Over the last few years, my friend Tim in Gent Belgium has made beef stew for me. I tried to make it at home without his recipe and failed miserably so last month, I asked Tim if he could send me a recipe. It turns out that Belgians don’t keep an official Flemish stew recipe on-hand. He spent his entire lunch break writing this out for me and I made it last night with huge success. It was the best stew I’ve ever had and I’ve decided to share it here. Thank you, Tim! Noted: I’m not editing this but the result works. I did Rodenbach beer but Orval would probably be a great alternative as both are very delicious.
first of all, you need to know some of the basics before trying to make Belgian beef and beer stew.
1. the kind of meat is VERY important. And contrary to what you might expect, you don’t want the cleanest, nicest, purest cut. You need a butcher you can trust, and ask him for the neck and shoulder parts. These are very unpopular and usually end up in ground beef. They have a lot of connective tissue and a little fat, if you are lucky. Why the hell would one want a lot of connective tissue? Because it’s made of collagen, and collagen melts into a sort of gelatine, which gives nice structure to your sauce. I’m not sure of course, but I think you used some primary cut, which tends to just dry out while cooking, instead of melting and falling apart.
2. the beer is very important. In Belgium, most people use (or used) table beer (boooo!) because it has lots of sugar and little hops. Although now lot of people chose a good double or quad beer. Again: lots of caramel sugars, little bitter hops. But Rodenbach works very well too. The acidity gives it a nice touch, although I usually reserve my Rodenbach for pig cheek stew instead of beef stew. Now Orval would be like the last beer I would ever choose to put in stew. Why? Because Orval has a lot of aroma hops. As you cook your stew, you also cook the beer. By doing that, you isomerize the hops acids, which turn them very bitter. As a result your stew will become really bitter. Now, us beer geeks can have a little hop, for sure, but hop flavour does not work in/with everything.
3. Time. There’s no way you can make a good stew, by cooking it only one hour. Two to 3 is a minimum, I often go a little beyond that. Although a good guideline is the meat itself. As it starts falling apart into pieces/strings, then it’s time to serve. Well, actually it’s not. Then it’s time to put it away and reheat it the next day. A beef and beer stew always tastes better overnight.
4. Temperature. Now this is a bit tricky, it takes a lot of experience with your stove, your pots, your ingredients. Over the years I’ve made dozens and dozens of stews, so a bit part is experience. But you can achieve perfection if you stay with your fire. The sweet spot is 87°C (you do the conversion, metric bitch! :p ). At that temperature the collagen will melt, but your meat will not dry out. So, either you use a meat thermometer, with an alarm at that sweet spot. Or you stay by your stove, and you make sure that your stew is simmering, but not boiling. So, you can have some bubbles in the middle boiling up, but not your whole kettle. Keep this simmering going on for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Your meat should slowly start falling apart, but it will not be dried out. Do I need to stress that you need a decent quality cooking pot with a very thick bottom, that will spread the heat, and keep it well, so that whatever is at the bottom doesn’t immediately burn? No way you can make a good stew in a cheap aluminium cooking pot.
Now, the recipe. As you can guess, I don’t have a real recipe. I go by experience, gut feel and fingerspitzengefühl. I couldn’t really find a digital copy of my recipe / method, so I’ll just write it down for you. Keep in mind that there’s as many recipes for stew as there’s Belgian cooks. Each swears by his own method. But you ate mine, so here’s how it goes.
- 2.5kg of beef neck+shoulder (less than that I don’t consider starting to cook, because it’s such a big chore, that you might just as well make a lot, while you’re at it. Of course, since you’re only experimenting, you might want to use half a kilo at a time, so as not to ruin a whole batch of meat)
- At least half the weight of beef in onions, chopped up fine or coarse, to your liking. The finer you chop, the more likely it will all melt away over time. If you leave it bigger pieces, you might find some in your stew.
- about 2 pints of beer. To be honest, I usually have bunch of mixed leftovers in my freezer. I select ‘m based on flavour, so nothing hoppy, preferably sweet, and quite alcoholic. The alcohol will also soften the meat. If you do less meat, convert the amount of beer as well. Tip: save a little beer in the bottle, that you can mix through the stew, right before serving.
- a few slices of white bread, or brown, I don’t mind having some grains in my stew. Just not whole bread. Spread them thickly with Dijon mustard. This is old school, and the bread is used to thicken the sauce. You can of course use sauce binders, corn starch and other tricks. But since you’re at it, you can just go ahead and do it like old times. Also: if the bread didn’t completely dissolve, it’s not ready yet. Cook longer! :p
Take out your meat, cut it in cubes, with a side of about 1 inch. You can do smaller, but it will all fall apart. You can do bigger, but you will end up with longer “strings” of meat, and not all the connective tissue might dissolve. Let the meat rest, spread out, so it can warm up a bit. Frying at fridge temperature, will cause the meat to pull together and squeeze out the precious juices.Next glaze the onions. They can be a little beige, but not too much. Put them in your big ass cooking pot. Now fry the meat, so the outside turns brown. You want to fry so that only about half the surface of your pan is covered. If you do more, your pan will just cool down too much, the juices seeping out the meat won’t be able to evaporate, and you’ll just be cooking the meat in it’s own juice, instead of frying and browning it. I recommend frying in a sticky pan in some oil. After a few batches your pan will become very brown. Use the beer and some water to deglaze the pan. Pouring a sugary beer in a hot pan will also caramelise it a bit. If you’re done, cover up meat and onions with all the beer and add water until everything is covered. Don’t worry about too much sauce. You need something to dip your fries in, plus a lot will evaporate while cooking. Now add spices. Tricky. What and how many is again a matter of experience but also personal flavour. Belgian butches usually give you some small bags of premixed spices, but that’s usually mainly salt. I’d say: salt (of course), lots of fresh ground black pepper, a few cloves (like, only 3 for the whole 2.5 kg! Probably one will be already too much for half a kilo. You can cheat and put one in near the end of your cooking, if you want it to be less). Also: thyme, a few pressed cloves of garlic, some Origanum majorana (I don’t know how this translates, it’s the latin name). Some regular oregano. Dried parsley and chives if you have that laying around. The slightest pinch of cinnamon. Some freshly grated nutmeg. Ginger powder. Little bit of paprika. You don’t want any of the spices to stand out, but you want a nice complex flavour from the mixture. Actually, to be honest, the version I made when you came, I was a little too generous with the spices, so that was a little over spiced. So you see, even after making so much of it, one can still make mistakes (usually through experimenting). Also: some brown candied sugar (yeah, you don’t have that, I know). I guess molasses would go good in it, but then again, that’s a thing we don’t have over here in Europe, as our sugar is beet sugar, not cane sugar. You could use some kind of gingerbread, I usually throw in some peperkoek or speculoos, both for sweetness and a bit of spices, all adds up to the complexity. Apple or pear syrup (100% fruits!) that is cooked in to this dark brown sticky syrup, is very good. A spoonful or so. Don’t know if you have that in the states. Now cover all of that with the sandwiches, mustard side down. Cover with a lid, and slowly bring to a simmer. This might easily take up half an hour. You don’t want to rush it and boil the hell out of it. Take it slow. When it starts simmering, keep it covered but with the lid tilted. Put in a wooden spoon if your lid doesn’t stay tilted by itself. This way, the steam can escape, making sure it will not easily boil, and also letting some of the moist evaporate, concentrating the sauce over time. Stir but only occasionaly and very gentle, so as not to tear apart the meat as it softens. Some people like it when it’s all in strings, but I prefer to have some chunks left as well. Do not taste it! I swear you, I often taste in between, and I have to restrain myself from adding more spices, or more of this or that. Don’t! Just wait. And let it sit overnight. Usually when I’m done cooking I’m not convinced of the flavour. Then the next day it’s awesome! As said before, try to aim for that moment when the meat starts falling apart in strings, then let it cool down. The next day, when you reheat it, you’re best to do that “au bain marie” (small cooking pot in a bigger cooking pot filled with water). This way, you don’t have to stir to prevent burning at the bottom. If you are not content with the thickness of the sauce, you can cheat a little by taking some, or a lot of, sauce, but not the meat, out of the pot, in a low rim cooking pot and reducing it through cooking. This is a little cheating, but usually not necessary, especially not if you work with smaller volumes.
Now, some photos!