Ask Peter: Cooking meat casseroles
Some recipes for meat casseroles can be fully cooked, sometimes for a long time, on top of the stove. Others are to be put in the oven straight away. And some of them have to be started on top of the stove, and then put in the oven, even though the recipes are similar. Is it important? And why the difference?
Any casserole can be cooked in any of the ways you describe. The key to a really well-cooked stew, in my opinion, is that it’s cooked in a heavy based dish rather than a thin-shelled one.
A heavy based pot (I am always using my Le Creuset) conducts heat more evenly and this will mean the casserole won’t burn in the hot spots that thinner pots have. With heat evenly distributed the ingredients in your dish will all cook at the same time and you won’t have some meat under- done.
I have to admit that, unless I’m staying in the house, I tend to start my casseroles on the stove top, and finish them in the oven. I once left a house I was renting after my casserole had cooked for less than an hour. While I was out, the gas decided to turn itself off, and when I came home a few hours later, instead of a lovely cooked stew I found a slightly tepid mass in the pot. I was slightly nervous that it might have turned but I needed it for dinner so I brought it back to the boil, stirring all the time to make sure it didn’t catch on the bottom, then cooked it on a rapid simmer for as long as I could.
It was fine, luckily, as the central heating had also gone out so the house wasn’t that warm. From that dinner-party on I decided I’d always finish stews and braises in the oven unless I was going to be at home. With more modern cooking appliances these days that isn’t so essential, but a wayward cat or a young child might just nudge the switch and turn the heat up high (burnt stew) or off (as above) which would be an annoyance.
If you have a large open fireplace you can also place the pot on a rack nearby and cook it that way, saving fuel — which is always a good thing. A heavy based pot with a lid on will cook evenly, whereas a thin pot will only cook where it’s near the heat source — so you will be cooking for a lot longer. When I cook in the oven I always sit a cartouche of baking parchment on top of the simmering stew. This prevents the stew from drying out, as the moisture is trapped between the paper and the stew, not lost through the lid above. It also keeps the heat in the pot, where you want it.
So, once you’ve made your stew and it’s happily simmering away, make sure you have 2-3cm of liquid above all the solids. Place a cartouche on top and gently press it on to the stew — having a cartouche 2cm wider than the pot helps as this will line some of the sides of the pot as well, helping prevent too much evaporation. Place your pot in the oven, trying to centre it as best you can, and turn the temperature to 120C without a fan, or 100C with one.
Generally, for a meat-based stew, you’d cook it at this point for around 2-3 hours. There’s no need to check on it for the first 90 minutes, whereas with one on top of the stove you’d likely want to stir it every 30 minutes. Make sure, whichever way you cook it, you don’t let it dry out. Stews are best seasoned towards the end of cooking because, as the flavour develops and the liquid evaporates, the flavour become more intense.
And let’s not forget the brilliance of crock pots. They are a terrific tool to cook stews in as they distribute heat really well, maintain the temperature you set, can easily be checked and stirred without having to open the oven door, and they’re fairly easy to wash.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.