A simple, classic beef stew done really well is a complete joy. However, it isn’t always done well, which I think is why so many people think of stews as a bit depressing. The difference between an amazing stew and a mediocre one is like the difference between a warm hug and a limp handshake. I know which one I’d rather leave people with.
Ale and thyme, tomato and anchovy, beef bourguignon… There are as many varieties of beef stew as there are breeds of cow. (Belted Galloway, anyone?) All beautiful in their own way, and all perfectly welcome in my kitchen in one form or other.
Everyone should know how to make a proper beef stew. And everyone can. Getting a beef stew right isn’t necessarily down to the flavours you choose; it’s the method. There are key steps you must take to get a fantastic result. Steps I outline thus:
- The Sear – This is where a ton of flavour comes from. You need enough oil, enough heat, and enough patience. If you’re really not one for waiting, multitask with something else (fold the laundry, chop a vegetable, pour a drink) to make sure you’re spending enough time on the browning stage.
- The Sweat – Take the time to cook the vegetables down until they’re soft. You’re not frying them or going for crisp edges; the idea is to end up with a tender base of veg that will absorb the delicious browned flavour you worked so hard to achieve during the sear. If the veg is colouring, turn the heat down a little and add a drizzle of oil if necessary.
- The Squash – Allow yourself enough time to cook the meat until it is meltingly tender. A tough stew is a very bad time. Squash the meat with a fork and taste it, and if it’s not completely soft and delicious just pop it back in – no issue at all.
None of these stages are difficult, but each requires a bit of patience. Skip, scrimp or substitute at your peril.
1 kg stewing beef, cut into cubes
Flour, for dredging
Salt and pepper
1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp butter
2 large onions
2 large carrots
3 – 4 sticks celery
3 – 4 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves stripped and chopped
500ml good quality, low-sodium beef stock
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, dredge the beef cubes in a little flour seasoned with salt and pepper.
Add a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil to the pot. In batches of 6 – 8 pieces at a time, brown the beef on two sides. Be patient; don’t prod and stir the meat as it’s colouring. When the meat naturally lifts off the pan and has a deep brown crust, flip over and let the meat brown on the other side. If the meat is sticking you may need to add a little more oil and/or turn up the heat. Carry on patiently searing the meat, adding a little oil after each batch, and keeping the browned pieces in a bowl to one side.
While the beef is browning, finely chop the celery, onion and carrot. (I use a food processor for this, but if you want a chunkier stew you could just roughly chop everything by hand.)
Having browned the beef, you will now have an empty pot with dark – even black – bits on the bottom. This is perfect. The stew won’t taste burnt; the carrots and onions add enough sweetness to balance that out, so don’t be tempted to wash out the pot. Lower the heat to medium, add the butter and olive oil to the pot (pouring away any leftover vegetable oil) and add the chopped vegetables with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook down for about 10 minutes until soft.
Slice the garlic, then add to the vegetables along with the rosemary and bay leaves and cook for a minute or two.
Return the beef and any resting juices to the pot. Add the beef stock and give everything a good stir, poking down the meat so it’s just covered with the liquid. Bring to a bubble, then pop a lid on and transfer to the oven. Cook at 300F / 150C / 130C Fan for 2.5 – 3 hours, stirring once halfway. At the 2.5 hour mark, remove a piece of beef to a plate and cut it with the side of a fork. If it’s tender enough that you can do that, your stew is done and you can pop the lid on, reheating gently later if necessary. If the meat isn’t quite there, pop the stew back in for another half hour. It’s worth the wait.
Serve with mashed potato and a green vegetable. I love roasted garlic mash, but plain mashed potato, mustard mash, or horseradish-spiked mash would be fantastic. For the green veg, I am partial to boiled cabbage, but broccoli, peas, green beans or Brussels sprouts are all equally welcome.