Stew Romance - Recap

<-- Previous EpisodeNext Episode -->
The stewpot is the most enduring – and endearing – symbol of hearth and home that Alton knows. From the dawn of cookery and bits of mammoth and tap root all through the clay, bronze, iron and steel ages cooks have fed (and fed from) the stewpot. The problem is, all that time, heat, and water blur the individual notes of the ingredients into boring homogony. Alton feels a good stew should be like, well... a barbershop quartet. Opening the door, Alton reveals just such an ensemble, and as they strike a nice harmony, he explains that this kind of harmony is his goal in building a stew. Each part in sync with the whole, but each part individual, too. With the right ingredients, a little science and a few well-chosen tools, Alton intends to compose a harmonious stew.

The first task is to define stew. It might be a shortcut for the Scottish Stewart clan, or it might refer to the act of dwelling on a topic overmuch, or... it might mean a dish consisting of chunks of meat and vegetables cooked and served together in a flavorful and thickened liquid. All are correct, of course, and there is one more: a verb that refers to the traditional process for making a stew. Alton offers a different approach: the key to delicious stew, he contends, is braising.

Braising and stewing are similar cooking methods but the differences are the key. Stewing uses small pieces of food, while braising uses larger pieces, limiting the surface area and therefore the moisture loss. Stewing calls for immersion while braising uses a small amount of liquid, reducing the chance for watered down flavor – water is a solvent, after all. Stewing commonly occurs in an open vessel, while braising requires a lid to limit moisture loss and provide a slightly increased pressure that helps tenderize meat. Stewing mixes all the ingredients, while braising commonly separates them, making it the precision choice even when the desired product is a stew.

To prove the point, Alton offers a list of many famous stews (see Notes) and asks uses with the “Good Eats Interactive Remote” to select one. The “viewers” choose Hungarian goulash, so Alton heads over to Whole Foods Market to choose the meat. But before he gets there, a brief detour to a pasture...

In the past, Good Eats episodes covered rib primals, tenderloin (two shows each), short loin, sirloin, plate primal (flank steak), seven bone chuck, and brisket. But for this stew Alton will break new ground: the short ribs, from the chuck primal and the plate primal. To explain, Alton produces a visual aid – a visible cow. On it he shows that ribs one through five come from the chuck primal, while six through twelve are part of the plate primal. Ribs nine through twelve offer little meat, but six and seven, the front plate ribs, have some nice meat. Alton believes ribs offer the right mix of meat, fat and connective tissue.

At the Whole Foods Market, Alton asks for ribs and the butcher asks whether he wants chuck or plate. Asked to recommend one, the butcher first learns that Alton wants to make stew, and then recommends front plate ribs. These come in varieties: whole rib with attached meat, English cut (which is simply a half rib) and flanking, which is a cross cut featuring the meat of several ribs. (The butcher notes this type of cut works well for Korean short ribs: marinated in soy, ginger, garlic and green onion and grilled hot and fast). Alton goes with the English cut, each of which weighs about a quarter pound. Because these will lose about half their weight during cooking, Alton recommends no fewer than two per diner, and perhaps more – depending on the diner.

A cook should never miss an opportunity to create flavor, so Alton tosses his rib pieces in a little kosher salt before searing them on a cast iron griddle (which he heats over high flame for three minutes). The griddle offers enough surface area that there’s always hot metal ready when it comes time to turn the meat. This searing does not seal in juices but does create flavor through the Maillard reactions. While searing his meat for several minutes on each side, Alton prepares a braising liquid. Well, actually, a paste is better.

Alton mixes tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and some mixed herbs (oregano, thyme and rosemary are all excellent choices), plus paprika to form this paste. And when Alton mentions paprika, Thing toots a bicycle horn. It seems paprika is the ingredient of the day, offering Alton an opportunity for a history lesson.

Pulling out a Viewmaster, Alton uses one of its slide reels to illustrate that paprika is a powder made from dried sweet red peppers ground finely. It is native to South America, and found its way to Hungary sometime in the seventeenth century with Balkan refugees who were fleeing Turkish marauders. By the eighteenth century the spice was ensconced in Hungarian cuisine. Hot paprika isn’t hot in the “chili” sense; it is pungent, with a strong scent and flavor. Sweet paprika isn’t sweet in the “sugar” sense; it simply has a less emphatic flavor. Most folks know the chiefly exported form, noble sweet paprika. Because paprika is purchased ground, cooks should keep it tightly sealed and in a cool, dark place, and replace it about every eight months, give or take a month.

Alton finishes his braising paste and tosses his seared meat into it. While it’s not a liquid, when heat coaxes juices from the meat there will be plenty of liquid. French cooks made a goopy paste to seal their cooking vessels (the word stew comes from this), but Alton’s solution is more modern: heavy duty aluminum foil. Aluminum, a reactive metal, isn’t normally a good idea with tomato paste, an acidic food. But Alton judges that it would take months for a toxic amount of aluminum to leech into the food, and his stew meat will braise in just a few hours. (To demonstrate the real hazard, Alton shows acidic food cooked in steel and tightly sealed with aluminum, creating a battery. Everywhere the food touches the aluminum are pits – aluminum leeched into the food via the tiny electric currents.)

A tight seal is important, so Alton crimps the long edge thoroughly, then crimps the short ends the same way to seal the packet. At that point, he hears knocking and visits the window. There, a young French chef introduces herself and two friends as “the aromatiques.” She offers a traditional mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery, while her Italian friend adds parsley and garlic to form a battuto (similar to Spain’s sofrito). And a Chinese chef presents a plate containing ginger, garlic, chilies and scallions. All of these offerings have this in common: they form the aromatic base of a traditional braise. But Alton’s not buying it! Outraged, the French chef asks why he thinks he can flaunt tradition and his defense is simple: they are his groceries. Alton shuts the window on the fuming chefs!

Alton slides his braising package into a cold oven with a pan beneath to catch any drips. He sets the oven for 250º F and notes that the braising will take about four hours, but he’ll check it every hour or so. After two hours there’s a little drip; the internal pressure has forced a little liquid out of the package. While he waits for the braising to finish, Alton takes a minute to explain connective tissue. There’s rubbery elastin that makes up gristly bits like cartilage. There’s also reticulin, a tough netlike structure that sheaths many organs. Neither of these are Good Eats. But the final common sort of connective tissue is collagen. Collagen, subjected to the solvent effect of water and low heat for a long period changes to a different structure – gelatin. It is gelatin that gives many desserts their texture. And it is gelatin that gives slow-cooked meat a luxurious mouth feel.

This is why many braising recipes call for long low cooktop simmering, but Alton disagrees with this approach. A cooktop, no matter how good, creates a ring of fire and a cook cannot properly control braising over such a fire. Proper control requires heat from all sides and well-controlled temperature, and that means the oven. Because air heats slowly (compared to water), meat heats slowly and thoroughly. That means a maximum collagen to gelatin conversion without overcooking the meat.

When the final buzzer sounds, Alton removes his meaty package from the oven. He’s after the meat, of course, but he also wants two other things from that package: the fat and the liquid. These, he collects in a bowl by piercing a corner of the foil. Then he sets the meat on the counter to cool for an hour. It will be fine as long as there is no cross contamination. Opening the package, he demonstrates how soft the meat has become – like pulled pork. While it cools, Alton collects the fat and juice from the bowl into a beaker and parks that in the refrigerator. When the meat finishes cooling on the counter, it goes in too.

Once everything has cooled, Alton is ready to finish. He takes the fatty “puck” from the top of the beaker and collects a little bit, saving the rest for some other dish. That bit of flavored beef fat goes into a sauté pan to melt while Alton harvests some veggies. These include a large onion (yellow or white) that he cuts into discs, and several red potatoes that he cubes.

Alton interjects a warning here: waxy red potatoes hold their shape when cooked. Russet potatoes turn to mashed consistency. Substitution of russets for reds will yield poor results!

His hot fat is ready, so Alton adds the onions, breaking them into rings, along with a little kosher salt. When they have browned he drains the fat and adds the cubed red potatoes and a generous grind of black pepper. And, of course, the cooking liquid. Into the refrigerator, he shows how the meat has firmed up nicely because the gelatin has set.

It’s off to a gun range where Alton explains why with a block of yellow ballistic gelatin – the stuff crime labs use to study the effects of bullets and high speed projectiles on, well, us! It works because the cold changes the gelatin from a colloidal state (particles suspended in liquid) to a gel state. And it takes a lot more heat to redissolve the gelatin than it did to render it from collagen the first time. Why does that matter? Alton snips his meat into smaller, manageable chunks as he removes the bone and gristle (elastin, again). Then he adds the meat to the stew until it reheats – about ten minutes. Right on top of the vegetables, no need to stir.

Removing the hot stew, Alton shows how the meat is hot but not falling apart. And that’s why stews, braises, fricassees and blanquettes are so much better the second day – because that cooling firms the meat. Potatoes, Alton concludes, are not a standard goulash guest but they add a nice textural counterpoint and the starch helps thicken the stew. For a more traditional stew one might add beef stock, cut up carrots and peas. But however its made, it’s a stew and a science project and... Good Eats!