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Basic Rich Beef Stew
From The Science of Cooking, by Peter Barham

This simple dish illustrates several different principles. How to use the Maillard browning reactions to produce flavour, how to take tough meat with lots of connective tissue and cook it so that it becomes tender, and how to use stocks to provide richness and thickness to a stew. There are many variations of this basic stew including oxtail soup, goulashes, boeuf bourguignon, etc.


For the stock:

250 g carrot (one large carrot)
250 g leek (one leek)
250 g parsnip (one medium sized parsnip)
300 g onions (two medium onions)
250 g potatoes (two medium potatoes)
200 g mushrooms (1/2 pound)
2 litres (2 quarts) water

For the stew:

500 g (1 pound) stewing beef (you should not use high quality lean meat, rather use a cut with plenty of connective tissue, etc.)
250 g carrots (one large carrot)
250 g onions (two medium onions)
1 to 2 cloves garlic
20 g (1 ounce) fresh parsley
20 g (1 ounce) fresh rosemary

For the dumplings:

150 g (5 ounces) beef suet
300 g (10 ounces) self-raising flour
about 20 ml (1-1/2 tablespoons) water


The stock:

Begin by making the stock. This will take about an hour and can be done well in advance. If you wish to use a ready prepared stock, or stock tablets, these will I work fine, but will lead to a less rich flavour in the final stew and you will need to thicken the stew more at the end.

Clean and chop the vegetables into small (about 1 cm) sized pieces. Put them in a thick bottomed enamel or stainless steel pan on a medium low heat. Do not add any water or fat or oil. Put the onions and leeks in first followed by the other ingredients finishing with the mushrooms. Keep the pan covered tightly and stir the vegetables regularly until they have softened and collapsed down to about half their original volume. Now keep a careful eye on the vegetables and let them begin to brown on the bottom of the pan. Once a layer of browned vegetable matter starts to stick to the bottom of the pan turn up the heat and let the colour deepen to a chocolate colour and then add a little boiling water. With a wooden spatula, scrape the browned vegetables off the bottom of the pan and add more water as needed. Add more water until it covers the vegetables and then add about half as much again — this should be about 2 litres of water. Continue to cook the covered vegetables on a low heat for another 40 minutes and then strain and scrape the mixture through a sieve. Keep the liquid that has been strained as your stock for the stew.

Browning the meat — developing the flavour through the Maillard reactions:

Cut the meat into pieces about 1–2 cms in size, making sure that the pieces are no more than 1-cm thick in the direction of the grain of the meat. Heat some fat (preferably beef dripping, but any fat or oil will do) in a thick bottomed frying pan. You should have enough fat to cover the pan in a layer about 1-mm thick (about 20g should suffice). When the fat is very hot add the pieces of meat, a few at a time so that they form a single layer in the pan. Keep stirring the meat until it is well browned. You should be aiming to get the surfaces of all the pieces of meat to be dark brown colour (with an almost polished look) like an old mahogany table, or freshly ground roasted coffee. (If you have a smoke detector in your kitchen it may be a good idea to take the battery out — I always set my detector off when I cook meat in this way!). Once the meat is browned put it in a casserole dish; if necessary repeat until all the meat is browned.

The next stage is to "deglaze" the pan — that is to collect all the flavour that has been developed during the browning of the meat and make sure it all ends up in the stew. Once all the meat has been cooked, turn down the heat and add a little of the stock to the frying pan and scrape around the pan to collect all the brown, 'burnt on bits' that have collected in the pan. It is most important for the flavour of the dish that you make sure you scrape the pan out very thoroughly. Pour this stock into the casserole. Repeat several times until the stock you add to the frying pan gets no darker when you scrape around.

Stewing the meat — tenderising by denaturing the connective tissue:

Now add the rest of the stock to the casserole dish which should be less than half full at this stage, put on a tight fitting lid, and cook the stew either on top of the stove on a very low heat or in the oven at about 160°C (325°F) for about 3 to 4 hours, longer for tougher meats. You will need to check every half hour or so that the casserole is not running dry as water evaporates; if the liquid level falls add a little water, or stock, to keep all the pieces of meat below the level of the liquid. You can do all this cooking in advance and you can break the cooking overnight if you wish. I usually make the stock and cook the stew for about an hour on one day and then put the casserole in the fridge overnight before finishing off the cooking the next day.

After 3 hours cooking you should test that the meat has become tender. There are two methods. Either take a piece of meat out of the stew and try eating it, or use a blunt knife to see if it can cut through the meat easily. If the meat is not tender enough keep on cooking until it is! You should avoid cooking the meat for much more than 4 or 5 hours as it will fall to pieces and become rather mushy — the best course of action is to test the meat regularly and often.

Finishing the stew:

The next stage is to make sure you are happy with the flavour of the stew. You really need to taste very carefully and decide exactly what you want to add. My suggestion is to add a crushed clove of garlic, a medium sized sliced onion (which has been sautéed until it is just starting to brown), a large sliced carrot, a teaspoon of fresh chopped herbs (preferably parsley and rosemary — but the choice is yours) and some fresh ground pepper and salt to taste. You might also add a little port and redcurrant jelly to add richness. The best way to set about adjusting the flavour is to add about half the garlic and onions and then stir for a few minutes before tasting. Now add other ingredients a little at a time until you are completely satisfied with the flavour. It is probably best the first time you cook this recipe to follow the ingredients and amounts listed above and to branch out on your own once you have tried this version. You may wish to thicken the stew; if so, now is the time to do so. You can either use cornflour (corn starch) suspended in cold water, or you can prepare a dark roux and use that.


Once you are happy with the flavour make some dumplings. Mix the self raising flour and suet together with a little salt in a good sized mixing bowl (about 2 pints at least). Add a little of the water (no more than 20 ml) and stir the ingredients together. Add a little more water and stir again. Keep on going until the mixture just starts to stick together — it should still be quite dry. Now, with your hands compress the mixture into a ball and gently knead it into a solid mass. Next divide it into 8 portions and roll them between your hands into smooth balls. Add them to the stew and cook for another 20 minutes before serving. NB, you need to make sure there is plenty of liquid in the stew as the dumplings will absorb a good deal so you should add enough boiling water to the stew so that there is a layer at least 1 cm deep above the meat in the pan before adding the dumplings.

Yield: For 4 people


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