A stew is very similar to braising, but it uses meat cut into small pieces, usually bite-sized, and uses much more water than braising. The flavourful liquid after cooking is an important part of the dish.
Stews can be "white" or "brown." Both can have the same flavour and texture. For brown stews, the meat is first sautéed to develop colour and to develop flavour and visual interest. For white stews, the colour will probably be closer to ivory than white.
There are two categories of white stews:
- Fricassees: the meat is sautéed a bit first, but at a low temperature so that it will not brown;
- Blanquettes: the meat is blanched, then rinsed.
Unlike some soups, where vegetables can be used just as flavouring but removed and discarded before serving, for stews the vegetables are left in and served.
Stews use tougher cuts meat that need low and slow cooking to tenderize them. It's almost important for the sake of the stew to only use those kinds of meat, as they are the only ones that can stand up to the low, slow cooking process of stews. They have connective tissue in them, which gelatinizes slowly over time, moistening the meat, and thickening the liquid it is cooked in.
Blanquettes, Fricassées, Navarins, Ragouts, and Paprikash are examples of specific types of stews. Even Chili con carne is technically a stew.
How is a stew different from a soup?You might think at first that a soup is always smooth, like tomato or green pea soup. But there are soups with pastas and chopped veg and meats, etc., in them. A stew, though, will have much bigger hunks of things like potatoes and meat, often so big you need to cut them in half with the side of your spoon. While soups can be thin, clear or thick, a stew is always thick. Soups tend to be more delicate, too. A stew is something that needs to cook for a few hours, and it's a hearty dish that you would feed to someone with a good, healthy appetite. You wouldn't give a stew to someone who was feeling poorly, you would give them a soup. But then along comes chowder, which is thick and pretty chunky, and darned if that isn't classed as a soup.
Let's face it, though, those distinctions are pretty fine, and mostly based on when we tend to use one word and when we tend to use another. If someone gave you a bowl of boiled mutton in a thick broth with potatoes and onion, and told you it was Irish Soup, you would look at them and say, "Doncha' mean Irish Stew?"
But make your stew thin and fine, or thick and chunky, with dumplings or without dumplings, you can call it what you want if you've done all the work.
Remember, too, that you don't have to serve a stew as stew. Pour the cooked stew into a casserole dish, cover it with a puff pasty or with a thick sheet of rolled out biscuit dough (add a bit more water to the stew if going the biscuit dough topping route, as the dough will soak up a fair bit of the liquid in the stew). Bake until your top crust is done and golden brown, and you can see the stew juices bubbling out in places. Set on the table and stand back. People seriously still love this kind of food, and just don't see it anymore.
Stews are best made with cheaper cuts of meat: the cheaper cuts will have the tissue that will break down during cooking to create the wonderful flavour.
When reheating a stew, you will likely need to add some extra water.
Parker Bowles, Tom. Going to pot: What's the difference between a stew and casserole and does it really matter? London: Daily Mail. 28 November 2009.
StewsBawd Bree; Blanquette; Cacciucco; Carolina Muddle; Cioppio; Fricassée; Fricot au Poulet; Fricot; Goulash; Gumbo; Irish Stew; Matelote; Menudo; Mulligan Stew; Navarin; Paprikash; Pörkölt; Posole Stew; Ragoût; Stew; Tinga; Wot
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Ragoût (French); Eintopf (German); Stufato, Umido (Italian); Chilindron (Spanish); Iusculum (Roman)