The simple and delicious basics of slow cooking
Many years ago, I attended a week-long project management training at the company where I was working. It was a great experience and I find myself using the things I learned almost every day.
We learned about various methodologies and models for good, sound business management, but one stuck in my mind most of all: It was called THE TRIPLE CONSTRAINTS. The illustration had a triangle graphic on it with a word in each corner—CHEAP, FAST, and GOOD. At the bottom it said: PICK TWO!
The idea was that it’s rarely possible to do something well, quickly and at a low price. One factor will have to give. For instance, if you are going for GOOD and CHEAP, it will not happen FAST.
You will have to take your time. And while there are always exceptions, this model transfers nicely to cooking too!
Time is always a factor in cooking. The more time you have available for preparing a meal, the more satisfying the result can be, especially if you have a limited budget. A medium rare Porterhouse steak will not take long to cook, but you definitely pay a premium price. However, a beef stew that’s cooked low and slow can be made with a cheaper cut of beef, but outshines any steak when you take your first bite of it.
The Components of a Stew
A basic meat stew does not have a lot of mandatory ingredients. The essential ingredients are meat, a cooking liquid, vegetables and seasonings.
The best cuts of beef to use are the ones with the most flavor. Typically these are tougher cuts—definitely not steak cuts—and come from parts of the animal which have seen the most use and exercise. These cuts tend to have a marbling of fat and lots of connective tissue. The good news is that the connective tissue completely breaks down when slow cooked and a natural gelatin-like thickening comes from it, enriching the stew broth, turning it into a very flavorful gravy.
Meat without fat or connective tissue will be dry when slow cooked. The parts to look for include chuck, shoulder, flank, rump and brisket.
Which vegetables you choose for your stew is simply a matter of taste and texture. But a good place to start is onions, carrots and celery—sometimes referred to as “mirepoix.” This is the holy trinity of aromatic vegetables and is as essential as salt and pepper to a stew. Another staple for stews is tomatoes, often in the form of paste. Root vegetables like potatoes or turnips are also a good choice, especially if you are feeding a large number of people.
The stew will need a liquid to cook in for the meat to give off its flavor and create the gravy. Water is technically an option, but most cooks tend to go with something more flavorful such as beef stock, or even beer if you dare. The classic French beef stew known as Boeuf Bourguignon uses red wine—typically a red Burgundy, but any dry red will work. These include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir, but be sure the wine is good enough to drink if you’re using it in your dish.
Herbs, spices and other seasonings are essential to a stew and can dramatically influence the flavor. A common strategy is to go light on salt and pepper when starting to cook the stew and add more towards the end. This is because flavors may intensify as the stew is reduced down and your stock may be salty enough. The opposite can be said for herbs, where time is needed to release the flavors. My favorite way to use herbs is to make a small bouquet out of a handful of parsley sprigs, thyme and a couple of bay leaves. This is sometimes referred to as “bouquet garni.”
Now that you know the basics, check out one of my favorite recipes:
Simple Beef Stew
Prep time: About 10 Minutes
Cook time: 3h (check after 1.5h)
Equipment: 5-6 quart, cast iron Dutch oven
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 lbs of beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups beef stock
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
4 medium carrots, sliced large
1 herb bouquet of parsley, thyme and bay leaf
Heat your oven to 325 degrees. Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, brown the beef cubes on all sides in olive oil and butter in two different batches in a 5-6 quart cast iron Dutch oven. Set aside the browned beef cubes on a plate.
Next, add the diced onions to the same pot with the remaining oil and butter. Stir and cook for two or three minutes until softened, then add garlic and cook briefly. Pour in the stock and add all the other ingredients. Add the beef back into the pot and stir to combine. Cover and place in the middle of the oven.
Leave your stew alone for 1.5 hours before checking progress. The liquid should cook down and get thicker, but if dissolves too much, add additional water or stock as needed. Put back in oven for another 1.5 hours or until the liquid is nice and gravy-like and the meat falls apart easily. If you feel the liquid is not thick enough, just mix 1 tablespoon melted butter with 2 tablespoons
all-purpose flour in a cup and stir into the stew. Cook on the stove for 5 minutes until it thickens up.
Taste the stew and add seasoning as needed.
I use kosher salt and lots of fresh ground pepper. Serve in bowls with your favorite side and some fresh parsley on top. Rice or mashed potatoes are good options—but a crusty slice of bread under the stew is my favorite.