Good cooking depends a lot on creativity. But it has a formulaic side, too, and sometimes knowing and following a formula can help you be more effective in your creative cooking. My method for making beef stew is a perfect example of this. I’ll use a formula to whip up a full-flavored classic stew with carrots, turnips, and peas, and I’ll use that same formula to make a stew with whatever I feel like making or have on hand, like a spicy Southwestern beef stew with bell peppers and squash.
The formula is simple: 3 pounds beef, 3 cups onions, 3 garlic cloves, 3 tablespoons flour, 3 cups liquid, 4 cups vegetables, 1 seasoning combination, and 3 tablespoons parsley. Regardless of the vegetables you use or whether you use white or red wine (or no wine at all) as a liquid, the cooking method remains the same.
Tenderize the beef at high heat
I once believed the best, beefiestflavored, and most tender stews were simmered slowly. But after modifying a technique I discovered in The New Making of a Cook, by Madeleine Kamman, I’m convinced that high heat can deliver a tender, rich, succulent beef stew in half the time.
Start by choosing a pot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. The pan’s diameter is key: It should be no more than 9 to 11 inches. If it’s wider, the stewing liquid reduces too quickly. For the best flavor, sear the beef well, as all that lovely browned flavor gets passed on to the stewing liquid. Before putting the stew in the oven, press heavy-duty foil into the pot and crimp it around the rim; top with the pot’s lid. Cooked in a 450°F oven, the beef will become tender in an hour and 15 minutes. Most of us are taught that beef stew must cook over low, slow heat. So why does this high-heat method work? Dr. Melvin Hunt, professor of Animal Science at Kansas State University, explains that the tough connective tissue (known as collagen) that’s common to stew beef can break down at high temperatures, too, and—as an added benefit—in a shorter period of time pro- vided it’s cooked under high-moisture conditions. That’s why the tight foil cover is key: It holds in the moisture needed for the collagen to gelatinize, resulting in fork-tender beef.
Cook the vegetables separately
I can’t think of many vegetables that aren’t good in stew. I do find, however, that it’s best to cook them separately and stir them in toward the end of cooking. Added any sooner, the vegetables lose their flavor to the stew and dilute the rich, straightforward beef flavor in the gravy.
I recommend sautéing or steaming the vegetables just until tender. I usually sauté delicate vegetables like mushrooms and peppers and steam sturdier ones like carrots, turnips, and sweet potatoes. Thawed frozen green peas and canned beans, such as pintos, need no advance cooking.
After cooking the vegetables, I stir them into the piping hot stew as it comes out of the oven and let them sit in the covered pot for several minutes to let the flavors meld.