Ask Peter: Thickening stews
Quite often, when following recipes for casseroles and pot roasts, I am supposed to end up with a sauce that can be spooned back over the meat on the plate but my sauce is very thin. In the pictures they look thicker. I like the sauces to be thicker as they stick to the meat better. I cheat and use cornflour but am interested to know what I might be doing wrong to prevent a naturally thick sauce.
For my dinner tonight I’ve just had some of the beef and cashew nut stew from my book Everyday that I cooked yesterday and it must be noted that today it was thicker than when I made it. That’ll partly be because in the reheating it does tend to "dry out’ and thicken a little even when using a microwave as I did tonight. The nuts will thicken it slightly and the reheating will ensure that some of the cooking liquids are lost in the process of the reheat.
For the two of us a microwave works a treat and there’s almost no cleaning up to do, but if I were reheating stew for four or more people I’d heat it up by lining a roasting dish with baking parchment then spreading the stew on it in an even layer — it doesn’t matter how thick, so long as it’s evenly thick. Lay some more baking parchment on top and place in an oven set to 170C. By pressing it out flat and evenly, it’ll reheat more quickly than a big lump of stew in a saucepan, plus it won’t burn as it heats up which is an important consideration. Once it begins to bubble in the oven, peel back the top parchment and give it a gentle stir, making sure you don’t tear the parchment on the bottom of the dish and keep cooking for another 10-15 minutes, covered once again, until it’s hot all the way through.
However, you’re more concerned that it’s just not thick enough in the first place. As I don’t know which recipes you’re using, all I can suggest is that it’s highly likely you are adding too much liquid initially. If you’re cooking it in a pot with a tight fitting lid — as recipes tend to ask for — then there’s simply no way liquid can escape while cooking; it just isn’t able to evaporate and allow the stew to thicken. If you cook stews in the oven rather than on the stove top, you can also have the same problem as there is nowhere for excess liquid to disappear. Without evaporation taking place, thickening will be tricky. Whichever way you cook your stews or pot roasts, I’d suggest you cook for the first 100 minutes tightly sealed, and then move the lid open a little so it’s possible for the juices to escape. Dusting your meat in flour before you seal it will also help the stew to thicken as the flour enriches the sauce. Adding nuts (as I did) or vegetables that will break up such as carrots, parsnips, kumara, potatoes and pumpkin, will also thicken the stew, but to be honest, long slow cooking with the lid ajar, will have a purer effect.
As a last resort, if you’d prefer not to thicken with cornflour, you can do the following, which is slightly complicated but it works. Once the meal is cooked, gently tip it into a colander sitting inside a large bowl. Let it drain and then pour the liquid that comes off it into a saucepan and cook over medium heat until it thickens. Once it’s as thick as you want it, add the meat back to the pan and warm it all through.
One last thing to point out is that if you reduce cooking liquids, their flavour will also be concentrated, which can mean it becomes quite salty. So next time you’re making a stew, ease up on the seasoning until near the end of its cooking time, and only finally season it when it’s about ready to serve.
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.