Fall has finally come and marching right behind is winter. In many parts of the country, that means cold temperatures combated by puffy jackets, desk-side space heaters, and crocks (or crockpots) full of warm soup or stew. There is a glory in making soups, stews, and braises. They require the cheapest, toughest cuts of meat, are the perfect vessels for cleaning out your refrigerator crisper, and can be crated easily without a recipe, following a simple formula. But before we get to that, what is the difference between these three techniques.
A soup is cooked with copious amounts of liquid leading to a very liquidly product. This could mean either blended into one smooth liquid or with chunks of other ingredients suspended in the broth. A stew, on the other hand, is thicker. It contains just enough liquid to cover the other ingredients and is then cooked down on the stovetop or in a low oven. Finally, a braise contains less liquid but is cooked covered, keeping the steam in. The first question we encounter is which method to choose. One decision point is the desired final texture. Do you want a hot liquid (soup) or a thicker, hardier meal (stew/braise). The next question is what type of meat are we dealing with? Something delicate like fish or shrimp? Go with a soup. Tougher meat like beef chuck or short ribs, a stew or braise is the answer. Chicken? Well, there is nothing that can’t be done with chicken.
Now that we have selected our cooking method, we can follow a simple formula to building our dish. First, our aromatics, the base flavors of our dish. I often go with a combination of onion, celery, and carrot for most western-flavored dishes. In the case of a soup, we will want to dice them fine and sauté them before adding other ingredients. In a braise or stew, we will want to cut them into chunkier pieces as they will cook for much longer. And no need to sauté them first. Next, we look at any other vegetables we may want to include. Do they need to cook as long as the root veggies or be sauteed or should we add them at the end (think peas in a stew)? We then turn our attention to the meat. In the case of beef, pork, or chicken, I like to sear the meat first before adding liquid. We also need to decide how small we want to cut our meat, if at all, based on the cooking time needed. Smaller chunks cook faster. This is also the stage where we may want to add a thickener to coat the meat of veggies, like flour, for something like beef stew.
Finally, the most important decision is the cooking liquid. Do we want to add broth, which has a lot of flavor, water, which has no flavor, or a combination of the two? This really comes down to both your tastes and how much flavor you will extract from the other ingredients (a combination of time and what those ingredients are). What other liquids do we want to add? Red wine is a wonderful addition to stews and braises. White wine is great in many soups. How about a dark beer to a beef stew or a light beer to a chili? Acid is also an important part of great food so think about a splash of vinegar or citrus juice.
We also must contemplate herbs and spices. While you can mix and match based on desired flavors, one secret to any good soup or stew is the addition of a few bay leaves. Just remember to remove them before eating or blending.
Finally, we get to the simmering stage. If we are going in the direction of soup, we want to use plenty of liquid. One should then simmer the soup for at least a half hour or until all the meat is cooked through and the vegetables are tender. If desired, you can blend either some or all of the soup for a thicker texture or to make a bisque. My favorite tool for this is the immersion blender. You may also want to finish the soup with some cream. For a stew, add just enough liquid to cover the other ingredients. Then simmer, uncovered, on the stove or in cook in a 300-degree oven until meat and veggies are tender and stew is thick. If braising, add less liquid or alternatively, a sauce, then cook in a low oven, covered, until meat and veggies are at your desired texture. No matter the method, you can always cook your dish in a slow cooker instead.