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The Secret to Better Stew

The Secret to Better Stew

There’s nothing quite like a stew bubbling away on the stove.

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But what is stew? What are the basic steps that make any stew great? Follow these steps and unlock the secrets of a good stew.

To meat or not to meat

Traditionally, stews are based on meat. Choose a meat that benefits from long, slow cooking, meaning legs of poultry or well-worked muscles from the shoulder or legs if choosing beef, mutton or pork. The connective tissue that normally makes these cuts tough dissolves with cooking, giving your stew that lip-smacking, unctuous sauce. Luckily for you, these are usually the budget friendly cuts.
Start building the flavor base of your stew by browning your meat in batches. The brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan are what makes it a stew and not a hodge-podge of ingredients cooked in liquid. If you are looking for a vegetarian alternative, pre-soaked beans and other legumes are your best friend. They provide your stew with the body it needs, just make sure they are fully cooked before adding any acidic ingredients. If leaving out the meat, you’ll be missing the brown bits in this step, so make sure to brown other ingredients as you go.

Amazing alliums

You’ll want something from the onion family, which also includes garlics, shallots leeks, and others. The same compounds that make your eyes water are responsible for adding a deep flavor to your stew. Chop them finely. Once the last batch of meat is finished and removed from the pan, sauté them until they are well browned, unlocking all of their potential. Remember that some cook faster than others, so add your onions before your garlic or leeks.

Stir it, scrape it

Once you have done browning, add the ingredients back to the pot, deglaze with a little liquid and scrape, scrape, scrape. You want all that good brownness on the bottom in your stew now, not in the dishwasher later.

Pour, pour, pour

This is a stew, after all, so you’ll need enough liquid to cover the ingredients. Which? Use water if you are confident that your ingredients will provide enough flavor on their own. Otherwise, meat or vegetable stock will take your stew to another level. Use acidic ingredients such as tomato sauce or wine in moderation, as your stew might otherwise become too sour – and remember to only add it once beans or other legumes are finished cooking, otherwise they will remain rock hard!


You’ll want to add some aromatics early on in the process so that they can slowly release their flavor. Bay leaves are a favorite here as are any whole spices such as allspice or black peppercorns. Experiment with various combinations, just stay away from anything that will lose its flavor from long cooking. Because we’re now heading for the…

Low and sloooow

You want to cook your stew over a low simmer. Stewing meat that is brought to a boil will go hard as a rock, so keep your stew at a low simmer in the slow cooker, on the stove, or in the oven (between 150°C/300°F and 170°C/335°F). Make sure it has enough liquid to not dry out, forget about it, go outside, or read a good book. Come back hours later and that beef or those beans will be gloriously soft. Most stews are done in about 3 hours, though cut your meat somewhat larger and you can cook it longer than that if it’s convenient. Just check from time to time that your stew isn’t drying, stir it, and add a little more liquid if necessary.

Very veggie

Most vegetables do not stand up to hours of cooking. Prep your veggies beforehand. Subtract the time you think each will need to cook from the end and add them step by step so that everything comes together in a perfectly cooked finale. Choose anything that’s in season, from potatoes to root vegetables, celery root to cabbage, pumpkin to fresh spinach.

Final touch

Just before serving, add fresh herbs and other seasonings that don’t take well to long cooking. Even for some that do, such as thyme or rosemary, a secret trick is to add some at the beginning and some at the end. Whole spices go in in the beginning and ground spices at the end. You’re building layers of flavor here, and a long-cooked herb or spice will taste different from a briefly cooked one.

All the waiting has been more than worth it. Freeze any leftovers, as they make perfect weeknight meals. They say a stew tastes even better on the second day, anyway!

Published on December 15, 2015

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