Friday, January 1, 2010

Cook's Illustrated Beef Stew

Beef stew is one of those things which I never seem to be able to get right on my own. It seems that no matter how much time and effort I expend to create something lovely the end result is usually ok, but not great. The meat's a little dry, the gravy is neither as thick nor as flavorful as I'd expect, and so on.

Cook's Illustrated to the rescue. They just published an excellent beef stew recipe which I was able to try out a little while ago. It was fantastic and took little more time than I would normally spend making stew on my own.

They've done a couple interesting things with the recipe, which I'll get to in a moment, but it seems like the real magic is their emphasis on using a good cut of meat. In the past I've always used "stew meat" which, according to the good folks at Cook's, is a bad idea. The scraps that go into the typical package of supermarket stew meat lack fat and are difficult to cook evenly, leading to tough chunks of meat in the final product. Rather, Cook's recommends going with a largish cut of something well marbled. Their recipe calls for boneless chuck-eye roast but I ended up using boneless short ribs instead since I had some on hand. In any case the meat in the stew ended up fork-tender rather than tough and had excellent flavor, supporting Cook's contention about the importance of meat selection.

Apart from picking the right cut of meat they also front-load the broth/gravy with high-glutamate ingredients including tomato paste and anchovies. Lacing anchovies I substituted fish sauce instead, which worked well. I've used tomato paste in stew before but never any fish product; the broth seems to have been much improved by the addition.

One of the things which I like about Cook's is that they're not purists. They're perfectly happy to use shortcuts when appropriate, in this case adding gelatin to the stew at the last minute to thicken it up. As they point out this is essentially the same effect that you get by preparing a real stock but takes no time at all. The gelatin thickened the gravy without any apparent ill effects, so no complaints there.

It's also a testament to the quality of the recipe that I could fumble the execution (too much meat in the pan so I couldn't properly brown the tomato paste and flour) and still get a quality product in the end. I think if I were to do this again I might use homemade stock rather than chicken base, but apart from that I've nothing but praise for this particular interpretation of beef stew.

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