Winter is the time of year where we picture ourselves using crock pots and heavy dutch crockery to prepare hearty stews and pot roasts for our families. What says “I love you” better than long-simmered meats and vegetables and hunks of potato-like tubers? Nothing, say I, which is why Hallmark has repeatedly refused to give me a job writing creating cards.
The biggest mistake I make when creating a pot roast or stew is forgetting to make it. I’ll realize at, say, 6:30 pm that I have not started a meal, and the only thing I have thawed is stew meat or something equally chewy or stringy. Also, I have promised the other dinner guests a stew. And clearly, cake-flavored vodka is not going to make them forget their dreams of stew.
Here are my tried and true “tricks” to creating a flavorful stew in under an hour. Feel free to add whatever vegetables or meats you wish here; the idea is the method, not the subcategory of dish.
The problem with making a stew recipe very quickly is twofold: First, the meat will be chewy. Second, the flavor won’t have had time to develop and marry with other flavors, and it’ll taste like canned broth and badness.
The first problem is caused by a little thing called “collagen.” Collagen is what makes meat chewy, but is also what makes it flavorful and silky. Melting the collagen from within the meat is our end goal to get a tender, fall-apart piece of meat in your stew.
Trick # 1: Get your meat into smaller pieces as quickly as you can. Go SMALL. You can even roughly chop in a food processor, but don’t go smaller than 1/2″ bites or you’ll end up with ground beef. Smaller meat cooks faster, and will become tender faster.
Trick # 2: Sear your meat. Once it’s good and small, and you’ve removed any particularly gristly pieces, sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper, and preheat a stainless steel or cast iron pot with a lid. When it’s VERY hot, put the meat in in small batches to sear each side until it develops a brown crust. This goes for whatever meat you’re using (except fish). Remove the meat with a slotted spoon after each batch is seared. Overcrowding your pan will ruin the sear, so leave space between each piece of meat.
Trick # 3: Deglaze your pan. This means pouring in some liquid to loosen up the crunchy bits at the bottom. You can use wine, water, broth, beer, whatever you like. Only do this if the meat drippings haven’t burned, though. If it has, get a new pan and put your seared meat into that to start your stew. Deglazing a burnt bottom means your whole stew will taste like burnt food. Yuck.
Trick # 4: Heavy braise. This means put all the meat back into that pan, fill with liquid of your choice to 2/3 the way up the meat, and bring it to a heavy simmer. Not boiling. JUUUUUST below boiling. Then put a cover on it and let it go while you cut your vegetables. Meat will take the longest to cook, so starting it this way makes sure it has the maximum time to get tender.
Now that you’re on your way to solving the first dilemma, we’re on to the second issue of developing that “slow-cooked” flavor. There are a few things that will really help in this pursuit.
Flavor Friend #1: Glace. Whenever I see meat bones on sale, I get them, roast them, and boil them with aromatics until I have a giant batch of broth. Then I boil that broth down until it’s actually starting to thicken. By about 75%, actually. I strain it and pour it into an ice cube tray to cool. The resulting cubes are “glace,” (pronounced “gloss”), and they’re almost rubbery because they have SO much extra collagen in them. They are concentrated roasted flavor. Magic. I keep the cubes in a zipper bag in the freezer and toss one in whenever I need a pan sauce or emergency flavor. If you don’t want to roast bones, you can buy glace in higher end grocery stores. Keep some around and use it in emergencies. I toss it in with the vegetables when I put them in the pot.
Flavor Friend #2: Tomato paste. When you’re searing your last batch of meat, you can put in a few dollops of tomato paste and cook it a little bit. Then when you deglaze, add a little extra liquid to make up for the thickening power of the tomato paste. Roasted, toasted tomato paste has a great, concentrated flavor that isn’t overly tomato-y. Shock, right? And it makes for rich, tasty sauces in stews and pot roasts. It goes especially well with beef.
Flavor Friend #3: That sear we talked about? DO IT. That crust melts into a great flavor.
Flavor Friend #4: Salt. Do it. Don’t underutilize this kitchen wonder. Salt makes everything taste…more. So salt as you go and taste as you go. Remember, the liquid will reduce, so don’t overdo it too early or you might have a salt lick in the end.
Flavor Friend #5: Herb trifecta. For most basic stews and pot roasts, I add dried thyme, a bay leaf or two, salt, and black pepper.
Flavor Friend #5: Veggie trifecta. I put garlic, onion, and carrot into nearly everything I make. When I’m in a hurry, I cut into bite sized pieces and add to the meat about halfway through the cooking, but ideally you should sauté it in a separate pan until translucent, then add it to the meat about 15 minutes before the meat is tender.
FINAL FLAVOR FRIEND: Reduction. If your stew meat starts to go below 25% liquid level, add more. But if you have too much at the end? Strain out the solids, and put them in a bowl covered with foil to keep warm. Put the liquid back into the pot and boil it HARD, skimming off any foam, until it starts to get slightly thicker again. That’s called reducing, and it concentrates the flavor of your sauce. Then stir in your solids, do a final taste for salt, and serve. It’ll taste and smell like you built the stew, layer by layer, for a solid 8 hours.
You winter kitchen seductress, you!