The quest for a perfect beef stew is, of course, a lifelong one.
It takes even longer after you realize that there isn’t one perfect beef stew, but constellations of them. The dish is practically universal.
So far, I have mastered two styles, the basic American and the European classic. The big difference between our beef stew, and French boeuf bourguignon, Provençal daube and Tuscan peposo, is the loud presence of red wine. Traditional American beef stews are lubricated with water and onions; later versions, with beef broth or tomato sauce. Real wine was simply not available to most American cooks until well into the 20th century. (Cooking wine, which is salted and shelf stable, was invented for American grocery stores.)
But red wine and beef are such an elemental combination that a stew of the two together is worth studying.
Stews with wine must be cooked slowly. The alcohol, acidity and fruitiness that make wine lovely in the glass are not so nice in the serving bowl; they have to be tamed by cooking. But the tangy, syrupy taste they leave behind is an ideal counterpoint to red meat.
Like red wine, red meat benefits from slow, low cooking. You can read endless treatises by food science wonks about precisely how low-temperature cooking takes meat from tough to tender and back again, not to mention the roles played by plasma, muscle fibrils and collagen in how it tastes. But you don’t need to know any of that – just as your grandparents didn’t – to master a beef stew.
What you do need to know is how to cook on low heat, which, in a modern kitchen, isn’t as easy as you would think. Preindustrial recipes assume that you are cooking on a wood-fired or coal-fed stove; for a home cook, simmering a stew to tenderness could take hours or even days.
For most of my life as a cook, whether making a stew, a braise, a daube or a ragù, I found it impossible to sustain “gentle” cooking on my gas burners. All those delicious French words for simmering: mijoter, to murmur; frémir, to shiver; mitonner, to cook quietly, were out of my reach. All I could do was bouillir (boil).
I’d tiptoe away from a barely simmering stew – as from a baby who has finally gone to sleep – and be summoned back five minutes later to find a heaving, splattering mass. While some cooks are on an eternal quest for more BTUs, hotter surfaces and bigger flames, I wish for the stovetop equivalent of a Sterno can.
So the first time I baked a stew in the oven, I felt as if someone had reinvented the wheel for me.
When I made a Roman-style oxtail stew, baked in a tightly covered pot, I was bowled over by its taste and texture, not to mention by how much easier it was to manage the heat. After that, there was no looking back.
Most of us rarely set our ovens below 325 degrees, but baking a stew at 300, or even 275, is ideal. The meat softens, but never collapses or becomes stringy. The liquid and aromatics are fused into the kind of rich, complex sauce that professional chefs used to spend decades learning to achieve.
My favorite recipe has hints of rosemary, thyme, orange peel and juniper berries, uses a whole bottle of wine, and is thickened simply by crushing the long-cooked potatoes and carrots into the sauce at the end. (It has been cobbled together from recipes by several South-of-France-loving food writers, like Richard Olney, Mireille Johnston and Patricia Wells.) Any herbs, vegetables and spices of your liking are equally viable.
It does take a good three to five hours to cook a big batch of stew this way. I am quite comfortable leaving my house with the oven on low; many people are not. But beef stew is a movable feast: You can cook it at night or over the weekend; or cook it for half the time, then refrigerate (or, in cold weather, leave it in the turned-off oven overnight). The cooking process can be completed the next evening, or beyond, and the finished stew can wait days (in the refrigerator) before being served. (Like gingerbread, dark chocolate brownies and other dishes with powerfully flavored ingredients, red-wine beef stew benefits from a rest before serving.)
In the oven, heat comes from all directions, not just from below, so there is no need to stir. All you need to capture it is a heavy pot with a heavy lid, like a Dutch oven or a cocotte. Because of the tight seal between pot and lid, the pressure in the pot seems to help the liquid penetrate the meat.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that you drink the same wine used to marinate the beef. But a modest bottle would be best for the marinade, and this stew offers an opportunity to drink an excellent red. The ideal accompaniment would be dry, intense and structured enough to stand up to the rich beef, but not powerfully fruity or oaky. I think first of a red from the Northern Rhône Valley, like a Cornas or a Hermitage, both with the depth to match the stew. You could try an aged Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino, or perhaps even an older Bandol. A good cabernet sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains would be delicious, as would a restrained Napa cabernet. If you’re not a fan of red wine, good stout might be your best option.
Slow-Cooked Red Wine Beef Stew
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Total time: About 5 hours, plus marinating
3 1/2 to 4 pounds well-marbled beef stew meat, preferably chuck, cut into large (2-by-2-1/2-inch) pieces
2 large sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
About a dozen juniper berries
1/2 bottle red wine (not sweet)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves (1 smashed and peeled, 3 minced)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 stalks celery (optional)
3 large carrots
1 large, starchy potato, such as Idaho
3 ounces pancetta (or French ventrèche), diced small (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Bouquet garni (2 sprigs fresh thyme, 2 sprigs fresh rosemary or parsley, 2 bay leaves, 6 juniper berries, 4 whole cloves, 1 teaspoon dried orange peel, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied)
1/2 bottle red wine
Chicken broth, as needed
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves (or use additional parsley), for garnish
Marinate the meat: In a large bowl, combine all the marinade ingredients. Mix well and refrigerate in the bowl or a thick sealable plastic bag for at least 2 hours or up to 1 day.
When ready to cook, strain off the marinade and reserve for cooking. Drain meat on paper towels and pat until very dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Place a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid on the stove and rub the bottom with the smashed, peeled clove of garlic, until coated with the garlic’s oils. Discard garlic.
Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and cook over medium heat until shimmering. Add half the meat and brown gently on both sides while preparing the vegetables. There’s no need for a hard crust to form; a little browning is all that’s required. When browned, remove meat to paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining 2 tablespoons oil and meat. Return all the browned, drained meat to the pot.
Meanwhile, cut the celery (if using) and carrots into large chunks. Peel and chop the onions. Peel and dice the potato.
Heat oven to 250 degrees. In a separate skillet, heat pancetta (if using) and olive oil over low heat. Cook gently until the fat renders. When the pork fat is running, add onions, celery, carrot, onion and minced garlic. (If not using pancetta, simply heat olive oil and add vegetables and garlic.) Cook gently, stirring, until softened and golden, about 10 minutes. Raise the heat, add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant and sizzling. Add the bouquet garni, reserved marinade and potato. Let bubble fiercely for 5 to 10 minutes, until liquid is thickened and syrupy.
Pour in the wine and, if needed, enough broth to just cover the ingredients. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly and bake 4 to 5 hours, until the meat is soft enough to eat with a spoon and the sauce is rich and thick. After 4 hours, if liquid seems thin, uncover pot for the rest of the cooking.
When done, let cool slightly, uncovered. Remove and discard celery (if using) and bouquet garni. To thicken the stew, use a fork to mash some of the carrots and potatoes into the liquid; or, remove and purée them, then add back in. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and lots of freshly ground pepper.
Reheat and serve immediately, or let cool and refrigerate. Serve within 3 days; the flavor will only improve. Garnish each serving with a sprinkling of chopped thyme and parsley.