This week I’m talking about the role Fat plays in cooking a moist and tender piece of meat with a great Beef Stew recipe at the end. With winter well and truly here it’s time for stews and braises and all the other warm, comforting blanket-esq foods perfect for the dark miserable nights.
I’m going to talk specifically about the British classic of beef stew, a simple enough dish that I imagine many of you have made before, but to take this everyday dish to the next level there are a few key points to understand, and one of the most important is the role fat takes in this dish.
Fat gets a lot of bad press, with supermarkets selling incredibly lean meat, the consumer believes that lean, fat-less meat is the best to buy, but for long slow cooking fat is vital, because fat equals lubrication. There is a belief that cooking a food in liquid keeps the food moist, it doesn’t – what it does is keep it wet which is different. For example, if you take a chicken leg and poach it in water until the flesh is soft and falling off the bone it is undeniably moist, in that it’s wet. But as to the texture of the meat it will undoubtedly be dry and more like saw dust than the meltingly tender meat you were hoping for. But take the leg and cook it in oil or fat (which is a method called confit) and cook it to the same extent, the meat will be soft, tender and beautifully moist, all because of fat and its amazing lubricating properties.
Meat fats are water soluble so poaching or god forbid, boiling meat, will result in dry chewy meat but cooking in oil or fat will result in the meat being perfect. But obviously if you’re making a stew you can’t have it made of oil, so how do you get that fat in the sauce? Two ways; the addition of a fat ‘donor’, and in selecting the right cut of meat to start with.
Supermarkets sell ‘braising’, or ‘stewing steak’, this is usually taken from the top shoulder of the animal and is tough and fibrous, which is perfect for slow cooking, but has no way near enough fat, or horrible as it may sound, connective tissue, so what you need is a piece of shin.
Shin is full of fat and connective tissue which when heated unravels and melts forming gelatine, which makes for a rich, unctuous gravy for your stew, though it sounds unappealing it makes all the difference. When it comes to a fat donor, I simply mean adding something to raise the fat content of the gravy and that is done simply by the addition of some good streaky bacon to the stew – in my last professional kitchen as head chef, making streaky bacon just for adding to braises was a weekly job during the colder months!. All this will make the meat braise in a stock saturated with fat keeping the meat moist and tender.
However, all this hard work adding bacon and choosing the right meat could be for nothing if you then break the golden rule of slow cooking, and boil the dish!
Boiling meat makes the proteins inside contract and forces all the moisture out, so a gentle simmer means they stay much more relaxed and the meat is even more tender. However, that doesn’t mean that the stock or gravy shouldn’t be hot, as stated by food writer and general food genius Harold McGee in his book The Curious Cook, “strands of beef collagen (connective tissue) don’t even begin to unravel until the temperature exceeds 140F (60C), and they don’t dissolve into gelatine in any appreciable quantity below 180F (82C)” – so all those chewy bits will stay just that unless you keep the stew relatively hot. So a temperature of 85c (or just a simmer if you have better things to do than check the temp of your stew) will keep the stew as tender as can be.
Last tip, making anything like this, whether it’s a beef stew, curry or lamb hot pot, it will always benefit from being left overnight, not only does it make it easier to get the excess fat off from the top (its done its job now and the gravy will have absorbed all the gelatine so the set fat on top is fine to remove) it also allows the flavours to develop and mature meaning your stew will be better the next day!
Serves 4 – 6
- 800g shin of beef
- 2 tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
- Beef dripping, butter or oil
- Six slices of streaky bacon, sliced into lardons
- 2 onions, sliced
- 600ml beef stock (cube is fine, or even half ale or stout and stock is also great)
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 sprigs of thyme
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunky slices
- 2 small turnips, peeled and cut into chunks
1. Trim the beef of its outer sinew and cut into large chunks. Toss with the seasoned flour to coat. Heat a heavy-bottomed casserole or pan on a medium flame and add a knob of dripping or butter, or a couple of tablespoons of oil. Brown the meat in batches, adding more fat if necessary – be careful not to overcrowd the pan, or it will boil in its own juices – then transfer to a bowl. Scrape the bottom of the pan regularly to prevent any residue from burning.