How to make a casserole or stew

Casseroles or stews are divided into two categories, those where all the ingredients are added to the pan without browning the meat first, and those that do brown the meat and deglaze the pan.  I make both types, it really depends on the time I have.  I can also make a decision as with my shoulder of lamb, quinces and cardamon recipe not to brown, the lamb with a strong flavour cooked slowly for 3 hrs, I’m not concerned about browning the meat first for the maillard reaction.  I do let the  shoulder brown on top at the end of cooking anyway by removing the lid.

Maillard Reaction

In Harold McGee’s book there’s a good explanation of the maillard reaction named after Louis Maillard who discovered it around 1910. What makes a maillard reaction different to browning from caramelisation (caramelisation is browning of sugar molecules) is in maillard browning there is an amino acid involved.  The extra dimension of having an amino acid (which can be found in meat, bread, beer, chocolate, coffee beans) is what gives this reaction its complexity including the meaty flavour.

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In the Olden Days they didn’t brown the meat

In traditional Portuguese cooking we don’t brown the meat before adding it to the pot, it’s also the case with tagine style dishes, Greek dishes and others I’ve come across.  I suspect the evolution of the one-pot dish suspended over a fire in households, meat bubbling away until tender while the cook went about with their busy household chores, didn’t lent itself to the extra faff of browning for the maillard reaction.

The extra step and hassle of browning meat in stages so not to overcrowd the pan, finding space by the fire side to have the raw meat on one side of it and the browned meat on the other, just seems a little far fetched for me to believe this was carried out by the average cook.  During my grandmother’s time it was common not to have a stove or an oven, instead the cooking was done over an open fire, the priority being; do we have enough meat?  If browning of meat was happening before the labelling of it by Louis Maillard, I suspect it was the activity of restaurants or rich households with their dedicated cooks.

What you may find if adding meat straight to the pot without browning it first is a layer of froth forming as the liquid first comes to the boil.  Either way, browning or not the liquid will reduce and intensify in flavour.  Yes the browning step does add a layer of flavour but it’s all relevant, we don’t eat two casseroles made differently side by side.  So long as there is plenty of flavour going in you’ll enjoy it.  What I’m trying to say to you and especially to my daughters when referring back to this post is; don’t worry too much about browning the meat, do it you have the time.

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If you put the pot in the oven it will cook surrounded by heat from all angles creating potentially a dryer dish, the liquid more concentrated.  But it does somewhat depend on the lid of the pan and how much steam escapes.  I have a personal preference for putting the pot in the oven, I think it produces an intenser flavour overall and I find it easier to ignore it while cooking because I know the heat is more constant and even, I don’t have to worry about stirring as often.

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What goes in changes, recently I’ve been making the above Beef and Quince casserole.

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Last year I posted the Lamb, Quince and Cardamon recipe.

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Another favourite is adding dried prunes.  Adding whole chestnuts is also very nice (raw skinned or pre-cooked vacuum-packed)

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Or adding clementine peel, saffron and tomatoes.

Favourite cut of beef 

I have two favourite cuts of beef for long cooking, below, the feather steak.  I buy in Waitrose at the meat counter and comes in one uncut piece ranging 600g to over 1kg in weight.  I have asked at two butcher shops but they only seem to sell the skirt steak.   Feather steak produces the tenderest of cuts within 1.5-2 hrs cooking.

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The other beef cut I like using is the skirt, it’s not as tender as the feather steak, has a slight chewier result but many may prefer this, it is flavoursome.

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The very noticeable difference between the skirt (above and below) and the feather steak is that the skirt doesn’t have a connective tissue running in the middle…

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…like the feather steak does (below).

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You can leave it in, it will melt in the long cooking into a gelatinous texture, or cut it off.

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I tend to cut it off at the thick end of it but leave it in where the piece of meat thins out.

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I cut the meat, beef, pork, lamb into over-size large pieces, it will shrink considerably during the cooking and I still want to see the pieces in reasonable size by the time the dish is ready.

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DO NOT flour the meat

Adding flour to the pot will thicken the liquid, the flour can be added at the beginning or at the end of cooking.  Adding at the end is my preferred choice, that way I can decided after seeing how much of the liquid has reduced.  Very much a personal choice.

If you do add flour to the pot, do not whatever the recipe says, cover the meat pieces in flour first and then fry them.  I have no idea why some recipes say to do that, and in the beginning of “setting-up-home” I would obey such instructions, but it makes no sense.  If you flour the meat and then fry it you’re browning the flour and not the meat.  The whole point of browning the meat is to make contact between its surface and the hot pan for the maillard reaction to occur, covering the meat in flour means you’re browning the flour instead.

There is a maillard reaction happening with the browning of the flour, it’s why we do it in brown roux sauces, but that can be done separately after browning the meat.  You can have a maillard reaction with both separately.

When cooking for the family I rarely add flour to thicken the liquid, it’s usually reduced enough to our liking.  When making it for a special occasion I’m likely to thicken by adding beurre manié (equal amounts butter and flour) as the butter will enrich the sauce.

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To brown the meat use the tiniest bit of oil, just enough to add a shimmer to the bottom of the pan.  If you add too much oil the meat doesn’t brown properly in a short time, it’s being shallow fried.  Between each batch you’re likely to need to add more oil.

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Heat the pan on a medium heat until the oil is hot.  Add a few pieces of meat at a time living enough room between them so not to cause them to sweat and steam preventing it from creating a good brown crust.

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If you try and turn the pieces over too soon they will appear to be stuck to the pan and resist, let them cook further until there has been enough browning which will cause the meat to unseal easily.  Don’t have the heat too fierce which will cause the meat to blacken rather than dark browning, adding an acrid taste.

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What you’re looking to create is a good dark brown crust.  I only brown the meat on two sides, in an ideal world I should brown it on all sides but quite honestly I can’t be bothered with the extra time, it’s my short cut.

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Short-cut time on browning

If I want to cut the browning time even further I don’t cut the pieces into small chunks, instead I leave the meat in one large piece and brown it on both side, after removing it from the pan I then cut it into the desired pieces.

If doing it this way press down on the meat a couple of times holding it down for few seconds at a time, in order to make the surface of it come into better contact with the pan.   As you can see in the photo above, if you don’t hold down the meat there will be areas where it doesn’t come into contact with the heat properly.

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After browning the meat, the pot should end up looking like this, there is flavour in there.  At this stage you can add a spoonful of flour and brown it before deglazing the pan.

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Or like I have done above, not add flour and simply deglaze.  Use any liquid to deglaze, stock, wine, liqueur or simply water.  If you’ve added a glass of liquid reduced it a little.

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Remove the liquid and put it aside, wipe the pan.

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Add a very small amount of oil to the pan.

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Add chopped onions and soften them.

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The easiest way to soften onions with a small amount of oil is to put the lid on the pan for 2-3 mins first, allowing to create steam and this stops them from burning.

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After that take the lid off, let the excess steam escape and they will colour slightly after one minute or two.

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Add the reserved liquid.

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Another short-cut

When time is not on my side, instead of the above steps I just showed, add the onion straight to that residue left in the pan after browning the meat.  You may need to add a little oil.  Soften the onions and carry on as normal.  Adding the onions to the meat residue will make the onions appear ‘dirtier’ looking but that won’t be noticed when dish is cooked.

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Instead of only softening onions you could add mirepoix (combination of onion, carrot, celery).  Robust herbs do well in long cooking, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, parsley stalks, oregano, sage.

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Add your chosen vegetables, I cut mine on the chunkier side to cope with the long cooking.  I use to add the vegetables half way through cooking the meat but inevitably when cooking for the family I would forget, now they all go in at the beginning.

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Stock / Water

For the liquid, I’ll either add just water or pint of stock and then if it needs topping up I’ll use water.  I like the stock they sell in pouches in Waitrose in their ‘cook’s ingredient’ aisle (not the ones refrigerated), they’re good quality and unsalted making it easier to adjust my own seasoning.  If you use a stock cube dilute it far far more than it says, make a meek solution of it since the liquid during cooking will be reducing and concentrating with all the flavours from the pot, you don’t want to be tasting the stock cube instead.  If the stock has salt you’ll have to reduce the salt in overall recipe.

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I add enough liquid to almost but not quite cover the ingredients.  Cover, bring to simmering point on the stove (for speed) and then putting it in the oven.

How much liquid will reduce will depend how long it’s cooked for at what temperature, but also importantly if the lid fits snuggly, how much steam escapes, and some lids have holes in them.  It’s a good idea to check after an hour and stir everything.

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Above is the feather steak after 1.45hr at 160˚C fan oven.  It appears drier than it actually is after stirring you’ll see in photo below there is a lot of liquid underneath.

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I like the meat when it’s soft enough to break apart with a fork or spoon.  Before serving I stir a handful of chopped fresh parsley, for the colour and flavour but mainly for the extra vitamin C it provides for the family.

Ovens differ but also the age of the animal and how it’s reared makes a difference in how long it takes to break down the muscle.  A rough guide to my oven timings:

150-160˚C fan takes roughly 2hrs (whole shoulder of lamb takes 3hrs)

170˚C fan – 1.30hrs

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