Whether it’s Boeuf Bourguignon or Hayashi Rice, practically every culture around the world has their version of beef stew. While I love these ethnic stews, when someone says “Beef Stew” to me, it conjures an image of supper in a frontier cabin. A half-day trek from nearest town, these settlers are self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables and raising their own meat, and for this particular meal, the meat comes courtesy of Buck, a trusted oxen, who has outlived his usefulness tilling the fertile land.
Sinewy, yet full of flavor, the big hunks of meat get braised for hours in a cast-iron dutch-oven hung over a smouldering fire. With time, the toughness gives way and the beef turns to melt-in-your-mouth tender strands of meat that are loosely held together with rich collagen. Paired with a few root vegetables from the cellar and some foraged herbs, this beef stew is a rare treat that nourishes these hard-working pioneers while taking the chill off the evening air.
Inspired by this rustic daydream, I mostly kept to the basics of a classic beef stew, while incorporating some modern culinary techniques to take it from modest to marvelous.
As with any great stew, the core of a flavorful beef stew starts with the Maillard reaction. This is the chemical reaction that occurs when reducing sugars react with amino acids to produce thousands of new flavor compounds. Put another way, the Maillard reaction is the reason why a seared steak always tastes better then boiled one.
By salting the beef to coax out some of the beef’s natural juices, and then giving the meat space to breath in a hot pan, the juices caramelize into a thick mahogany layer of “fond” at the bottom of the pot. This coating is what gives our stew it’s complex savory flavor. That’s why it’s important to use a heavy bottomed pot (so the fond doesn’t burn), and why you don’t want to use a pot with a non-stick coating (you want stuff to stick to the pot)
The next layer of flavor comes from caramelized aromatics such as onions and garlic. After adding them to the pot, I cover it with a lid and let them steam before removing the lid to let the onions caramelize. The steaming not only speeds things up, it also releases the thick layer of fond on the bottom of the pan so it doesn’t burn as the onions caramelize.
For the liquid, instead of using water or something fancy like wine, I like to use a combination of stock and stout. Since the malt in stouts is roasted first, it’s undergone the Maillard reaction as well, imbuing the dark beer with deep earthy flavors that pairs beautifully with the beef.
Finally, to finish off the stew, I make a simple roux by mixing some beef fat with flour to subtly thicken the stew without turning it into a cloying gravy.
- Cut the beef into 1 1/2 -inch (4 centimeter) chunks and season with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.
- Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat until hot and then add the oil, swirling to coat the pan. Add the beef leaving about 1/2-inch between each piece of meat. Depending on how large your pot is, you may need to do this in two batches.
- Fry the beef undisturbed until you see it start seeing a dark brown crust forming around the edges. Flip the beef and brown the other side in the same way. If the oil starts to smoke, or the fond accumulating on the bottom of the pan starts to burn, turn down the heat and add a tablespoon of water. Transfer the browned beef to a bowl and repeat until all the beef is browned.
- Add the onions and garlic to the pot, turn down the heat to medium low and cover the pot with a lid. Let this steam for 10 minutes.
- Remove the lid and turn up the heat to medium high. Allow the onions to fully caramelize while stirring constantly to prevent burning. This should take about 15-20 minutes.
- Add the chicken stock, stout, soy sauce, tomato paste, bay leaves, juniper berries, and carrots and then return the beef to the pot. Stir to combine and then bring the mixture to a simmer.
- Cover with a lid and place in a 300 degree F (150 degrees C) oven until the beef is tender (about 1- 1 1/2 hours).
- When the meat is tender, remove the pot from the oven and skim off 1 tablespoon of fat to set aside and then skim off any additional fat and discard.
- To the fat you saved, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and stir until a smooth paste forms.
- Add a ladle full of liquid from the stew to the flour mixture and whisk until smooth. Pour this mixture back into the pot and stir until it's evenly incorporated.
- Remove the rosemary and add the potatoes, cover and return to the oven for an additional 20-30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
- The stew will most likely need more salt, so adjust the salt to suit your tastes and then add the peas and cook for another few minutes on the stove to heat the peas through.
- Serve with crusty bread.