Ingredients in a stew can include any combination of vegetables (potatoes, beans, etc.), fruits (such as peppers and tomatoes), meat, poultry, sausages and seafood. While water can be used as the stew-cooking liquid, wine, stock, and beer are also common. Seasoning and flavourings may also be added. Stews are typically cooked at a relatively low temperature (simmered, not boiled), to allow flavors to combine.
The distinctions between stew, soup, and casserole are subtle and not always easy to judge. The ingredients of a stew may be cut into larger pieces than a those of a soup and retain more of their individual flavours; a stew may have thicker liquid than a soup, and more liquid than a casserole; a stew is more likely to be eaten as a main course than as a starter, unlike soup; and a stew can be cooked on either the stove top (or range) or in the oven, while casseroles are almost always cooked in the oven, and soups are almost always cooked on the stovetop. There are exceptions; for example, an oyster stew is thin bodied, more like a soup.
Stewing is suitable for the least tender cuts of meat that become tender and juicy with the slow moist heat method. This makes it popular in low-cost cooking. Cuts having a certain amount of marbling and gelatinous connective tissue give moist, juicy stews, while lean meat may easily become dry.
Stews may be thickened by reduction, but are more often thickened with flour, either by coating pieces of meat with flour before searing, or by using a roux or beurre manié, a dough consisting of equal parts of butter and flour. Other thickeners like cornstarch or arrowroot may also be used.
Food has been boiled since prehistoric times, first using naturally occurring vessels and later pottery. Herodotus says that the Scythians (8th to 4th centuries BC) "put the flesh into an animal's paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself." Some sources consider that this was how boiling was first done by primitive man, perhaps as long ago as ½ to 1 million years ago.
There is ample evidence that primitive tribes which survived into the 19th and 20th centuries boiled foods together. Amazonian tribes used the shells of turtles as vessels, boiling the entrails of the turtle and various other ingredients in them. Other cultures used the shells of large mollusks (clams etc.) to boil foods in. There is archaeological evidence of these practices going back 8,000 years or more.
There are recipes for lamb stews & fish stews in the Roman cookery book Apicius, believed to date from the 4th century. Le Viandier, one of the oldest cookbooks in French, written by the French chef known as Taillevent (1310-1395, real name Guillaume Tirel) has ragouts or stews of various types in it.
Hungarian Goulash dates back to the 9th century Magyar shepherds of the area, before the existence of Hungary. Paprika was added in the 18th century.
The first written reference to 'Irish stew' is in Byron's 'Devil's Drive' (1814): "The Devil . . . dined on . . . a rebel or so in an Irish stew.”
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