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My mother makes bland stew and apparently I do too...

  • b

What is the deal with that? I've put everything I can think of in varying (sometimes excessive) quantities into my stews and I always come up with the same blah result. I know its just beef stew, but I want to put a nice hot spoonful in my mouth and go, "ahhhhhh" not "blah"

Everything else I make tastes good, why not my stew?!??? Do other people secretly do something I'm missing? I've searched recipe upon recipe and keep falling short. Maybe I'll give up. Except stew = cheap and it is fairly pracitcal to make in my 6X8 kitchen. Yeah, you read that right, 6X8.

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  1. I found that many times when I would make something that should be bursting with flavor, it doesn't because I always seem to under salt things.

    1. c
      Caitlin Wheeler

      The salt tip is a good one. Also, I find that the only good beef stew recipes have copious amounts of red wine in them -- do you make wine based stews? Or water/broth?

      1. it could come down to technique more than ingredients .... ie: what you do with your ingredients, not necessarily what ingredients you use. outwardly a stew can seem simple but .... in chinese cooking the meat is briefly blanched to clean it up and to remove some of the "scum" that will muddy up the stew....then the meat gets a good sear, vegetables (especially onions ) can also be seared/browned for additional flavor, spices can be sauteed briefly in oil to bloom them, then there is the liquid - water, wine,stock..... and as far as salting goes - season each component as you go - don't wait until the end....depending on what cut of meat you use....you may find that adding the vegetables near the end will result in better tasting/looking veggies than if you start with them and let them cook too long.....good luck

        6 Replies
        1. re: gordon wing

          Yes, agree w/ everything here. Gradual additions of salt and pepper are critical to a flavorful result. Of course, let's face it, fat also adds a lot of flavor. I usually use canola oil to sear the meat, but will add a generous pat of butter when the onions go in.

          I stew the meat w/ large chunks of celery, onion, and carrots for 2 to 2.5 hrs ideally--the longer, the better. Sometimes I'll add a couple of tomatoes. As far as liquids, I always add some alcohol (either red wine or beer) after the veggies go in and then beef stock or bouillion later if it needs additional beef flavor. Herbs: thyme, bay leaf, parsley. Potatoes go in during the last half hour so they don't get too mushy.

          1. re: Carb Lover

            Re: adding the vegetables last. My family always liked stew better the second day, when everything was cooked and broken down. They were more concerned with taste rather than what the veggies looked like.

            1. re: LBQT

              Veggie addition depends on the veggies. Beef cooks alone in the gravy for about three hours, in a Le Creuset Dutch oven in the oven at 250 degrees Farenheit.

              Onion and potato go in about an hour before the meat is done.

              Mushroom and carrot and celery and parsley go in about half an hour before the meat is done.

              Peas go in at the last minute.

              1. re: LBQT

                re: the vegetables - as is often the case, there is more than one way to go ..... one way is to go with the vegetables cooked until they break down and give themselves up to the stew - some vegetables work better than others for this - I personally love to cook potatoes until they dissolve (non waxy potatoes) and thicken the stew but vegetables can also be cooked until they're done and have given up some flavor to the stew and also still look bright & appetizing. hope I didn't say that I didn't care about taste.

                1. re: gordon wing

                  I'm sorry if my post sounded offensive - it certainly wasn't meant to - I know you're concerned with taste. At any rate, my "secret ingredient" is a can of peas, liquid and all. Learned that trick from my MIL, and my kids always loved it that way. They also thicken the stew the next day, in addition to adding flavor.

              2. re: Carb Lover

                I like to put in everything at the beginning, usually... but a favorite "spartan" beef stew recipe that was given to me by my butcher involves braising the (seared) beef in plenty of red wine for a few hours, then adding caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms at the very end.

            2. If you have "How to Eat", check out Nigella Lawson's recipe with anchovies in your beef stew. It really added some depth to the stew the last time I made it. I wrote about it on my blog, linked below, last month.

              Link: http://fogcity.blogs.com/jen/2004/10/...

              1 Reply
              1. re: jen maiser
                Caitlin Wheeler

                That's one of my favorite recipes, too. I like that you brown the meat without having to flour it first -- the flour doesn't taste "raw" or lumpy and it's much easier this way.

              2. Two suggestions: one is to use a crockpot, I find it makes the meat in the stew very tender and concentrates the flavors. Second, think ethnic. I have pretty much decided curried beef stew, Greek Stifado, a sweet and sour beef stew, or a Hispanic stew using chili peppers works better for me than a traditional American/English version.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Coyote

                  Yes, I also like the hoisin and cabernet recipe from epicurious, and I recently made a vietnamese beef stew with star anise and lemon grass that was quite tasty.

                2. If by "beef stew" you mean cubed beef, carrots, potatoes in a beef broth, that IS comfort food, and anything with a lot of potatoes is going to be on the bland side, but that doesn't mean "blah."

                  Think hearty, think salt of the earth. Go with it. To perk up the flavor, think celery, celery seed, garlic, shallots, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, black pepper, thyme, Herbs de Provence, parsley, mushrooms, bacon, and red wine. Seriously, we put all of these in our beef stew, and I still think of it as "comfort food." We always throw in fresh or frozen peas at the last minute, that adds a nice fresh flavor.

                  Use a flavorful cut of beef, like tri-tip, that helps.

                  We make beef stew pretty much every week when it's cold outside. Variations on the them include carbonnade flamande - Cook's Illustrated has a new recipe using Belgian beer that we haven't tried yet but looks excellent. They recommend using top blade steak, which is extremely flavorful when braised, but I think is too hard and wasteful to cut into stew, and would use as pot roast.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Ilaine

                    Forgot to mention tomato paste.

                  2. If the only problem is "blandness," its almost certainly, as other posters have suggested, that the dish is under salted. Add some salt --- you'll amaze yourself at how good the dish will start to taste. You'll get an even better result if you salt each layer as you build the dish, e.g., salt the meat before you brown it, the veggies as you carmelize them, etc.

                    1. i'll agree with the consensus and encourage early salting. I also just made a lovely beef stew that included some chopped up bacon (blanched first), and chopped up olives (I used kalamata), both of which added their own flavorful saltiness.

                      the danger, i guess, is oversalting, though ever since i started salting things early on, i've gotten a much better sense of how much to use, and when. Everything, but especially stews, tastes so much better and "like itself" with judicious salting while you cook (as opposed to at the end or at the table).

                      i also often sear the meat first, but the last stew i made was just braised.

                      1. I suggest sauteeing the veggies in bacon fat and adding your herbs etc. at that time as well. A lot of slow cooker cookbooks recommend adding more veggies and seasonings at the end of the cooking time, which is a great idea even if you don't use a crockpot. Lastly, a good beef stock coupled with an earthy red wine or stout can make a big difference in stew as well.

                        I can sympathize with your small kitchen dilemma, mine has more square feet but very little counter space. I've learned to adapt.

                        1. I agree with the other posters but just wanted to emphasize that a dollup of tomato paste will not just help the blandness, but will make a thicker stew as well. Having made plenty of watery stews in my life, it's proved a lifesaver.

                          Adding salt in stages rather than at the end also results in less salt usage overall. But of course, potatoes do sop up saltiness so they could be your culprit. They are traditional, though... I wonder if anyone knows whether there would be any difference if you boiled the potatoes separately, and poured the stew on top.

                          Also, could it be that you just find traditional stews bland? I mean, maybe it's not your cooking at all. Its hard to find bases of comparison these days, unless you eat in other people's homes alot.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: drdawn

                            Yes, tomato paste is a good tip. I forgot to mention that in my earlier post. I use a couple of tbsps. and saute it on the heat before the liquids go in. I do the same for my dried herbs.

                            In terms of the potatoes, I think it would be very different if you cooked them separately from the stew. Flavors of the stew and potatoes would not "marry," and the starch from potatoes would not help thicken the stew.

                            Sounds like there is a range of preference for how broken down people like their potatoes. For me, I like them soft and tender but not too mushy, so I cube mine and put in during last 30 min.

                          2. Some general suggestions:

                            1) Make sure you brown the meat first. Stew made with unseared meat has less flavor. Much less.

                            2) Coat the meat with flour and salt before you brown it. This will give you some extra browning, and you'll start with a thicker base.

                            3) If you're thickening with flour, use beurre manie instead. Beurre manie is equal parts butter and flour mixed thoroughly by hand and rolled into little balls. If you're thickening with starch, whisk in some cold butter. Butter will help emulsify your liquids, and add some deep flavor.

                            4) As others have said, make sure you're salting properly. Always use kosher salt for cooking. The iodine in table salt can generate off flavors at high temperatures.

                            5) What kind of liquid are you using? If you're using water, consider using stock or wine or both. An ideal stock is the leftover liquid from a braise.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Caviar

                              Kosher salt is a good idea. We buy cheap sea salt from a Korean grocery, same idea, no iodine. I don't use any iodized salt for cooking or the table, get my iodine from seafood and commercially salted foods.

                            2. e
                              East Point Cook

                              I think it's all about the cut of beef, the initial seasoning and sear.
                              There is a great book about this stuff that describes in detail all of the steps.
                              All About Braising by Molly Stevens

                              Link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/...

                              1. I find that using short ribs is key--cook it on the bone (you get the marrow) and don't trim the fat. If you cook it in the oven like a pot-au-feu for 3 hours at 250 the bones will just slide out at the end with a little help from a pair of tongs or a fork.

                                1) Generously salt and pepper the short ribs. Sear them in an oven-safe pan on the stove in olive oil. Remove from pan.

                                2) Add large chunks of carrots, onions, leeks, and celery to the hot oil. Add some more oil if necessary. Saute until just soft around the edges.

                                3) Put the beef back in. Add low-salt beef broth (just in case--oversalting is hard to fix and remember you've already salted the beef) or a mixture (I usually do a mixture of beef and veg.), red wine (give it a good pour but not too much or it will go all purple), a few dashes of Worcestershire, and a good-sized bunch of thyme (i.e., if you are making this for 6 people, use the whole store package or a good handful from your garden).

                                4) Cook this in the oven for 2 hours at 250. Add new potatoes, turnips (if you want), and brussels sprouts or chunked savoy cabbage, and cook for another hour.

                                Just generally, things to think remember:

                                1) Celery is high in mineral salts, so it will impart a good flavor complexity. That's why it's often used in stock.
                                2) Onions are good for this too. They add roundness, but are most round when sauteed first.
                                3) Fat is necessary. If you are using those "stew meat" cubes in the package, they might be cubes in a package becuase they are leftovers. Often, there is insufficient fat on those things.
                                4) Don't use water as a base in a stew.
                                5) Think of a stew like a wine. It needs acidity (from wine, or a little bit of vinegar) and a host of flavors and smells to do its work.
                                6) Herbs are a good way to add the flavors and smells--the essential oils in these are a great mix of minerals.
                                7) Don't be afraid to throw things in.

                                1. Check also the cut of meat you are using. With beef there is often a tradeoff between tenderness and flavor, the tougher pieces also being tastier, and incidentally, cheaper. Filet mignon is very tender but expensive and not nearly so tasty and cheap as short ribs.

                                  Another simple thing that helps is making it a day ahead. I have no idea why this is, but with *many* soups and stews there is a noticeable improvement in flavor after nothing more exciting than cooling it off, sticking it in the fridge, and leaving overnight for all the flavors to get better acquainted.