Covering a broad range of specific dishes, stews have been cooked and eaten for thousands of years. The world’s oldest known evidence of stew was found in Japan, dating back to the Jōmon Period, while Scythians during the 8th-4th centuries BC also produced something similar. Architectural evidence even suggests Amazonians used shells of animals and large molluscs as vessels for boiling foods at least 8,000 years ago.
Yet while the dish’s cooking style lies with Japan, the term ‘stew’ is used so broadly and refers to so many dishes, the appeal has become practically global. Literally a dish of solid food ingredients cooked in water, then served in the resultant ‘gravy’, stews technically include hundreds of dishes, from Bourguignon to Birria, chilli con carne, Italian ragù, gumbo, and far more.
In the UK, stews have been popular for years, but the actual term wasn’t used until comparatively recent times. Britain’s stews also tend to greatly vary by region. Some of the most well-known include Scouse, particularly associated with the port of Liverpool; Welsh Cawl; and Lancashire Hotpot. Historically, ‘English stew’ tends to be made with beef, like that featured in Charles Francatelli’s ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’, first published in 1861, which favours shin of beef whose gelatinous collagen adds a silky texture to the final product.
Given the dish’s less than luxurious origins in Britain, however, the term ‘stew’ still conjures traumatic memories of school dinners for so many. My earliest memory of stew is something I’ve been trying to forget for over 20 years, pushed around the bowl at a friend’s house after school – absolutely rampant with pearl barley inflated to the size of kidney beans, lolling about in a viscous, flavourless sludge. It wasn’t until later that I realised stew can be absolutely delicious, one of the first things I learnt to cook well – still a regular, go-to autumn and winter recipe.
Like all of the best non-British British recipes, stew recipes have continued to develop over the centuries. This particular stew recipe comprises aspects from various regional styles, drawing from the traditional cooking processes but using different ingredients to elevate the flavours, ultimately creating a dish that’s sustaining, inexpensive, and – crucially – delicious. Why use water when you can use wine and stock? Why boil the beef and vegetables from raw when you can (and absolutely should) sear and caramelise them first?
Here, shin of beef is my preferred cut, but any braising cuts of beef can be used – even diced braising/casserole steak. The beef is simply seared in either lard or beef dripping to amplify the flavours, combined with sautéed onions, carrots and celery, red wine, beef stock, and a generous dash of both soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. It’s the cooked on the hob for a couple of hours (dependent on the cut of beef) then topped with cheesy dumplings and finished in the oven.
- Heavy-based, oven-safe pan with lid
- 500 g shin of beef or other braising beef/steak, boned and cut into ½ inch chunks
- 1 large onion roughly chopped
- 2 carrots sliced
- 2 leeks thinly sliced
- 2 sticks celery thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic crushed/minced
- 3 bay leaves
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme leaves picked (or 1tsp dried thyme)
- 2 tsp sugar
- ½ tbsp Dijon mustard
- 250 ml red wine
- 1 litre beef stock or enough to cover the beef in the pan
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- Lard alternatively use beef dripping or neutral cooking oil such as vegetable or rapeseed
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the dumplings
- 150 g self-raising flour
- 75 g suet
- 1 tsp salt
- Hard cheese (such as Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere, etc.), to taste
- Heat some of the lard, dripping, or oil in a large, heavy-based, oven-safe pan and heat until shimmering. Season the beef with salt and cook in batches until lightly browned all over. Cook the beef in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan and creating too much moisture. Once seared, set aside and reserve until later.
- Heat some more lard/dripping/oil in the same pan and add the onions, carrots, leeks and celery. Cook on a medium-high heat for 5-10 minutes until the vegetables are lightly caramelised, stirring occasionally.
- Add the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, sugar, mustard and a generous pinch of salt. Increase the heat and cook for another minute or two, stirring often, until the garlic is fragrant but not burnt.
- Pour the wine into the pan and increase the heat. Cook until the wine has reduced by approximately two-thirds. Add the beef back to the pan, then top with beef stock. Season with lots of freshly cracked black pepper and add a generous splash of Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce.
- Bring to the boil, cover, and reduce the heat to simmer for 2 hours, or until the beef is soft. Stir occasionally.
- (Alternatively, cook in an oven preheated to 160C/Gas 3 for 3-4 hours).
- To make the dumplings, combine the flour, suet, salt and a handful of grated cheese in a large mixing bowl. Use your hands to mix in a little bit of water at a time, until a dough begins to form. You’ll want the dough to have small specks of suet in it, otherwise it will be overworked.
- Use your hands or a spoon to form the dough into small spheres about the size of golf balls, then place each dumpling onto the surface of the stew, once the beef is soft.
- Use a spoon to drizzle some of the stew’s gravy over the dumplings and sprinkle some more cheese, then transfer the pan to the oven and cook the stew and dumplings, uncovered, at 180C/Gas 4 for around 20 minutes, or until the dumplings are cooked through and slightly crispy, like scones.
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