich gravy and tender meat.
Great Today, Even Better Later
Stews taste great as soon as the meat becomes tender, and it's hard to resist diving into the pot when the whole house is fragrant with simmering wine, onions, and herbs. But if you have leftovers, cool and keep them in the refrigerator overnight-you'll be rewarded with even better taste the next day, after flavors have had more time to marry.
Or freeze leftovers for up to three months. Freeze individual or double servings in heavy-duty zip-top plastic bags, which will take up minimal space in your freezer. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, and reheat gently over medium heat.
Make-Ahead Meal for Entertaining and Busy Lives
Because they can be prepared ahead and reheated, stews are ideal for entertaining. Make the stew in the morning, or a day or two ahead, and place in the refrigerator. You'll be free to enjoy a glass of wine and a relaxing visit with guests as the stew reheats. Working parents may want to make a stew, or two, over the weekend and then enjoy the reheated leftovers during the week.