A few weeks back, we covered Burgoo. Just like that regional specialty, there’s no one genuine beef stew recipe, but there sure is a right way to do it.
The lovely Mrs. Atwater has a favorite jibe she uses from time to time. When I make stew with any method other than the one we’re gonna share here, she tries the finished product, smiles sweetly and says “Good soup, Dear.” Funny girl…
Fact is, she’s pretty much right. If you want the real McCoy, you gotta follow the right path to getting there; that means making as much as you can from scratch; here’s how.
Like homemade chili or chicken noodle soup, stew is a critical component to making it through the long, cold winter months. A great stew will feed you and yours several times, and truth be told, gets better in the couple of days after its made.
The first must-do is to make your own stock. Get in the habit of saving beef and pork bones, poultry carcasses, and fish heads and racks. If you’re not ready to use them right away, freeze ’em for later, every time. These are the key to killer homemade stock. The other thing you’ll need is mirepoix, (meer pwah), the go-to veggie blend for many good things. It’s super easy to do.
It’s definitely a best practice to collect enough bones and devote a day to stock making. Stock freezes easily and is great to have ready any time. If you just get a sudden jones for stew and don’t have any ready to go, it’s no big deal to whip out a small one-time batch, so that’s what we’ll do.
One medium onion, a couple of stocks celery and a couple small carrots will do. Rough chop everything, meaning big ol’ 1″ chunks are fine, just make everybody about the same size.
If you were just making veggie stock, you might add a tomato, a clove of garlic, some parsley or cilantro, a splash of olive oil and call it good right there. If you’re making critter stock, then we’ve got a bit more to do first. For this stew, the bones from a good family steak night will work just fine; if you don’t have any on hand, then pick up some soup bones when you buy beef for this recipe. Ask your butcher if you don’t see any handy.
We could just simmer this stuff gently in nice, fresh water; this will make what is generally referred to as a white stock if you’re doing critter. You’ll get the essence of whatever your simmering, but roasting them is gonna make things much more interesting. That’s where we get into the dark stock world.
Preheat your oven to 375° F. It’s time to develop some nice, deep caramelized flavors.
Put your bones onto a sheet pan, drizzle a little olive oil on them, a sprinkle of good salt, and a twist or three of ground pepper. Slide the pan onto a middle rack and let the magic begin for about 30 minutes; your bones should be nicely browned when they’re ready for the next step.
Slide the pan out, add the mirepoix with a bit more oil, salt, and pepper, then slip everything back onto that middle rack for another 20 minutes.
One last step, grab a healthy smear of tomato paste and give the bones a nice, even coating of that. Continue roasting for another 10 minutes. The tomato adds a bit of richness and color to the stock, and the acidity helps breakdown bone and connective tissue.
Pull everybody out of the oven and toss them into a stock pot with a gallon of fresh water. Bring evening to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, toss in 2 Bay leaves and go find something to do for a couple hours.
When you come back to the stock, you’ll likely see some fat floating on the surface. Get as much of that as you can with a fine mesh strainer, or use a paper towel to blot it up.
Pour your stock carefully through a fine mesh strainer or chinois; if you have cheese cloth on hand, (Which you aughta, by the way), strain through that. Strain at least a couple times so that you get the chunks and bits and whatnot out of your stock and end up with a relatively clear liquid.
Now taste it: If you had questions as to why we went through all that just for a pot of stew, they should now be answered. Carefully pour that stock back into a nice, big soup pot over the lowest heat you got.
Alright, let’s get after it. We’re gonna do beef stew, because that’s what we’ve got that needs using, but again, you can use venison, elk, moose, bear, whatever you have in your freezer that needs using. You can use dang near any cut for stew, and frankly, the cheaper the better; it’s a major reason why stew is a great freezer cleaner dish.
Cut your meat into roughly 3/4″ cubes, and trim out any really big hunks of fat or gristle.
Now it’s searing time. This is one of the non-negotiable steps to making a great beef stew, (And to keep Mrs. Atwater from calling it soup). To paraphrase Yosemite Sam, when I say sear, I mean sear, and browning ain’t searing, FYI. Here’s how we do it.
Preheat a dry, heavy frying or sauté pan over medium-high heat; cast iron is perfect for this. Let the pan get truly heated through before you add meat; when a drop of water dances like a maniac when introduced to the pan, it’s ready.
Prepare a coating of
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
Throw that in a bowl or plastic bag, add your meat and get all of that thoroughly and evenly coated. Tap or shake the meat as you pull it out to remove excess coating. The coating not only facilitates the searing of meat, it provides all the thickening you’ll need for your stew.
Now, start searing meat in batches. Put enough into the pan to make a single layer and no more. Leave the beef in there, untouched, long enough for it to form a fond, a nice, deep brown, sticky glaze; that’ll take a good 3 to 5 minutes a side. The fond is the lion’s share source of those glorious roasted, nutty flavors that make people roll their eyes when the eat. Let that fond form before you stir/flip/turn your beef, and let it form on all sides before you start the next batch. Keep a constant hand and eye on this process; you want seared, not burned! Throw your seared meat into the stock pot.
Grab a bottle of good local beer or ale; I like a nice winter ale, porter, or even a stout for this job, for their nice, deep caramel taste notes. Pour it into a bowl and set it aside; we’re just looking to let it flatten for a bit while we work.
Return your attention to that pan you seared the beef in; peel and fine dice,
1 small Sweet Onion
2 cloves of Garlic
Toss the onion into the pan and sauté until it starts to go translucent; add the garlic and continue to sauté, taking care not to let the garlic burn. When they’re done, toss them into the stock pot with the meat.
With your pan still on medium-high, pour in the beer and let it go to work. As the beer starts to simmer, grab a spoon or spatula and start working loose all that stuff on the bottom of the pan. That’s concentrated goodness and it’s all gong in the stew. Work all those bits into the beer and allow it to reduce for about 5 minutes, concentrating the flavors and allowing the alcohol to dissipate. Pour that all into the stock and give it a good stir.
Allow your stew to work for the first hour with nothing else in it. This will let the marriage between meat and stock to come to full fruition.
Now, the other thing that ain’t negotiable with great stew is low and slow for the cooking. You must allow at least 2 hours and 4 is better. If you have a crock pot hiding in the cupboard somewhere, pull it out and use it. If not, then turn your chosen burner down to low and leave it there.
Alright, it’s taste time, so we can adjust seasoning. All you really need is good salt and pepper, but here again, do what you like. We find a shot of Tabasco, Worcestershire, and a touch of Turkish Oregano nice as well. You can use smoked salt and/or pepper, or anything else you like, in moderation: Just make sure that the meat and stock are the stars of the show.
Now it’s veggie prep time. Classic beef stew is nothing more than carrot, potato and a little more onion, but you can and should add what you like to yours. In addition to those staples, we like crushed tomatoes, celery, peas, green beans, a little sweet corn and some cilantro; again, do what you like. Cut everybody into a uniform dice, about 1/4″ to 1/2″ so they’re reasonably bite sized and will cook evenly.
Throw everybody into the pot, cover it and let it go for at least another hour and again, 2 or 3 is better yet. Stir occasionally, getting all the way down to the bottom so everything is nicely incorporated.
Serve nice and hot, with a little sour cream for those that like it, and maybe a little Jalapeño-Cheddar corn bread.
Here’s the basic recipe for your shopping or gathering needs; once again, this is our version, so you adjust the veggies and seasoning as you prefer!
2-3 Pounds meat, (Stew or Chuck are best cuts)
1-2 Pounds Beef Bones
1 Pound Potatoes, (a waxy variety works great)
1 large can crushed Tomatoes
2 sweet Onions
3-4 stalks Celery stalks
1 Cup Peas
1 Cup sweet Corn
1 Cup Green Beans
2 cloves Garlic
5-6 stalks Cilantro
1 12 ounce bottle Beer or Ale
2 Bay leaves
Shot of Worcestershire sauce
Shot of Tabasco
Sea Salt and Pepper