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project

Stews

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Congratulations on getting science into the kitchens of the world!

Some questions about stews -- times, temperatures, acids, ethyl alcohol, brine:

Take some cubes, roughly 1 1/2 inches on an edge, say, 6 pounds, of relatively tough lean meat, e.g., beef bottom round roast, for flavor, lightly brown (Maillard and all that), cover with a water based liquid, heat on stove top to X degrees F, cover, place in an oven at X degrees F for Y hours. Then chill uncovered.

Remove layer of fat on top. Remove meat and keep moist. Make a gravy of the liquid. Combine meat chunks with other ingredients, say, brown glazed 'boiler' onions, chunks of carrots and potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, pour over gravy, heat to, say, X degrees F again until vegetables are nearly cooked, chill uncovered.

To serve, warm a portion in microwave.

Q. 1. My first-cut understanding is that cooking temperature X needs to be high enough to kill bacteria and to melt collagen but low enough not to ruin the proteins and that cooking time Y needs to be long enough to let the collagen melt at temperature X. Is this roughly correct?

Or, the danger is that temperature too high too long will ruin the proteins and cause the meat cubes to be brittle, dark, hard, dry (seen this often enough)?

Would what works for cubes of beef bottom round promise to work well for tough lean meat from game, four legs or two?

Q. 2. Is there a real danger of the initial browning step, if too hot too long, ruining the proteins throughout the meat cubes?

Q. 3. In my last trial, used cooking temperature X = 180 F and cooking time Y = 24 hours. What would be the pros/cons of different values?

Q. 4. In my last trial of 6 pounds of meat, included in the water based liquid 1 cup of distilled white vinegar. What effect might the vinegar have and why? Is the effect just lowering pH or a reaction of the acetic acid? What might be the pros/cons of different amounts of vinegar or other acids?

Q. 5. If the water based liquid is to include some wine, beer, or other source of ethyl alcohol, should the alcohol liquid be boiled first to evaporate the alcohol?

Q. 6. Is brining the cubes, say, for 24 hours, before the browning harmful, useless, helpful, essential?

Q. 7. My fake Memphis BBQ is to take a fresh 'picnic' pork shoulder, about 10 pounds, place on a rack with cut side up, set rack in a roasting pan, cover the cut side with a dry rub, say, Emeril's Essence, insert a meat thermometer, place in a 225 F oven until thermometer reads 185 F, about 16 hours, discard skin and bone, coarsely chop the rest. For one sandwich, take a large white bread bun, lightly toast cut surfaces, top with 4 ounces of the meat, top with warm commercial BBQ sauce, top with drops of hot sauce, top with coleslaw.

Somehow the pork easily essentially always comes out 'succulent' -- soft, flexible, juicy, nearly butter soft -- with little danger of being brittle, dark, hard, dry. Why is it so much easier to get succulent results from pork shoulder than from beef bottom round?

MANY thanks.


Edited by project (log)

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Rather than answering point by point, let me try to summarize. The best candidates for stewing are cuts rich in collagen, which dissolves into gelatin and lends succulence to the otherwise dried-out muscle fibers. Fat also does this (and pork shoulder works well because it has lots of both; bottom round has less of both). In stewing tough cuts, you usually want to sear the meat to flavor and surface-sterilize it, then heat it slowly over the course of a couple of hours to allow for some tenderizing by enzymes in the meat, reaching a cooking temperature around 180F, and holding that temperature only as long as needed to dissolve the collagen and get the meat as tender as desired. Overcooking at any stage, including rewarming, can make the meat dry. Acid conditions do help weaken muscle fibers, but in a few hours can only significantly affect the surface. Alcohol will denature surface proteins, but I think boiling it off mainly improves the flavor. Brining will produce moister cubes but also a salty stew.

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hiya hal,

thanks for the great explanation (all of them). but i've been puzzled by high-heat braising. this is one of those things that seems like it shouldn't work, but does: essentially, braising at about 450 degrees for an extended period. i have done this repeatedly and i know it works (provided you pay attention to the level of the liquid so it doesn't scorch). the texture comes out different than a normal stew, i usually use whole cuts (leg of lamb or beef chuck) and the meat practically spoons away from the bone. the meat folks i've talked to are puzzled. got any ideas? one possible explanation offered was the heat is so high the meat goes very quickly through the enzyme-active range and so the protein denatures in a different way.

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Russ, I remember reading your long piece on this a few years back and being intrigued, then never getting around to trying it (I was on a forced march through the book, and meat was behind me!). Could you send me a recipe? I'll do it after Thanksgiving and let you know what I make of the results.

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