The perfect casserole: From cuts to cooking

There’s nothing more comforting than a hearty casserole, with tender pieces of meat, slow cooked with vegetables in a rich gravy. It can be a lost art in these days of micro-meals, where speed and convenience are prized above all else. So how do you create the perfect casserole? Read on for some vital tips…

Start with the right cuts of Meat

Avoid cuts you would eat flash-fried as a steak and instead choose humble cuts.

Humble cuts are prepared from the parts of the animal where the muscles have done the most work, areas like the neck, back haunches and legs. This makes them full of flavour, but tough, so they’re ideal to cook slowly in casseroles and stews, where the meat will become really tender and give some of its flavour to the sauce. Many humble cuts also come with plenty of fat as well as bone attached, which also lends extra flavour to the casserole. Cross sections of bone will enrich the sauce with their tasty marrow.

Humble cuts include (from head to tail):

  • Cheek
  • Neck
  • Shoulder, or chuck, and blade
  • Pieces trimmed from between the ribs, or other fat-laden roasting joints
  • Stewing or braising steak
  • Shin, or Osso Buco
  • Brisket
  • Skirt
  • Leg
  • Silverside or Topside
  • Oxtail

What is braising?

Braising is a form of slow cooking and includes both stewing and casseroling. The ingredients are cooked slowly at a low temperature in plenty of liquid. Braising can be done in the oven or on the hob, but must be done slowly and gently, and usually includes the dish or pot being covered with a lid

The key principles for casserole perfection

  1. Select humble cuts – the more fat and bone, the better the flavour will be!
     
  2. Choose a good, heavy casserole dish with a lid that is suitable for both the hob and the oven.
     
  3. Dust the meat in flour, seasoned with salt and pepper.
     
  4. Brown your meat in batches so the pieces sear and don’t steam. Remove the meat and set aside.
     
  5. Add your vegetables (root veg. should be chopped small as they take a long time to cook) and sauté until softened or nicely coloured.
     
  6. Put the meat back in the pot and add in any herbs and spices.
     
  7. Pour in plenty of liquid – it should cover at least ⅓ to ½ of the meat.
     
  8. Be bold with flavours, as they will meld and mellow over the long cooking time. Use punchy vegetables, garlic, and a good quality stock, wine, beer or cider rather than just water.
     
  9. Bring it to simmering point on the hob – don’t let it boil or the meat will get tough.
     
  10. Put in a low oven for a long time – the slower and more gentle the better.
     
  11. When it’s ready, if the cooking liquor is too thin, take the meat out and reduce the sauce down on the hob, before putting the meat back in.

For a handy visual guide to this process, have a look at the chef’s video below

 

Can you overcook a casserole?

You can’t overcook a casserole, as long as there is plenty liquid still in it. However, the meat and other vegetables may start falling apart into the sauce the longer you leave it.

Top tip – how to tell when the meat is cooked

Test it by pushing a fork into it. If the fork slides back out easily, the meat is done; if you can pull the fork up vertically with the meat still holding fast to it, it needs further cooking.

How much veg should I use?

About one-third of the weight of the meat should give you the weight of vegetables you should need for a good hearty casserole. Try onions, carrots, celery and leeks. Make sure they are cut into fairly uniform chunks, and the smaller the better, as root vegetables especially can take a long time to cook at a low temperature.

 

Recipe – Red Wine Braised Shin of Beef

Red Wine Braised Beef Recipe

  • 880g boneless beef shin (approximately 8-12 slices)
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 2 carrots, finely diced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4-9 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 500ml red wine
  • 2 stalks rosemary
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 sprigs parsley

Method

Preheat oven to 160ºC/300ºF/Gas 2. Make sure the meat is at room temperature, pat it dry with kitchen paper and season with salt and pepper.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large hot casserole pan and sear the beef on all sides in batches. Remove from the pan and reserve. Add the remaining oil and sauté the celery, carrots, onions and garlic for 4-5 minutes over a medium heat. Add tomato puree and cook for a further 3-4 minutes.

Return the browned meat to the pan and add the wine and rosemary. Bring to the boil, cover and cook in the oven for 1½-1¾ hours.

Take the casserole out of the oven. Scoop out the pieces of meat and set aside somewhere warm while you blend the sauce to a smooth consistency. Reduce the sauce on the hob to your desired thickness. Add the beef back in, dot with butter and sprinkle with parsley.

Serve with polenta or creamy mashed potatoes.