It is easy to become bored by stews. Sure, they are hearty, warm, comforting, and often economical, and those are all things to love. But sometimes they can turn toward the bland. Some cheap meat cooked down with mushy vegetables, surrounded by a sauce whose main characteristic is "brown." There's really no excuse for a disappointing stew, but according to Tom Birchard, owner of Manhattan mainstay Veselka, there are ways to make sure your stew stays sturdy.
Brown your meat
It is very tempting to make a stew by dumping a bunch of ingredients into a slow cooker and letting it go, but by not browning your meat, "you're losing an element of flavor that I personally wouldn’t miss," says Birchard. Browning the meat allows the meat's juices to be sealed inside, rather than seep out into the rest of the stew, resulting in that mono-flavor mush.
Don't skimp on aromatics
A good stew can stand up to a lot of spice, so you shouldn’t be skimping. However, the long cooking time can also mellow out a lot of the flavors in a stew, so you have the ability to add a lot of different flavors that might otherwise be too pungent. In Veselka's popular, traditional Polish bigos, whole black peppercorns and juniper berries add a lot of flavor, and Birchard prefers whole spices, which "really infuse a strong flavor into the stew." Allspice berries and whole star anise are other favorites, as are bay leaves or whole sprigs of other herbs. "I find it’s a pleasant surprise when you bite into a juniper berry," says Birchard, though he concedes not everyone agrees.
That long cooking time also means vegetables cook down a lot, so if you start with too few at the beginning, you may not even notice them at the end. Onions, carrots, and celery are all standbys, but shallots, leeks, and starchy root vegetables all do well in a stew. And if you want a more complex flavor, stagger the cooking times. For instance, brown some onions at the beginning so they melt in the stew but add some onion slices toward the end for more bite and texture.
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Learn from Bigos
For inspiration on making a great stew, look no further than bigos. In Poland, hunters "would take sauerkraut, which doesn't need refrigeration, into the woods on their hunt. Maybe they'd bring some onions, but if they killed something, they'd cook the meat in that sauerkraut." They’d throw in some smoked kielbasa, which also didn’t require refrigeration, and whatever else they could find. The result is a smoky, tangy stew with lots of different elements to keep it interesting. So don’t be afraid to go for bold flavors. At the very least they’ll be more interesting than "brown."
- 2 pounds boneless venison or beef chuck roast, cut in 1-inch cubes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 4-1/4 cups water, divided
- 1/2 cup tomato juice
- 2 medium onions, cut in wedges
- 2 celery ribs, sliced
- 1 tsp worcestershire sauce
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 to 3 tsp salt
- 1 clove of garlic, chopped
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 4 large carrots, quartered
- 1 large rutabaga, peeled and cubed
- 6 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- In a Dutch oven, brown meat in oil over medium heat. Add 4 cups water and scrape to loosen any browned drippings from pan. Add the tomato juice, onions, celery, worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Discard bay leaves; add the carrots, rutabaga, and potatoes. Cover and cook for 40–60 minutes.
Stir in the peas; cook for 10 minutes.
- Combine cornstarch and remaining water until smooth; stir into stew. Bring to a boil. Cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened.