It’s stew season. I’m not going to give you a recipe - I assume you’ve got dozens of good ones at your fingertips. Instead, here are a few tips for making an ordinary stew into something rich and silky, something that will perfume your house with promise—and fill your friends with joy.
The first rule - and the most important - is not to buy something labeled “stewing meat.” That’s likely to be leftover bits from all over the animal, which will each cook differently. Buy a fatty, sinewy piece of meat - beef chuck, pork butt, lamb shoulder - and cut it up yourself. And while you’re at it, cut the meat into larger chunks than you think you’ll need; the larger the piece, the slower the cooking. Do not be afraid of fat; remove it at the end, not the beginning, so you get the benefit of its flavor.
Second, really take the trouble to brown the meat; I’ve seen many a stew not live up to its potential because the meat was halfheartedly browned. It’s a little extra work, but not that much, and it will reward you with richness. To do this, pat the meat very dry with paper towels, season it just before searing, get your pan very hot, and do not crowd the pan, which will steam the meat instead of browning it. Turn the meat to brown all sides, and if you need to brown the meat in batches, take the extra half-minute to deglaze the pan in between batches. This will let you keep all the rich flavor of the stuck brown bits and, just as importantly, not burn them when you are searing the next batch.
Third, and this is very important, cook the meat very slowly once the liquid goes into the pot. If you cook it beyond a lazy simmer, the meat might get tender, but it will also be dry. A slow burble is most easily achieved not on top of the stove, but rather in a slow oven (300 degrees or so).
Fourth, be generous with flavorings - onions, garlic, herbs. Each will add complexity. And there’s no substitute for alcohol (beer or wine), which will unleash a whirlwind of hidden flavors.
Finally, think ahead. A stew needs time to rest. Let it sit in the refrigerator for a day or two, gathering its thoughts, before removing the fat, gently reheating, and serving your stew to a few very lucky people.