For many people, stewing is inextricably tied to winter: bubbling cauldrons of root vegetables and thick gravies over polenta or mashed potatoes. But, of course, in much of the world, stewing is an everyday technique, even in the tropics. Consider Indian, Thai, and Caribbean curry, Mexican chili, and even Creole gumbo – all are stews. Stewed dishes are nutritious (all of the nutrients that seep into the liquid become part of the dish, and any grease can be skimmed off the top), forgiving (particularly when it comes to over-cooking), and not particularly labor-intensive (once they get going). With a broader understanding of the technique, you’ll see that seasonal stewing possibilities abound all year long.
On the surface, stewed dishes may not seem all that different from simmered dishes – ingredients are cooked low and slow in a flavorful liquid at low temperatures for long periods of time. The reasons for stewing are much the same for simmering: dealing with tougher cuts of meat that need lots of time and gentle temperatures to soften and dissolve connective tissue. One of the main features that sets stews apart from simmered dishes, though, is the size of the cut of meat being cooked. While cuts in simmered dishes range from thin slices to whole roasts or birds, stews are primarily made with smaller cuts. Stews also build upon simmered dishes in both technique and flavor. The first additional technique is sautéing the main ingredient to brown it on all sides. Browning main ingredients – like searing the goat in the first steps of a long-simmering curry, or browning the chicken pieces in a coq au vin – imparts additional flavor through a complex set of reactions known as Maillard reactions.