Hamburger Stew Recipe & Tips for Savory, Long-Simmering Stews
What's the Difference Between Stew and Soup?
Not much. With a stew, there may be a little more emphasis on the solids in the dish, whereas the emphasis in a soup is the flavor of the liquid. There is a perception that soups are always served in a bowl, while some stews are thicker and therefore can be served on a platter. Often the difference is who names the dish.
The tips and instructions in this article are applicable to soups as well as stews. First, you'll find the ingredients and instructions; then you'll find a detailed breakdown of each component (why it's important, what it does, or how it affects flavor, for instance).
A Fast and Dirty Hamburger Stew Recipe
The very simple stew recipe below is a fast and dirty affair for those short on time. You’ll still parboil your potatoes and still do your layering, but at an accelerated rate. Hamburger is not really a stew meat. It should not be in the water too long. That would render it tasteless. But done correctly, it can be used. Although not as rich as those long-simmered stews deriving their flavor from those sinewy big chunks of meat, for those in a hurry, the hamburger stew can be made quickly and still come out as a satisfying meal.
The ingredients are: ground beef, olive oil, garlic, onion, peppers, and potatoes, plus salt, pepper, and sage—that’s all. My personal recommendation is a ground beef of 85 percent lean beef to 15 percent fat. Use fresh ground beef. If the hamburger has been sitting in the refrigerator for a couple of days and has turned brown, the stew will not be as good. This beef might be all right for a patty on a bun, but not for stew. If you have favorite varieties of onions and peppers use them.
The proportions of the ingredients can be adjusted a little if you prefer a little less potato or a little more onion. But if you increase the number of potatoes, increase the amount of salt in the potatoes. Other vegetables may be added. Each new ingredient introduced will add a little more time to the preparation. Ingredients may be subtracted. The most basic form of this recipe would be meat, onion, and potato plus seasonings.
Hamburger Stew Recipe
- Cutting board
- 1 or 2 measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Small pot for the potatoes
- Three- or four-quart pot for the stew itself
- A couple of plates or bowls
- 3/4 pound ground beef
- 2 medium or 3 small potatoes, cut into cubes (roughly 2 cups)
- 1 large onion or 2 to 3 small ones, cut up (roughly 1 cup)
- 1 large sweet pepper or 2 small ones, cut up (roughly 1 cup)
- 1 large clove of garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, for boiling the potatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, for the meat
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, for the meat
- 1/2 teaspoon sage, for the meat
- 1/4 teaspoon sage, to be cooked with the garlic
- Olive oil just enough to cover the bottom of the pot, about one teaspoon
- Scrub and peel the potatoes. Cut them up into small cubes. Put them in a small pot. Add just enough water to cover, around 3/4 of a cup. Add the salt. Put on the stove to boil. If in a hurry, leave the skins on the potatoes. Just give them an extra good scrub. If in more of a hurry, you can parboil them in the microwave
- Cook the potatoes until about half done. If the potatoes are sufficiently cooked before you are ready to add them to the other ingredients, just take them off the heat and set them to one side.
- Cut up the onions, set aside. Cut up the peppers, set aside. Lay out the hamburger on a plate. Use a fork to break it up and spread it around the plate. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, and sage on it. Use your hands to then thoroughly mix them all through the meat. Set the meat to one side. (Seasoning the meat can be done much earlier and placed in the fridge to work the salt magic.)
- Pour oil into the main stew pot and place over medium heat. While the oil is heating up, peel and mince the garlic. Wait until the oil is hot and then add the garlic and the 1/4 teaspoon of sage to the pot. Sauté the garlic and sage, stirring until the garlic has browned a little, perhaps 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Take out the garlic.
- Next, add the meat to the pot in small handfuls, stirring as you go. With a slotted spoon, keep breaking up the chunks into smaller bits. Sauté until the meat is thoroughly cooked, perhaps 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the meat from the pot, putting it on a clean plate or bowl. Leave behind in the pot as much liquid and oil as possible. More liquid from the meat might puddle on the plate or bowl. If possible, pour that off into the pot.
- Next, add the onions and re-introduce the garlic that was removed before the meat was added. Sauté the onions, stirring them periodically, until softened, perhaps 2 to 4 minutes. Then add the peppers. Stir them into the onions. Sauté for 2 or 3 minutes. Now add 1/2 cup of water. Once the liquid has begun to gently bubble, add the potato water to the pot. Once that has begun to bubble again, allow the mixture to simmer for about 5 minutes. Make sure it does not come to a full boil. Be ready to adjust the heat up or down.
- Next, stir in the potatoes. Add just enough water to bring the water level to the top of the vegetables. Bring up the heat to re-start the bubbling. Once the pot starts bubbling, bring down the heat again and allow the stew to simmer for 10 minutes. (P.S. Should you have accidentally boiled the potatoes until they done, do not add the potatoes to the pot until you are nearly ready to re-introduce the meat. Mistakes can sometimes be remedied.)
- Now re-introduce the meat to the pot. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the meat is hot again. It should now be ready to serve.
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Stew on the Past
Stew: A Little History and a Definition
Stew is a staple dish. During the centuries when hard labor was the norm and there were few conveniences to lighten the load, the stew was a rather ‘convenient’ dish. The pot could, when set over a moderate temperature, take care of itself for a while. Many a kitchen hearth had a couple of stews regularly simmering in a corner, very slowly, always ready for someone to have a bowl. As a stew got low, scraps, fresh veggies, or a chunk of browned meat could be thrown in with more water or stock to return to simmering.
To stew something simply means to simmer—not boil. Tiny bubbles rise to just gently break the surface. That is the most important factor and the most important tip of this article. Properly done, simmering brings out the flavors of the ingredients and allows those flavors to be infused into the liquid, without draining said ingredients of their flavors. Let us quote Mrs. Bridges, the cook on the old television show, Upstairs, Downstairs, “Stew boiled is stew spoiled.” Boiled stew, or soup, renders meat that tastes like gummy cardboard plus mushy everything else.
The basics tenets of stew are: the simmer; how to handle the meat; salt in relation to the meat; salt in relation to potatoes; potato varieties; and the all-important layering.
A Closer Look at the Ingredients
The Meat and Poultry
Tougher cuts of meat are most often the ones used for stews. A slow cooking process breaks down the fibers of the meat, making the meat more tender without losing flavor. Tougher cuts, if cooked properly, can have more flavor. But first meat should be browned quickly at a high temperature. Searing creates its own flavor as well as killing any microbes hanging about on the surface of the meat.
Water and/or stock are the liquids most often used for stews. Liquid is an excellent medium for conducting heat. Further, it envelops whatever is placed in it. If the temperature of the stew pot is too high, the cooking process gallops uncontrollably. Even in liquid, meat fibers can ‘dry out’ as collagen, the connective tissue between bones, tissues, and cartilage, dissolves too quickly.
Harold McGee, in his book, On Food and Cooking, suggests cooking at a temperature a little below 120°F for about an hour. Later, the heat can be raised a bit, to around 160°F so that the collagen will dissolve into gelatin. Cooking slowly allows the temperature of the meat to rise slowly. Once that meat is tender, breaking apart easily, if the rest of the ingredients need more cooking, the meat should be removed from the liquid for a time. Add it back towards the end of the cooking process.
When using poultry—usually chicken or turkey—for stew, depending on which cuts used, we have lots of little bones to deal with. Sometimes we’ll be dealing with leftovers. Sometimes, we’ll brown fresh poultry. Yes, you can tear the flesh off of the bones and throw those bones away, but those bones contain flavor and nutrients. But since some of those bones are small, they can be like the box of pins or paper clips that spilled on the floor. They are everywhere.
Starting with just the poultry you can pull off as much flesh as possible and tie up the bones in a piece of cheesecloth. Place both in the pot to simmer for a while. Later, pull out the cheesecloth, open it up and salvage any bits of flesh.
Or, skip the cheesecloth and place the bones in a separate pot with just enough water to cover them, plus a bit of salt and pepper. After allowing the bones to simmer, pour through a strainer. Throw the liquid in the main pot. Again, salvage bits of flesh. Or, if thinking in advance, store the bone marrow brew for use at a later time.
Or, without tearing off the flesh, you can tie up everything in the cheesecloth and throw it in the pot. Later, pull out the cheesecloth and separate flesh from bone, throwing the flesh back in the pot for more cooking.
Or, finally, just throw the poultry in, bones and all, and allow to simmer. Then, pour everything through a strainer. Put the liquid and veggies back in the pot. Place the chicken and bones on a plate and separate. All these methods take a bit of time. I prefer the second method.
What Is the Purpose of Salt?
That most popular of seasonings, salt, is a major factor in creating a good stew. It is a chemical agent that interacts with food as well as being an independent flavor. Salt (not salt water) draws moisture out of muscle cells. That moisture can then interact with the salt on the surface of the meat (as well as with any other herbs and spices present). Once this moisture is drawn back into those cells, it affects the muscle fibers and the flavors now enhance the taste of the meat.
When to salt the meat is a contentious subject. One school of thought says salting early simply dries out meat without enhancing the flavor. Others insist the method is a basic. Some cooks have done tests. Results are a little mixed. The two most often stated results I have read about say early salting does incredible wonders for lamb, but is detrimental to pork. Pork really is the one meat that just dries out from early salting. Remember, we are talking about salt directly on the meat, not a brine solution or a marinade.
Beef seems to responds both to early salting and salting just before cooking. The flavor outcome can differ, but be acceptable either way. If you like to grind your own beef for meatballs, meatloaf, or just a patty on a bun, think about salting the solid piece several hours, or a day, in advance, then grind it.
As for poultry, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, in his article The Juicy Secret to Seasoning Meat, reported roasting two chickens for comparison. One he salted a day in advance. The other he salted soon before it went in the oven. Both tasted good, but side by side, the later one tasted saltier while the one salted in advance tasted “more succulent’ and “more balanced.”
I tend to come down on the salt in advance school—if there is time. If you are going to salt in advance, you need at least forty minutes (for smaller cuts of meat, not roasts) for the salt to work magic. Salting longer is needed for larger pieces. If you do not have the time, salt just as you are about to put the meat in the pan or salt it in the pan.
Salting in advance need not take more time, just forethought. Salt the meat the night before or salt it before going to work. Then let it sit in the refrigerator. But we often forget things like this until it is actually time to make supper.
Potatoes and Salt, Plus Potato Varieties
How the potatoes are salted is also important. An old remedy for a too salty stew or soup is to throw in some raw potato slices, but there is debate as to whether this remedy really works. So where did the notion come from? I suspect it came from those who made stews where the potatoes, and only the potatoes, tasted like they had absorbed a sufficient amount of salt. Every other food item tasted as if little or no salt had been added.
Potatoes can act like salt hogs. They seem to soak up the salt, leaving the other ingredients and the liquid, salt deprived. So parboil potatoes separately in salted water. Use only enough water to cover the potatoes. Don’t cook them all the way through.
When you do add the partially cooked potatoes to the stew, throw in the potato water as well. Nutrients and flavors that have leached from the potatoes into the liquid, as well as any remaining salt, are useful for the stew. Sometimes I also parboil other root vegetables, but not always. I always parboil the potatoes.
The next tip concerns a concept called layering. When preparing a meat or poultry stew, after the salting period, cook the meat in a little oil or butter. Don’t add the liquid yet. If your recipe includes garlic, mince it and sauté it either with or before the meat. If you are using chopped onions as well, add them about half way through the browning period. Or brown the meat completely, then remove the meat from the pan while you sauté the onions.
Once both meat and onions are done, you can sauté other ingredients, then put everything back together in the pan and add just enough water to braise them for a few minutes. Do not yet cover all the ingredients. (Braised means to simmer meat or veggies for a while in just a little bit of water in the bottom of the pan after browning them in fat.)
Each of these little separate steps—the browning of the meat, sautéing the onions, the parboiling of the potatoes, the braising—each adds its own little complexities of flavors. Together, each level helps create a rich dish. This can work better than doing them all at the same time. There are some recipes where everything is thrown in together at the start. But usually the layered method works better to obtain a flavorful stew.
After the meat—with or without garlic and/or onions and/or other sautéed vegetables—has braised for a while, start adding whatever other ingredients are called for. Add however much liquid is needed. Potatoes should be added in the latter part of the stewing process. If they are in too long, they can turn mushy. This is also true for noodles. The exact point will vary at which you want to throw these items in.
You can do the potatoes in advance and leave them to one side until the main pot is ready for them. You can add the potato water, while leaving the potatoes themselves out until later. Examine the water/liquid level. With the added potato water, you may not need any more liquid. At most, you just want to cover your ingredients. No more.
The last two tips go together. Stew tastes better after it rests for a day in the fridge. The chemical interactions of the ingredients continue as the stew cools off. It is another phase of the layering process. Also as the stew cools, any fat present will rise to the top. But before putting the pot in the fridge, push all the meat and the veggies to the outer walls of the pot, leaving a pool of liquid in the center.
With a cleared center, most of the fat will be in that one center place rather than caught between all the little bits of food. After time in the fridge, the fat will be solid mass making it easier to skim off. The fat is no longer needed. It has served its purpose of flavoring the stew. Now allow the stew to simmer a second time until it is hot. Then serve.
This would be better if allowed to sit overnight, but it should still be fairly tasty if that cannot be done. One of the basics for this stew, or any stew, is shop somewhere that consistently sells flavorful meat. If your store doesn’t, look around for a new butcher or grocery. Some stores simply have better suppliers. What is the first rule in cooking? Buy and use good ingredients.
Brown, Amy. Understanding Food Principles and Preparation. Third Edition. Thomson Wadsworth. Belmont, CA. 2008.
Editors at America’s Test Kitchen. The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. America’s Test Kitchen. Brookline, Massachusetts. 2011.
López-Alt, J. Kenji. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. W. W. Norton. New York. 2015.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner. New York. 1984.
Schwaner-Albright, Oliver. The Juicy Secret to Seasoning Meat-Food & Wine.htm. July 2009.
Succulent Seasoning Secrets-how (or when) to salt your proteins!_go lb. salt.htm. July 16, 2012.
Questions & Answers
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