Making Stew From Scratch
Stew is perfect winter comfort food. It's warming, hearty and full of illness-fighting vegetables and broth. If your grandma's stew was one of winter's greatest pleasures, you know exactly what we're talking about when we say that coming home to the smell of stew cooking away was the highlight of your week. Hopefully, you've carried on the tradition. If not, it's definitely time that you learn how to make a good stew from scratch.
There are lots of stew recipes available, which can be confusing. They all follow a fairly basic pattern though, and once you have that down you can easily customise it by changing meats, spices, herbs and liquids to suit yourself. For simplicity, we'll stick to beef stew - it's the classic choice, and it's tasty!
Beef pairs well with bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and big, bold flavours. Always use a stock to match your main protein, so in this case beef. For game, ostrich or lamb, beef stock will work. For pork, chicken or vegetable, use a vegetable or chicken stock.
Remember that you can't rush a stew. The meat needs to cook slowly, rather than boiling rapidly. The flavours need time to melt into each other, the sauce needs to thicken, and the meat needs to get so soft that it falls apart. This is why tougher cuts of meat are very well suited to stew. Whatever you do, don't waste money on expensive cuts of beef - instead, pick stewing beef, beef shin, beef blade or even chuck or t-bone steak.
Begin your stew as many great dishes begin - with the onions. Chop them, use a little bit of butter or oil in your pan and let them cook on a medium heat until they are nicely caramelised. It's also not a bad idea to dust the onions in a light coating of flour before starting to cook them. It'll pay off when the stew is finished, as the flour will help you achieve that nice, thick sauce instead of a thin and watery broth.
You then want to build your flavour base by browning off the meat and any other aromatic ingredients. Put some more oil in the pan over a medium-high heat and add your ingredients. Things like garlic, spices, bay leaves, vegetables and tomato paste all go in here. The key is to really get the meat seared over a reasonably high heat, so that you get some browning on the pan. Keep the vegetable chunks fairly large to make sure they don't turn to complete mush while the meat cooks. You then add a splash or two of acidic liquid - often wine - to the pan and cook it for a short time, scraping up any burnt bits from the bottom of the pan as you go.
The bulk of your work is now done! Now you just have to add liquid and extra seasoning. The liquid normally is stock or water, but can also be tinned tomatoes. For seasoning, Worcestershire sauce is a good starting point. Another splash or two of wine never goes amiss, along with plenty of pepper and possibly tabasco if you like a bit of a kick. Remember to taste before adding salt, as stock can be quite salty. Thyme is a great herb for flavouring beef stew, whether you pick fresh or dried.
After adding your chosen liquid and seasoning, put on the lid and let it cook slowly on a low heat. Add some cubed potatoes after about an hour, to avoid them going too mushy. If you don't like vegetables too soft, you can add them with the potatoes rather than browning them in the pan at the start. Let the mixture cook for two to three hours altogether, and a fragrant, piping hot stew with beautifully soft meat should be your reward!