The History of Beef Stew

Jan 9th, 2009
Stewing meat has been a method of cooking that is older than almost any other. From the moment man made his first fire, almost immediately thereafter he began slow cooking meat over a low flame for long periods of time.

The Old Testament is the first written record of stew being made. In Genesis, Esau trades his father's dowry with his brother Jacob, all for a dish of stew. It is only specified in the text as a stew of lentils, but it is clear in other texts throughout the Old Testament that they ate meat. There are Roman writings that also mention stews. These were mostly stews of lamb and fish stews. Taillevent, the 14th century French epicure, mentions beef stew for the first time in modern history in a recipe. The recipe for a braised dish called a ragout, where the main ingredient is beef. Hundreds of stews beef stews have appeared since then, all over the world. American stews include chili, both Texas style and with beans, Brunswick Stew, and Burgoo. While they may be American now, all of these stews have their culinary roots abroad.

The two prerequisites for a dish to be considered beef stew is that it have beef as it's main component, and that it is cooked over a direct flame in a pot with a liquid base. Geography, recipe, and tradition make up the rest. An American stew of beef will usually use a cut of meat that's less tender, like a shoulder or spare rib. Vegetables and water (or stock) will be added and it will simmer for hours until the beef is tender and cooked through. Beef chili is a type of stew that is quintessentially American. It usually has a base of crushed tomatoes, but varies from there. Texas style is a chili without beans, and is chunkier, with pieces of cut steak instead of ground beef. Beans are included in other versions. A Kentucky beef stew called Burgoo was once made with meat that came from squirrels or rabbits, it is now almost always made with beef.

Geography plays a big part in making the beef stews different from region to region. In places where the cold season is longer than usual, it is more common to find stews on the menu in abundance. The beef stew will be thicker, cook longer, and will have heavier ingredients, usually. Areas that have a warmer climate will have stews, but these will be spicier, in order to induce perspiration, which helps cool the body. Some beef stews aren't really "stews" at all. Emilia Romagna, an area in the North of Italy, is the home of Bolognese sauce that is essentially a beef stew served with pasta. Burgundy, France, an area known for it's high priced wines, is also famous for it's namesake stew: Boeuf Bourguignonne.

Making stew is a practice in patience. It is common knowledge that if you give a stew more time, it will just keep getting better. Stews were born out of the working class kitchen. Nowadays, you'll find them on the menus of very expensive restaurants, but their origins are humble. That is why these dishes are always better with cheaper, tougher cuts of beef. While full of flavor, the tough cuts of beef do not do well over high heat for short amounts of time. Simmered slowly over low heat, however, the beef will break down and become easy to chew, while still maintaining it's flavor. It is also widely thought that these types of stews are better the second or third day, after the ingredients have been given the chance to meld with one another.

Beef's many health benefits are often overshadowed by it's naturally high amount of cholesterol and fat. If eaten with moderation, however, beef can be a great part of your healthy diet. If you are iron deficient, beef should be a part of your diet. It also is rich in protein. Most beef cuts that are used for stewing are relatively lean, as well. There are no hard and fast rules about what cut of beef to use for a stew. You can pick whichever you like, lean or fatty, depending on your diet and health choices. If you stew it the right way, the beef will always be tender.

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