Why Is My Beef Stew So Damn Boring?

Illustration for article titled Why Is My Beef Stew So Damn Boring?

Welcome to the Feedbag, where all the dumb questions about food, drink, cooking, eating, and accidental finger removal you've been embarrassed to ask can finally receive the berating they goddamn deserve. Also: answers. Send all your even-vaguely-food-related questions to albertburneko@gmail.com with the subject "Feedbag." All of them.



Is there any way to make a tasty beef stew without buying a million fucking ingredients!? I make one that's palatable with beef stock, worcestershire sauce, potatoes, beef, carrots, white onion,

Use a yellow onion instead, Kyle. You'll get more flavor out of it.

garlic salt and red wine. That said, it ain't mom's and "palatable" stands in for "would probably eat it happily only when starved." I just find it a ridiculous and somewhat expensive pain in the ass to have garlic, bay leaves, yellow onion

Holy shit are you a fast learner or what, Kyle.

and the rest of the bullshit called for in like every internet recipe for something I'm making once a month, tops. Shortcuts?


It would be snide and possibly disrespectful of your financial situation for me to point out that dried bay leaves, a few heads of garlic, and an entire 10-pound bag of yellow onions is like six bucks' worth of food, and can be kept in your pantry or wherever pretty much until the end of time... but it must be done. The thing is, stew is supposed to be cheapskate food. That's the whole idea: You dump a bunch of inexpensive, unexciting things (tubers, root vegetables, aromatics, a huge wad of tough cow-ass) into a pot and torment them with low-but-unendurable heat for a long time until hardship forces them to recognize their shared interests and they band together to win their escape by conspiring to taste good. And what comes out is hearty and hot and filling and—if you have used enough salt and pepper and sweet, sweet booze in its preparation—delicious in a blunt, unsophisticated kind of way, and tastes like it required more than a couple of bucks and some grim sadism to accomplish.

If you're finding stew's ingredients too expensive to keep around, I mean, what are you cooking the rest of the time? One can only eat so much unadorned ramen before one dies of malnutrition.


So the problem, here, is not that these ingredients are too expensive, but rather that they're turning out a stew that you don't enjoy eating, and so you feel like you're wasting even the small amount of money you're spending. Because, if the garlic's not making the food taste good, it's not even worth the dollar or so you spent on it, right?


The good news is, these basic ingredients (onion-type aromatics, root vegetables, tubers, beef, dried herbs, booze, salt and pepper) have been the basic formulation for damn near every delicious stew ever made, so I'm not gonna tell you to run out and buy, like, white truffles or some shit. The bad news is, this means the root of your stew problem is that you're making it wrong, you incompetent clod. Here are a few rules to follow, which will help you make a tasty stew unless you are doing something weird to your stew like putting a gnarly old sock in it.

1) Season your large wad of cow very generously with salt and pepper before you brown it. Give each side of the hunk of beef at least one or maybe two big hearty pinches of salt, then press that salt in with your fingertips so it adheres to the meat. This is vital. Do it.


2) Brown the ever-loving shit out of the hunk of meat over very high heat in a couple of tablespoons of oil before you start it simmering in liquid. It should be damn near blackened on each side when you have completed this step. It should look like it got firebombed by the mafia. There should be a great deal of smoke. This is also vital. Browning the meat makes it taste better—much better, profoundly better—even when you then proceed to simmer it for a bunch of hours. Don't you dare skip this step, or take it easy on that meat.

3) If you are using store-bought beef stock, remember that this has never been seasoned, and will require salt in order to taste like anything at all. If you are using homemade stock, good for you, but also remember that this has never been seasoned at all, and will require salt in order to taste like anything at all.


4) Whether you are using wine or beer (I prefer a dark beer, but wine's good too), don't be afraid to use a lot of it. Like, as much as half the liquid in your stew, or more. Booze tastes good.

5) Skip the Worcestershire sauce, and use anchovies or anchovy paste instead. Anchovy is one of the main flavoring ingredients of Worcestershire, and its inclusion will deepen and enhance the flavors in your stew. If you drop a few anchovy fillets into the stew in the early stages of its cooking, they will dissolve and vanish long before the stew is finished, but they will make the stew much, much tastier.


6) Your stew contains potatoes, which absorb the salt out of liquid. This gives you two choices: You can add a bunch of salt at the beginning of the simmering process, then taste the stew at the end, go, "Dammit, this doesn't taste like anything!" and add a bunch more salt, then have a stroke because of all the sodium in your stew... or, you can leave the salt out until the stew is basically ready to eat, taste it, go, "Dammit, this doesn't taste like anything!" and add a bunch of salt then, so that the potatoes don't have time to absorb that salt out of the liquid. You may still have a stroke, but it won't be because of your stew, unless you also put a bunch of pseudoephedrine in your stew, which I have now officially warned you against doing, which gets me off the hook altogether.

So, yeah. There. I'm sure you'll get some more tips on tasty stew-making down in the discussion below, but those are some good rules to follow. If you're following those, and not, like, spritzing your stew with unleaded gasoline, and your stew still tastes boring or bad, then it is time to conclude that your face doesn't work.



Why do recipes call for browning a huge roast in oil before slow cooking in the oven for hours. Is it a conspiracy by BIG OIL to get me to use their product needlessly? I mean, the roast is going to fall apart after hours on low heat anyway.


Danny, for chrissakes. It's like you're not even listening to me.

Just to reiterate Item 2 in the above list: Browning makes meat taste better. (It also makes aquatic life and vegetables and fruits and tubers and fungi taste better. It does not make your hand taste better, though.) We could get into explaining how that works, using intimidating science-terms like "Maillard reaction" and "nucleophilicity" and "hot," but the important thing to know is that browning makes food taste better, so you should do it to food whenever it can be accomplished without the injudicious use of brown crayons.



If only hours separated me from a lethal injection, I would order a Filet Oscar for my last meal. So instead of going on a killing spree, can you explain how to make one?


My understanding is that, generally speaking, Filet Oscar refers to a filet of veal or beef tenderloin, topped with some combination of lobster or crab, asparagus, and Béarnaise sauce. Presumably you know how to obtain the meat, asparagus, and crustacean, or anyway if you do not know how to obtain those things, no good can come from attempting to instruct you in the preparation of Béarnaise sauce, for you are incompetent.

So really, you're asking how to prepare Béarnaise sauce, right? Sneaky fucker. OK. The good news is, there aren't a lot of steps involved. The bad news is, you will practice this dozens of times before you get it just right. Cook a minced shallot and some finely chopped tarragon (and maybe some chervil if you can track down some chervil) in wine and champagne vinegar until it reduces by half, then remove it from the heat and let it cool completely. Whisk in a few egg yolks, then a bunch of warm clarified butter. Those are the basic steps. The trick is achieving a perfect emulsion of the egg and butter in the first place, and then keeping this stuff warm so that the butter doesn't solidify, but not too warm so that the egg yolks do not set. There are a few different ways to accomplish that—double-boilers and so on—but the important thing to know is that there are many restaurants that will do this for you, and that you will be lucky if you live to see 80 years on this beautiful planet, and so maybe the many repetitions and failures required to perfect Béarnaise sauce will not turn out to have been the best expenditure of your dwindling supply of heartbeats.



Why does no restaurant anywhere actually melt the cheese when they make a grilled cheese?


It's a conspiracy to make you feel ridiculous about going to a restaurant for grilled cheese. Make your own damn grilled cheese, Chris! This isn't Béarnaise sauce, buddy. It's bread and cheese and butter, and it takes 90 seconds and is damn near impossible to botch so long as you are not using a flamethrower. Save your restaurant trips for foods that are too big a pain in the ass to pull off at home. Béarnaise sauce and soufflé and perfectly cooked squid and so on.

The grilled cheese's entire existence is the result of some olde-thymey bozo discovering that a) he had nothing in his home to eat except for some butter and cheese and bread, and b) he was too damn lazy to shower and put on pants for a trip to a restaurant. It's schlub-food for schlubs, and it is glorious, and there is no excuse for going to a restaurant to get one, ever.


(Also they use too much bread and cook the grilled cheese over too-high heat, because of the misbegotten notion that people like contrasting textures more than they like gooey, melty cheese. You can prove to them that they are wrong by staying home and making your own goddamn grilled cheese.)

Send your Feedbag questions to albertburneko@gmail.com, subject line "Feedbag."

Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home, or in shorter form on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.


Image by Sam Woolley.