Casserole, stew, braise – all terms we associate with slower cooking, but what do they actually mean? What is it that defines a dish as a casserole rather than a stew, or are they really just different names for the same thing?
There’s a very interesting book called Cooked by Michael Pollan; in it he explores how we, as humans, have developed various methods of cooking, which have not only transformed natural ingredients into something great to eat but also played a part in altering the course of our evolution. The book takes us right back to basics and is split into four parts (or perhaps should I say elements): Fire, Water, Air, Earth. In the section entitled ‘Water’, Pollan looks at the part water plays in the process and spends some time cooking food in liquid; he says “much like a stew, a braise is a method of cooking meat and/or vegetables slowly in a liquid medium. In a stew, however, the main ingredient is typically cut into bite-sized pieces and completely submerged in the cooking liquid. In a braise, the main ingredient is left whole or at least cut into larger pieces (with meat ideally left on the bone) and only partially submerged in the liquid.”
Wanting to see what others thought I turned to the internet and came across Delia’s website. According to her, stewing is done on the top of a cooker with heat applied underneath, whilst casseroling takes place in the oven, with heat circulating all around the pot, but in both cases the meat is cut up into fairly small pieces and cooked in a liquid. Braising however involves much larger pieces of meat, and like casseroling it’s done in the oven, but with much less liquid, so the meat is mostly cooking in steam.
Having read many other comments, articles, definitions and opinions, I would conclude that the following could perhaps sum it up: -
• They all involve slow, gentle cooking
• They are all economical ways of cooking in that they can make some of the tougher, cheaper cuts of meat into something succulent and tender
• A stew and a casserole consist of smaller pieces of meat submerged in a liquid (be it wine, stock, water, beer), whereas a braise is with larger, or whole, pieces of meat in a much smaller amount of liquid that does not completely cover it
• A stew is cooked on top of the stove, a casserole is cooked in the oven and a braise can be cooked either way
• Casserole can be used to describe the dish (e.g. Beef Casserole), a method of cooking (casseroling/casseroled), and also the name of a heavy dish (usually lidded) in which casseroles, amongst other things, can be cooked
One thing, however, applies to them all - whichever method you choose, it can transform even the most humble, inexpensive ingredients into something nutritious, warming and really quite delicious, often with very little effort on our part. Sounds good to me - just the thing for the colder weather.