Chemistry Lesson Anyone (aka beef stew)

Happy New Year to everyone! It has been a while and where do the days go! Thanks for dropping in. With the colder weather still here, a fragrant warm dish in a pot or pan on the stove is a welcome addition to the day. From savory vegetarian chili to soups to beef stew, it’s all good!

When I was younger, in my imagination I always had visions of my stew coming out perfect – tender, tasty. But often my dish would burst people’s bubble – appetites steeped by fragrant cooking were soon crushed as people tried to politely (and sometimes not so politely) chew the equivalent of a leather shoe.

Then I had a few stew cooking lessons from my dear Mom in law. That was promising, and I figured the key to cooking stew was to really cook it. And then it fell apart!

More recently I started looking at cooking stew from a chemistry point of view and came upon a few key principles: searing the meat keeps in the juices so the meat doesn’t dry out.; sprinkling with flour before searing helps make the sauce; at least one or two acidic things are needed to break down the meat (in this recipe – citrus and tomato paste).

These chemistry principles together with a few tips will get you well on your way to cooking Persian Beef Stew.

This particular stew recipe has zucchini and tomato as it’s vegetable, but these could be swapped with any number of vegetables you like – in particular carrot and potato would do well. The background of the stew is a light gravy based on onions for body and tomato paste for zing and also to tenderize the meat. In addition there is lemon juice again for zing and for tenderizing. It tastes good right after cooking but tastes even better the next day.


Persian Beef Stew


  • 2 pounds bigger chunks of stew beef
  • 1 tsp or more salt
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • juice of one lemon
  • saffron threads (ground to make up 1/8 tsp)
  • 1.5 tbsp tomato paste (or more to taste)
  • olive oil
  • water
  • one large onion
  • 5 roma tomatoes
  • 3-6 zucchini depending on size and preference

PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT TURMERIC IS ONE OF THE MOST STAINING SEASONINGS ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH, FOLLOWED BY SAFFRON. Watch your countertops. I cannot comment on other countertops, but if it gets on quartz, it will stain yellow. On my grey quartz I can remove the stains with baking soda and water.

Method – The Meat:

  • Sprinkle stew meat with flour, turmeric and salt.
  • Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in frying pan or pot.
  • Sear the stew meat chunks on both top and bottom with the lid on the pot but slightly open to reduce splatters while not steaming the meat – searing keeps the meat from falling apart when it is stewed, and makes a great start for a sauce. I like to sear one side of the meat pieces golden brown, then move the pot away from the heat so I don’t get splattered while I turn everything over, then sear the other side.

Method – The Sauce

  • Remove meat from pan/pot. While pot is still hot – deglaze it – in other words, pour in ¼ cup of water and scrape all the cooked bits down. The water will steam a bit as you pour it in. This is the start of your stew “jus”. Put the meat back in the jus.
  • Chop the onion. Fry the onion in 1 tbsp olive oil until glassy (about 5 minutes).
  • Cut the meat into smaller pieces (about 1.5 cm by 1.5 cm). Can use scissors in the pot or remove to a cutting board and slice with a knife.
  • Combine the fried onion with the meat.
  • Add the juice of one lemon.
  • Combine 1/8 ground saffron with ¼ cup of water and stir. Add to the stew. Rinse out the cup with another ¼ cup of water into the stew, twice – to use all the saffron.
  • Combine 1 ½ tbsp. tomato paste with ¼ cup water. Add to the stew.
  • Add enough water so that the meat is mostly covered, with some bits above the sauce.
  • Cover with lid, and bring to a boil on medium heat. Reduce to low and simmer covered for 1 hour. Half way through, taste the sauce and see if you like the salt content. If more is needed, can add it now.

Method – The Vegetables:

  • In the meantime, peel the zucchinis and slice either in strips, chunks or rounds however you like. Salt light and fry in a small amount of olive oil until just lightly brown in spots. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • Slice tomatoes in half and remove seeds as best you can (they make dishes more bitter).
  • After stew meat/onion mix has simmered on low heat for one hour, place lid aside. Lay cooked zucchini and the tomato halves on the stew. Spoon some sauce over, and cook for 10 – 20 minutes to your liking.

If you won’t be serving immediately, perhaps remove the zucchini and tomatoes to a separate pan and recombine with a quick reheat before serving, to not overcook.


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