I keep finding different cuts of beef in my freezer that I purchased at the farmers’ markets last fall, and as it’s only March, it’s still stewing season. Today it is a sirloin tip cut from the round, and I’m going to make a beef stew…the only question being, which beef stew recipe to use.
Cooking meat and/or vegetables in water, or other liquid medium such as stock, wine, beer, milk or pureed fruits or vegetables, has many advantages. The liquid imparts its heat rapidly and evenly, its temperature can be easily adjusted, it carries flavor from the item being cooked, and ultimately it becomes the sauce when the cooking is complete. In stewing, the liquid should be maintained at a low temperature (i.e. 150-180 degrees) for a relatively long time to allow the breakdown of the meat’s collagen into gelatin, which aids in the thickening of the resulting sauce. This low temperature method also prevents the meat from exuding all its juices and becoming dried out. which occurs around 150 degrees. However, all the collagen won’t be dissolved until 160 degrees plus, so close attention to the doneness of the meat is important for a succulent stew. One way to help achieve this result is to place the cooking vessel in an oven at 225 degrees, uncovered or with the top askew. If covered, the liquid will come to the boil and you risk drying out the meat. It is advisable to allow a stew to cool before serving to not only allow the meat to reabsorb some of the liquid lost during its cooking, but also to allow all the flavors to meld together. As we all know, stews always taste better the next day.
While there are blanquettes and fricassees that are “white” stews, if using beef or lamb one should brown the meat quickly and thoroughly before introducing the cooking liquid. Through the Maillard reaction, which differs from caramelization as sugar is not the primary element changing color, meats brown as a chemical reaction between their carbohydrate molecules (which include sugars) and amino acids occurs, resulting, as one of its by-products, in a brown color and intensification of flavor, and brown food tastes best.
While a stew can be as simple as meat and sauce, it more frequently includes a number of diced aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots and celery sautéed into a mirepoix or soffrito. These become one of the flavor bases of the stew when cooked in the same fat as the meat was browned in. In addition, many meat stews include vegetables like potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips and the like which braise along with the meat, and a can of Italian style tomatoes is always a welcome addition. Sometimes flour is introduced after the meat has been browned and the mirepoix cooked to add body to the final sauce, but a slow reduction in the liquid cooking will also produce a lightly thickened sauce just through evaporation.
PS Since writing this bit on stews, I cooked this beef at a low oven temperature for 2 hours with the top of my Dutch oven ajar, and found the beef to be tough. Additional cooking at a lazy simmer tenderized the beef, but didn't seem to materially dry it out.