I think the first thing my mother taught me to cook was Kraft Mac-n-Cheese at age 9. Fortunately, I've been able to move past that since then. My repertoire is a bit limited but I like to think that by zeroing in on specific kinds of meals, I'm able to make them go a bit farther. A friend of mine asked how I do crockpot recipes and after stewing on it for awhile I thought I would write a post explaining my thought process.
So, first the reason I cook at home is usually to practice. I'm a bachelor and probably wouldn't bother if cooking wasn't necessary for me to either eat healthy or to entertain. The exception to "cooking-as-practice" are my stews. I usually make stews to eat healthier, avoid going out, and sometimes as part of a weight cut.
Another difference for stew from other kinds of food I make is that I'm more comfortable composing arbitrary ingredients in stews and knowing what I'll get out of it. Most people, especially sedentary programmers, could benefit from eating less as well as eating healthier and I find stews help a lot with portion control. When I'm on a protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) I'll often make a single stew containing 1 or 2 pounds of meat for the whole week.
For equipment I use a fairly ordinary slow cooker that has an off, low, and high setting. The nice thing about my slow cooker is that the crock pot can be lifted out of the heating element so that I can easily store the food in the fridge. I don't typically freeze my stews in gladware/tupperware as I'm fine eating the same thing for a week straight but people with families may want to store and alternate.
Now to the ingredients and process!
Meat and vegetables (and not much else)
Typically I'll use a red meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat) and a complement of vegetables. Sometimes I'll make stews with chicken but I typically don't as I don't feel they contribute as much flavor to the stew. A near constant in my stews is mushrooms as the umami (savoriness) they bring is vital for a good stew. Other common ingredients are carrots, celery, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Often recipes will call for stewed or crushed tomatoes. I will typically use tomato paste and water separately instead so that I can more finely control the tomatoey-ness.
Another thing is that stews often call for potatoes, I never use them or any other starchy ingredient as I do not need empty or low-fiber calories.
I stopped trying to replicate curries
One of the key things that improved my stews was not attempting to mimic things like curries which are very heavily laden with seasonings and instead focusing on getting the most out of my ingredients through browning. I still add seasoning (especially salt!) but it's there to complement the ingredients, not to be the primary source of flavor.
They never really came out that well and the super-strong flavors meant that I tired of what I made much faster than if it was more subtle.
You have to bring out the flavor in your ingredients
Before you put them in the slow cooker. This is particularly vital for the meat and mushrooms, but it applies to vegetables depending on your preference. The trick here is to purge moisture and brown the ingredients in a skillet or pan before throwing them in the slow cooker. This will make all the difference in the quality of your stew, especially if you do a good job of this with the meat and mushrooms! Butter-browned mushrooms are manna from heaven when done right! They should taste good by themselves before being added to the stew.
I strongly recommend getting good at browning ingredients and learning to cook for moisture targets if this isn't something you're already comfortable with. I got much better at this by learning to cook Sichuan food from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and it has improved everything I prepare. I also appreciate vegetables much more as a result.
Some common standard spices for stews:
- MSG (hate if you want, but it helps and works with the mushrooms and meat to make the stew fantastically savory)
I usually end up using more salt than any recipe I'm working off of calls for. I start low and add more salt in one hour intervals until I'm satisfied with my taste-test from the crockpot.
Composing ingredients, not functions
I mentally categorize ingredients by what flavor or texture component they bring to the stew. I'll put a
(B) next to ingredients that I feel should be browned.
Beef, pork, lamb, goat (B)
Mushrooms, usually baby bella because of the surface area to volume ratio and flavor (B)
Tomatoes, usually as a paste for flavor density. I am more likely to use tomato paste with a beef or lamb than I am pork or chicken.
I don't typically use corn but it's a solid option if you want it
Bell peppers are typically neutral but others like chili peppers will taste a little sweet. I no longer try to make my stews spicy though.
It depends on the onion. Vidalia is going to be most sweet, red onion middling, yellow or white onion is going to be the most astringent.
You can brown bell peppers but I don't think there's much point when it'll hit the texture I want just from slow cooking and I can't tell much difference in the flavor.
Astringent or sulphuric
- Onion (B)
I usually sautee some onions and also throw in some raw onions to get both sides of the onion flavor. Raw onions are more astringent, sauteed/browned onions are more savory and sweet as the sulphuric components denature in heat.
- Garlic cloves (B)
Garlic is pretty much an always-ingredient in my stews along with onions and mushrooms. I strongly recommended learning to brown garlic cloves if you aren't already in the practice of doing so as it does wonderful things for the flavor of garlic. You can sautee some of the ingredients you need to brown together. Don't brown too many ingredients at once in the skillet as it will make it hard to purge moisture accurately for each ingredient and get the timing of the browning right.
I don't have as much experience with bok choy and am uncertain whether it should be browned or not but it's been a nice replacement for white cabbage in the past.
Confess I do not care for broccoli much and so rarely use it but I think broccoli would be improved by cooking in butter before addition to the crockpot.
Sister to broccoli.
No strong opinions here, it's been good when I've used it. Similar to asparagus.
- Asparagus (B)
I will often roast asparagus on the grill in olive oil, salt, and pepper and it's lovely. You can do similar in the pan before adding to a crockpot.
I used turnip in my most recent stew and thought it added a nice edge to the stew. Only (downside?) is that the turnips will retain their fibrous texture even after a good slow cook so if you want them to disintegrate you may need to cook separately. This may be necessary if you have children you don't want detecting the presence of vegetables. Downside to doing so may be less fiber content in the stew.
Side note on "astringent"
Pre-modern Europeans used garlic as an antibiotic for wounds.
I don't do as much of these as I'm typically going for a balance of sweet/astringent/savory in my stews but they're an option if it's something you want. I won't listen them out as I don't have as much experience with them in stews but these are going to be your fruits, berries, and some varieties of nuts. I've considered roasting walnuts for addition to a stew but haven't tried it yet.
Oils and fats
Typically when I make a stew I'm trying to make it "fatty" without it developing a grotesque top layer of fat on top when it settles in the fridge. To that end, I've started using slightly leaner meats than the 70/30 I used to use, more like 80/20 or 85/15. The browning purges some fat as well. To complement the meat fats, I'll sometimes add button to the stew while it's slow cooking. I'll taste to determine whether or not it needs more fat.
Bones (not the rapper)
The last stew I made was with beef rib. I should've separated the beef from the bones before putting them in the crockpot. I ended up having to do this after it was mostly done slow cooking. I thought the slow cooking would break down the connective tissue between the bone and protein but it did not.
That said, bones, especially if they have some marrow in them, are excellent for stews and worth getting ahold of if you can. Goat can be good for this as the meat often comes on the bone with some good marrow.
An example recipe
This is from memory what my last stew was, I'll try to link tweets describing it as well. It was a modified version of this low carb beef stew recipe.
Beef rib, browned
Mushrooms (baby bella) I browned them in a little bit of butter and some worcestershire (wurster-shur) sauce. Note the color.
Beef stock. If you want a very strong flavor, use beef consomme.
Some added water. Not a lot, I don't care much how thick the stew gets for the most part as long as everything gets cooked properly and the texture is right. I'll often heat water with my electric kettle and pour it over reheated stew that doesn't have enough liquid. Tastes great, not watery/bland.
Salt, oregano, thyme, fresh ground black pepper, paprika, garlic powder
Raw onion, minced (I use a fork to mince) garlic cloves
Carrots, turnips, bell peppers.
I didn't add any xanthan gum, it was plenty thick at the end. I only had a 1 and a half, maybe 2 pounds of beef rib in the crockpot.
I hope this helps some of y'all in making tasty, healthy food! I really like stews and think they're a wonderfully adaptable and accessible way to make food.