There are few things more satisfying than the aroma of a stew bubbling gently in the oven. The most soothing of foods, stews are also one of the easiest to prepare. Plus, they freeze well, reheat beautifully and are even better after a couple of days.
Braising and stewing are interchangeable terms; both mean long, slow cooking in liquid, usually in the oven, to ensure even heat. The result is rich, saucy and tender. The quintessential peasant food – the rich got the best cuts and roasted them, the poor ended up with the tough ones – stews are a staple in all cultures. Today, stews are considered comfort food at its finest.
The best cuts for stewing are the tougher ones, which have more flavour and texture than tender cuts. A long, slow cooking in liquid makes them tender and tasty. More expensive meat does not mean better stews (tender cuts will dry out more easily). The best cuts for stewing are beef chuck, shoulder, shanks, brisket and short ribs; veal shoulder and breast; pork shoulder; lamb shoulder, shank and breast.
Choose the right pot. Too large a pot and the gravy will evaporate too quickly; too small and the meat will cook unevenly. Cubed stewing meat should be arranged in two layers, while one piece of meat should fit snugly inside the pot. A Dutch oven is perfect for braising as it goes from the top of the stove into the oven. If you don't have a Dutch oven, start in a skillet and transfer to an ovenproof casserole for baking.
Pat the meat dry with paper towels so that the cooking oil does not spatter. Trim off most of the fat from the meat and cut the meat into uniform pieces for even cooking. Vegetables should also be cut to uniform size.
Heat a film of vegetable or olive oil on high heat until smoking, salt and pepper the meat and add a few pieces at a time. Don't crowd the pot while browning – the heat will be lowered, causing the meat to release its juices and produce steam, resulting in a greyish, flat stew.
Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reserve. If all the oil has been soaked up, add more and reheat before continuing to brown.
After the meat is browned, lower the heat to medium and add aromatic vegetables and herbs to the pot to sauté. Add liquid, making sure there is enough to come halfway up the meat. Do not immerse the meat totally in liquid, or the gravy will be thin and tasteless.
Liquid can vary from beef stock to tomato juice to wine. Different liquids give different flavoured gravies. Don't use water – it makes weak gravy.
There are various methods of thickening stews, such as adding flour to the oil after the vegetables are browned and cooked until pale gold. Arrowroot or potato starch can be mixed together with water, then stirred into the stew when it is finished cooking.
Other methods include boiling down the stewing liquid to thicken naturally, which works well if you have a low-sodium or homemade stock to control the salt. And finally by puréeing the original vegetables cooked with the meat, then stirring back into the liquid.
Use gentle heat to cook the meat slowly; 300 F to 325 F is perfect for stews. Turning the heat up will not make the stew cook more quickly, and it will toughen the fibres of the meat. You'll know the meat is cooked when it can be pierced with a fork – usually about 2½ to three hours for beef, 1½ to two hours for lamb and pork.
Vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and whole pearl onions can be added about 45 minutes before the meat is cooked. More tender vegetables such as zucchini, cabbage, mushrooms or peas are added about 15 minutes before the end of cooking time.