Warm, hearty and better by the batch. There’s nothing quite like a good stew. Every time the weather starts to cool, I get excited to dust off my Dutch oven as I envision cozy Sundays at home making stew for the week. Cozy Sundays spent mostly on the couch, that is—not in front of the stove—while my stew does its thing in the oven. That might be stew’s greatest attribute of all: It’s hands-off. The perfect lazy person’s dish. Or at least it should be.
Of course, the reality never quite seems to match the vision. My low-key stew Sundays usually turn into hours of frustration as I’m forced to contend with step No. 1 of my recipe: searing. I end up spending valuable couch time cleaning up oil that’s splattered all over my stove. That’s after I’ve already spent too much time at the stove in the first place, searing in batches so that the meat browns instead of steams in an overcrowded pan. And when my supposedly hands-off but actually quite time-intensive stew finally does finish cooking, it’s fine, not great. Certainly not worth the mess and the fuss.
When I tried Milk Street’s No-Sear Beef or Lamb and Chickpea Stew, however, I knew I’d be getting my couch time back. “Most cultures don’t bother searing meat for stew. What do they know that we don’t?” the recipe reads. A lot.
Most recipes tell us to sear our meat to create that savory, golden-brown exterior formed by the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that happens when food hits a certain temperature. There’s a time and place for that char, for sure—pan-seared or grilled steak, for one. But meat that will be submerged in liquid won’t achieve the crusty texture anyway, and as Christopher Kimball and the cooks here at Milk Street susses out, there are other ways to achieve that savory flavor.
Yes, Milk Street was giving me permission to stop searing my meat (and to take back my Sundays at the same time). I jumped. I tried the technique. I jumped again, and this time for joy.
Turns out you can add complex, savory flavor to stew by skipping the sear and instead adding garlic, herbs and spices while the meat cooks.
Our No-Sear Lamb and Chickpea Stew builds flavor by using spice in two ways: first to season the meat, and then to create an umami base by blooming the spices in butter alongside chopped onions and tomato paste. The recipe also calls for one of our favorite tips here at Milk Street, which is to poach a head of garlic in your cooking liquid (also try it in pasta water), instead of mincing it. You simply cut the top off a head of garlic, let it simmer while the meat cooks, then use tongs to squeeze out the cooked, softened cloves directly into the stew. Finally, instead of a delicate sprig or two of thyme, the stew calls for aromatics and herbs by the handful—another maxim we love here at Milk Street. In this case, it’s 3 cups of baby spinach, a cup of cilantro and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. By calling for each of these flavor enhancers one at a time in order of heft, the recipe builds layers of flavor without the dreaded sear.
Over the winter, this has become one of the recipes I like to casually mention to friends. “Oh yeah, I made some stew on Sunday, while I was doing X, Y and Z all at the same time. Nbd.” It always incites some intrigue, and then I get to explain the genius of this technique.
What’s even better than this particular recipe is that the principle could apply to any number of stews, like our Austrian Beef Stew with Paprika and Carraway (Rindsgulasch) or our Tuscan Beef and Black Pepper Stew (Peposo Alla Fornacina), neither of which call for searing.
Look closely and you’ll also find other tips for making better stew in these recipes... Spoiler alert: You can mimic the initial sear most recipes call for by using a “reverse sear.” Simply uncover your pot for the final phase of cooking to let the oven heat brown the meat. There’s no need to sear in batches ahead of time. You might also want to save your wine for the end so that it doesn’t dry out your meat. Or, save it for drinking, because in this post-sear world, you’ve got some extra time on your hands.