A No-Recipe Formula for Hearty Stew

published Jan 13, 2017
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Sometimes (often!) the technique behind a recipe is more important than the precise ingredients. Stews fall squarely into this category, meaning you can take a few key principles and make a hearty meal without cracking a book or fussing with your phone.

Just learn one important ratio by heart and meaty stew will be yours.

The Ideal Stew Ratio: Two Parts Meat, One Part Vegetable

Scouring our recipe archives, looking at everything from beef stew to chili, I was actually surprised by the number of similarities of ingredients and technique in these meaty stews. Most meat-based stews call for tough, inexpensive cuts of meat, while vegetarian recipes include the same onions, carrots, and celery typical of a beef stew.

Two parts meat to one part vegetables is the perfect ratio for a meaty stew.

And despite thinking this ratio seemed heavy on the meat, I was even more surprised to put this ratio to the test in my own kitchen. The meat cooks down considerably, making it feel like a balanced pot of meat to vegetables in a hearty and wholesome way.

Two Parts Meat: What to Choose

You’ll need two to three pounds of meat for a hearty stew to serve a family. Beef is classic but lamb, venison, or even poultry like chicken or hens can be stewed.

What kind of beef to use? Beef top round, bottom round, and chuck roast are best and should be cubed and trimmed of their fat and white connective tissue before browning.

Brown your stew meat before stewing to give it even more flavor, a jump-start on cooking, and to create a rich dark “fond” which will flavor the stew’s broth considerably. A Dutch oven (or another heavy pot) is our favorite vessel for stewing, so heat a small amount of oil in yours and brown the stew’s meat in batches in the warm oil before adding the stew’s liquid and vegetables.

More on Choosing Meat for Stew

One Part Vegetables: What to Look for

Aim for one pound to a pound-and-a-half of vegetables for this stew. This is roughly two to three cups of chopped vegetables.

Onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes are typical stew fodder, but don’t be afraid to try mushrooms, turnips, parsnips, or even hearty winter squash in your stew. Beans, like chickpeas or kidney beans, can be used in addition to or instead of some of the vegetables as well. We tend to reach for canned beans instead of dry and add them part way through the stew’s stewing.

Like the meat, aromatic vegetables like onions, celery, and carrots should be sautéed in a bit of oil before adding to the cooking liquid. These vegetables should be tender and fragrant before adding the meat and deglazing liquid back to the pan.

What About the Liquid?

The ratio of liquid to meats and vegetables is a little trickier and depends on a number of factors, including the meat and vegetables in question. The stewing liquid must cover the meat and vegetables (otherwise, it is technically a braise), but can include everything from broth and canned tomatoes, to water and wine.

Once you add your liquid to the stew meat and vegetables, bring to a boil and then cover, lower the heat, and cook at a bare simmer for one to three hours, depending on the meat. (Or cook in the oven.) The meat and vegetables should be tender.

Taste and season with salt and pepper, and add the three other flavor perks it probably needs — a splash of acid such as lemon, vinegar, or Worcestershire sauce; fresh herbs; and salt and pepper.

Bask in the enjoyment a well-cooked stew — no recipe needed.

Learn more about making beef stew:
How To Make the Best Beef Stew from Scratch