At it’s very most basic, a stew is bite-sized pieces of food cooked in a liquid, generally over low heat for an extended period. You can stew meat, poultry, fish, beans, vegetables, fruit—virtually anything—in broth, wine, beer, vinegar. Again, virtually anything.
Stews are kitchen workhorses. You can make big batches to feed hungry crowds using inexpensive ingredients. You can create a stew with odds and ends at the end of a busy work week. You can easily accommodate dietary preferences and food allergies. Stews can be eaten like a soup, become the inside of a pot pie, or tossed with pasta like a ragù.
All that to say: stewing is a helpful back-pocket technique, and if you keep the basics in mind, you can create any stew, no recipe needed.
When we think of stews, it’s often meat-based, especially beef. Fatty, tough cuts become meltingly tender, and we like less-expensive options like chuck. Of course, brisket points or meat from the ribs or shanks are great options, as well.
But stew is more than just beef. You can stew pork, like from the shoulder or boneless country-style ribs. You can stew poultry, especially thigh meat, which holds up well to longer cooking times. And yes, you can even stew fish, beans, and vegetables. For tender, lean proteins and vegetables, you may brown the ingredient and then add it back at the end. Though you are not stewing the item the same way you would for a beef stew, the resulting dish can be stew-like.
Stewing is a wet-cooking technique, meaning the main ingredient cooks in a liquid, becoming tender, absorbing flavor, and then flavoring the liquid itself so it can act as a sauce. Broths and stocks are natural bases for a stew, and it makes sense for your broth to match whichever protein you use. So, for a beef stew, you can use beef broth, a bean stew can use vegetable broth, and so on.
Of course, you can add flavorful ingredients to your liquid base depending on the flavor profile you are after. Wine, beer, and vinegars add acidity and depth, while vegetable purees like tomato or chile pepper, give your stew body and complexity.
Flavoring ingredients are what give your stew personality, and anything goes. A classic mirepoix—made with onion, carrot, celery, and garlic—is a great place to start, but additional aromatic veggies like ginger, parsnips, or fennel will flavor your stew base when added early.
To your aromatics, you can add acidic ingredients, like tomato paste or lemon juice, and spice mixtures. Be sure to give your spices time to cook before adding any liquids, which will help maximize their flavor.
Once you add your liquid to your flavoring ingredients, you are stewing! Add your main item and make sure there’s enough liquid to cover any proteins so they cook evenly. Simmer over a medium to low flame (you will likely need to adjust it every so often) until the sauce is flavorful and the main item is cooked through. The time will depend on what you’re cooking, but because the pieces are bite-size, it generally shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Add any quick-cooking ingredients, like peas, corn, or pre-cooked beans, with just enough time to heat through.
Taste your stew. Does it need salt? Or some acid, in the form of lemon juice or vinegar? At this very last stage, you might choose to add a few tablespoons of butter to help make the sauce richer or a starch slurry to thicken the base.