A New Way to Stew

1/4 teaspoon of this, 1/3 cup of that—stifling! Chefs and confident home cooks improvise! Apply the 9 steps below to the ingredients at hand.

We've added some specifics for a few of the world's great stews. Try a few and play with our grains gadget to round off your meal. Unlike trying a conventional recipe, your version will be unique, so let us know how it turned out.   Enjoy!

The 9 Steps

1) Preliminaries

Frugal cooks value their time as the most expensive ingredient, so several steps include a "Meanwhile...". But some stews do require advance preperation. For example, some grains need hours of cooking. Stirfrys are so quick, don't count on the "Meanwhile..." time until you really get the hang of it. The first few tries, chop all the veggies so you can be attentive your wok. Common considerations for all stews for our basic ingredient categories follow:

  • Tougher cuts are fine for the cook with extra time: either marinate the meat in a flavored acidic liquid (wine and herbs for example) or extend the simmering time (see Step 8 below)
  • Cube the meat to around 1 inch to 4 inches squares; or for a stir fry, slice into long, thin strips
  • Trimming a fatty roast will leave you with surprisingly little meat
  • Working with meat that's partially frozen can be easier than fresh or fully thawed
  • If dredged in flour (optionally seasoned with black pepper, white pepper or paprika), the meat will retain juiciness and the flour will thicken the stew
  • Sausage can be pricked, cut into chunks or even pulled out of the casing. Lately tasty "gourmet" fully-cooked sausage is quite good and cooks quickly.
  • I've never cooked bison stew; leave a comment if you have.
  • For chicken, thighs and legs are moist, flavorful, inexpensive and hold up in a stew. White meat is fussier, it will get stringy if overcooked.
  • Kitchen safety tip: treat raw chicken like poison. Collect all the items needed to handle the chicken near the sink before starting: cutting board, sharp knife, tongs (I particularly like these ), paper towels, etc. This will save you from repeatedly washing your hands as you fetch each item.
  • Cut a whole chicken into quarters or eighths. High quality kitchen scissors are more effective and safer than a knife. (I first saw these being used on a whole cooked chicken in a busy deli.)
  • Rinse the pieces and pat dry with a few paper towels
  • Trim away excess fat
  • Optionally dredge in flour (seasoned with black pepper, white pepper, paprika or any other spice in the ethnic style of your dish
  • While cutting, place the pieces a a bowl or colander, cover with wax paper, put all cooking tools that came into contact with the raw meat in the sink or the dishwasher and wash down the counter. Wash your hands once more with soap and use fresh tongs to manipulate the meat.
  • Unless you're quick, put the covered colander on a plate and refrigerate until needed in Step 4.
  • Cleaning fresh shrimp can take a bit of time. A shrimp deveiner can move that along, but if you still find the task messy and tedious, consider pre-peeled
  • Rinse the fish sole, halibut, cod, or sea bass (avoid Chilean Sea bass because of the high levels of mercury and because it has been over fished )
  • Pat dry with paper towels
  • Don't dreg in flour since fish for a stew is typically added after the wet ingredients
  • Dried beans can be softened by this method: bring them to a gentle boil in 3 times their volume of water, turn off the heat, let them soak for an 1 - 3 hours. They'll still need up 1 1/2 hours to cook depending on their size and age.
  • Lentils and other dried peas do not need this extra step; they simply need to be rinsed and picked over.
  • Canned beans (chickpeas, small white beans, etc) are a snap; they can be quickly rinsed in one of the main steps as a "Meanwhile...".
  • Tofu is low in calories, inexpensive and takes on the flavors of the ingredients its combined with.
  • Dried mushrooms are meaty enough to be a main ingredient and usually require only about 15 minutes of soaking. Various lovely varieties are available.

2) Heat pan

  • A pan, pot or dutch oven, large enough to hold about 2 - 4 cups per person filled to within an inch or two of the brim
  • Deep enough so that the ingredients won’t fall out as you sauté and stir
  • Heavy weight and good quality. Best is a dutch oven , deep saute pan or tangine (I love my Emile Henry ). A deep pan or wok also works well.
  • If the pot/pan is oven safe (plastic handles are a tip off that it's probably not), you can move the whole shebang there for even, easy finish
  • A crock pot is another story and/or another website someday
  • I've found that heating the pan before putting in the oil allows the oil to become hot without cooking it.
  • No more than a one or two minutes over medium low heat
  • Till a drop of a water flicked into the bottom surface of the pan gives a low growly sizzle
  • While the pan is heating, fetch the oil. See the next step to help figure out what kind to use.

3) Heat oil

Many stews skip these steps 3 - 6. A broth is heated and meat, spice, veggies and herbs are tossed in by the order of how long they take to cook. Wonderful and fun examples are the Asian hot pots such as shabu shabu and sukiyaki . Also the Belgian waterzooi and many gumbos that darken a roux instead of the meat.

Use any or a combination of these:

  • Olive oil for “Mediterranean Diet” good health
  • Butter is delicious, but burns quickly and is said to contribute to heart disease although this is disputed
  • Vegetable oil (peanut, corn, canola) has a higher burn temperature so the food can cook faster giving a crisper brown crust
  • Mix the oils and or butter to get the advantages of each and add complexity
  • Frying bacon to render the fat is a tasty substitute, but it's quick to burn and particularly unhealthy
  • Schmaltz and lard are traditional for some cuisines, but I haven't used them. Please leave a comment if you have some advice to share.
  • 6 tablespoons is generous down to a minimum of 2 teaspoons to save calories
  • If using less than 2 tablespoon, spritz cooking spray on the warmed pan before adding the oil
  • Any recipe that calls for 4 tablespoons of butter or more is cheating. Sauted newspaper would taste good cooked in that much butter.
  • If using rendered bacon fat, consider pouring out any more than 2 tablespoons if you have health concerns
  • Not more than a couple of minutes, just enough time find some more veggies
  • The oil and/or butter is hot but not smoking
  • A drop of a water flicked into the oil gives a low sizzle
  • Rummage for your onion(s) first.
  • Our method assumes your fridge is reliably stocked with onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Everything else is optional. Actually these are optional too, but go well in any stew.
  • There'll be time later to hunt for the "soft" veggies.

4) Brown main ingredient

Skip this browning step for a fish or veggie stew

  • Over a medium high flame, working fairly quickly, place the pieces of meat or poultry, skin or fatty side down, in the hot oil. Place the pieces initially towards the outer rim since the middle of the pot is usually hotter.
  • Work in a circluar pattern around and then towards the center. This allows you to (at least a first) have a general idea of which ones to start turning first. This is less effective if the pieces are not generally of uniform size.
  • Don't fuss with the pieces; searing keeps the juices in.
  • Enough to fill the bottom of your pan without crowding. Crowding the pan is the enemy of crisp!
  • The pieces should not be touching each other. Do several batches if you need more. (See deglazing the pot in the next tab.)
  • The insides shouldn't cook through at this point. When the meat starts to smell savory and the edges start to brown, peek under the first piece put in. If the whole side is browned, turn it over and check more pieces until all are browned all over. If it's taking too long, raise the heat.
  • Remove the meat or poultry with tongs or a slotted spoon. (If using a covered pot, use the upside down cover to temporarily hold the pieces.) Many recipes skip removing the meat and simply add the onion and veggies right into the pot at this point.
  • Adjust the fat/oil to about 2 tablespoons. Don't pour fat down the sink, but rather into a bowl for possible use later. Discard the remainder with the trash. (Make sure the trash is at least 1/2 filled. This will usually absorb most of it, otherwise you're left with a goopy mess at the bottom of your pail.) Many recipes skip this pouring off the fat; in fact you can sprinkle flour to make a roux.
  • If the need to make another batch and the pan is too burny and crusty, deglaze the pot with your wet ingredient, such as a dry wine. Splash a few ounces on the bottom of the hot pan, scrape up the crusty bits while swirling the liquid around till a little sauce develops, pour it into a bowl to add back later. Wipe the pan clean with a paper towel. Add fresh oil and start the next batch.
  • For a very quick stir fry that uses scallions instead of onions and other soft ingredients, the meat can sometimes just be pushed off to the side of the wok, and the veggies added to the center. Tricky but do-able.
  • I usually find there's time to chop the onion(s) while browning the meat. They come first since they're the "hardest" and are the most forgiving if slightly over or under cooked. I haven't tried these so-called onion goggles , but they sound hysterical and they've gotten great reviews.
  • At least 1/2 onion to as many as 3 large onions.
  • Other "hard veggies": 1/2 to a few stalks of celery. Carrots sweeten any pot, so use them liberally. Potatoes and shallots (like a mild onion) also go well in stew. Turnips, parsnips and fennel have a strong flavor so experiment sparingly at first.

5) Saute onions, grain

  • Saute the onions till the edges become translucent or even brownish. They'll begin to give a lovely aroma.
  • If you're not sure about the timing, the grain can be cooked separately—see the Meanwhile... in step 8. But if you're confident, it can be swirled right into the pot after the onions have cooked a bit. Allow the grain to cook in the liquid for the some time before adding back the meat or any ingredient that would overcook. Try 1/2 cup to 2 cups of any of these:
    • Barley or brown rice is nicely paired with chicken legs and thighs since the timing is about right; around 50 minutes.
    • Wheat berries can take up to 2 hours to soften. If you've paired this with a tough cut of meat, you can proceed without putting your partially cooked meat in the fridge.
    • White rice times well with chicken breast or sturdy fish.
    • Lentils can be treated similarly although they aren't a grain, but rather a high protein legume .
  • Give all the ingredients so far at least a few deep stirs. Scrape any crusty stuff away from the bottom.

Gather any or all of these while the onion is cooking:

  • Carrots and celery (if you haven't already)
  • Garlic (is almost always necessary)
  • Cauliflower, shredded cabbage, fresh peas, sliced mushrooms, chopped green or red pepper, broccoli, broccoli rabe, okra, lima beans, corn, asparagus, spinach, tofu.

6) Saute veggies, warm the spices

  • Except for a stir fry which should be cooked quickly and stirred almost continuously, there's no need to constantly stir a stew. As the next hardest veggie gets chopped, add it to the pot, give everything a stir and start to chop the next.
  • If you find a "harder" veggie you'd like to use after you've already added a "softer" one, just chop the harder one into smaller pieces and add it anyway.
  • Pull a few cloves of garlic away from the bulb, smash it with the back of a knife, and peel the skin, then slice or mince. If you're usually rushed, use jarred pre-minced. (Not many cooks with small children, a full time job, or other pursuits are garlic snobs.)
  • A stew's ethic heritage is a combination of ingredients (including spices) and techinuqe. Since our technique is assumed to be univesal here; this handy chart foucuses on the spices. Often they can can be selected at this rather late-in-the-game stage.

Cumin, jalapeno pepper, garlic, catsup, green onions, cilantro, ancho chili, worcestershire, lime powder, cumin and cayenne pepper.

Garlic, basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme, juniper berries.

Indian curry is a collection of (often) these: coriander, cumin, chile, fennel, cardamom, turmeric.

Other spices of the indian subcontinent: cassia (a type of cinnamon), fenugreek, clove, tamarind, cilantro.

Here are spices and herbs the Polish love:

Dill, bay leaf, poppy seeds, cloves, grated lemon or orange zest, nutmeg.

The spices of the Caribbean Jerk:

ginger, allspice, thyme Habanero chiles, brown sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, rum, bay leaves, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper.

  • Once you've chosen the spices, add them to the pot, stir them in deep to draw out their flavor. Don't get distracted at this step; watch and stir so your spices don't burn and become bitter.

7) Add wet ingredients

  • If you've added grain or lentils, add at least double or triple that amount of liquid. For dry stews such as paella and jambalaya, the measuring needs to be a bit more careful than a soupy stew where some extra liquid if fine when the ingredients are done.
  • Generally add additional liquid to make the stew and simmer the meat. Add quite a bit (3 - 6 cups) if you like your stews soupy, or less if you like them dry. Add more if it becomes too dry.
  • Use any or all of these: the juice from canned stewed tomatoes, broth, stock or bouillon, wine or vermouth (limit these to no more than 1/2 cup), dried mushroom soaking water (drained) and, of course, water.
  • The liquid for a stir fry should only amount to at most 1/2 cup: combine soy sauce, tempura sauce, mirin, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and some cornstarch in a small covered container. Shake vigorously.

8) Add (back) main ingredient, simmer

  • If you had browned meat or poultry and set it aside, now's the time to add it (and any juices that it made while sitting) back into the pot.
  • If you prep'ed fish or some veggie ingredient (such as canned beans), add it now.
  • If this is the stir fry with meat pushed to the side, stir it back together and hurry though the rest. Don't want to overcook the thin slivers.
  • Otherwise, bring your beautiful creation to a low simmer and partially cover.

Except for a stir fry, you can get these done before you can kick back:

  • Begin the starch if it's not already in the main pot: noodles, rice or biscuits take under an hour.
  • Chop the garnish and leave nearby; herb scissors make quick work of this.
  • Bake a quick bread or slice store-bought
  • Make a salad
  • Prep an easy dessert; berries or chopped fruit with whipped cream is easy and welcome after a stew
  • Clean up the prep area
  • Set the table
  • Open a bottle of wine
  • Pour yourself a glass

9) Add garnish, serve

  • When the main ingredient is cooked through (frequent testing is called for) and the liquid is thickened, you're almost done. This can be two to five minutes for a tofu stir fry or 2-3 hours for a hard grain stew with tough meat.
  • Any of the following can be added in the last few minutes: dumplings (these may need as much as 20 minutes), fresh baby spinach leaves, sliced almonds, etc.
  • To make the stew creamy, add these just before serving: unsweetened coconut milk (the low fat version is surprisingly good), cream (heavy, light or in between), evaporated milk, yogurt, sour cream, milk, or even peanut butter. Tip: put 1/2 cup of the stew liquid into a bowl and stir your thickener into that first. After it's smooth, add to the larger pot.
  • Serve by putting the the stew pot right at the table (along with the grain or pasta if that was made separately), or plate the food near the stove which allows the cook to artfully add garnishes: springs of cilantro, parsley, or dill, sliced toasted almonds, capers, chopped anchovy, sherry, broken tortilla chips, black pepper, sesame seeds, grated cheese, a dollop of yogurt or sour cream.
  • Serve and enjoy!