In truth, there is no such thing as truly no-salt cooking, many vegetables contain just a bit of salt all on their own. This stew is just as low salt as I can make it. Jan is visiting her sick brother this weekend. She decided to bring him some frozen home cooked meals as a mitzvah. He has recently been put on a super low salt diet. Many of the ways I would usually use to boost the flavor of a stew were right out—no soy sauce, anchovy paste, Worcestershire sauce, even commercial tomato paste—all have large amounts of salt.
How do you make a savory stew without salt? Many regular beef stew recipes simply have you chop everything up, throw it in the pot, and walk away for a few hours. Without salt, this would produce a bland, flavorless stew. I was going to need to be creative to bring out the flavors of each ingredient in other ways.
I could have used only water to make my stew, but without salt it would come out very tasteless. You can find some vegetable and chicken broths that are sold with no added salt, but even a small can of low sodium beef broth has 410 mg. per serving. I decided that one can would be all the salt that I would allow into a large pot of the stew.
My brother-in-law has few teeth left and needs foods that do not require a lot of chewing. I did not want to use ground beef, but he would have trouble dealing with large pieces of meat. I decided to cut the meat into half inch pieces. For the same reason, I would cut all of the vegetables inro a brunoise cut, a ¼ inch dice.
I started with well marbled beef chuck. To increase the flavor, I decided to split the meat into two parts. I would marinate half of the beef in port and herbs. I would dry and brown the rest to create a good Maillard reaction enhanced fond. I also decided to use fresh mushrooms to get the umami flavor that all good stews need—that I could not get from the salty sauces and marinades. Cooking down fresh tomatoes would help deglaze the pot and again add some more umami to the stew.
Note: A recent America’s Test Kitchen episode pointed out than you do not need to brown all of your meat to get a good flavorful fond for your dish. Browning just half of the meat was just as good and saved the time and effort.
To get the best flavors out of the vegetables, I would sauté them at the beginning to an aromatic light brown and for the flavorful vegetable fond they would provide. With the finely diced vegetables, I would have no difficulty cooking them down into the sauce during the long cooking time it would take the meat to become tender. However, I also wanted lightly cooked and identifiable vegetables in the finished stew. The easy solution was to save back half of the sautéed vegetables to add at the end of the cooking time—the best of both worlds.
What would a beef stew be without potatoes? I added Russet potatoes early in the cooking so that they would break sown and thicken the stew. Later I added waxy white potatoes so there would be identifiable bits of potato in the stew.
At the end of the cooking time I decided that the russet potatoes had not thickened the stew to my liking. I added a half cup of ground barley to further thicken the final stew. I could have used wheat flour for this purpose, but Jan has been trying to get me to use more complex starches in my cooking. A quick whirl in the spice grinder produces a course flour that cooks in minutes to thicken up any dish. The barley also gives the stew a nutty, earthy flavor—every bit of savory addition helps when you are not using salt.
Note: This recipe produced a very beefy, savory stew. I thought I would add some salt to some of my stew, but it actually gave that bite an “off” flavor. This stew has all the flavor it needs without salt.
After Dinner Note: This recipe produced a very large pot of stew. I had enough to make 12 one cup servings to freeze for Jan’s brother and I still had enough for a meal for four hungry people. This stew was so good that Eilene’s friend—the picky eater—begged to take home the leftovers—shhh, nobody tell her that it had onions in it.
This recipe makes an enormous pot of beef stew, because here the intention was to give most of it away. However, I can think of many ways to use this stew as leftovers, besides simply reheating it. you could add frozen peas and use it as the filling for a pot pie or a bierock (empanada, pasty, etc). You could use it as a gravy to pour over mashed or baked potatoes or even French fries. You could add some more beef broth and serve it as a soup. Or add some tomato sauce to make it a ragù to pour over pasta. If you add some chilies you could make it a Mexican dish to serve with tortillas or some curry powder to push it more towards Indian cuisine to serve with naan.
Karl’s Savory No Salt Beef Stew
2 lb. beef chuck tender, separate uses
½+ cup ruby port
2 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. rosemary, ground to a powder
½ tsp. sage
½+ tsp. black pepper, ground
2 cloves garlic, mashed to a paste
2 Tbs. vegetable oil (or bacon grease)
1 lb. large button mushrooms, brunoise
1 large yellow onion, ¼ inch dice
3 large stalks celery, brunoise
2 large carrots, brunoise
1 small green bell pepper, brunoise
6 large cloves garlic, minced
3 beefsteak tomatoes, brunoise
1 bay leaf
1 can (14.5 oz.) low sodium beef broth
1 large can (32 oz.) no-salt chicken broth (you may use no-salt vegetable broth)
1 ½ lbs. Russet potatoes, brunoise
3 lb. white potatoes, brunoise
½± cup barley, ground to a flour
1. Remove any silver skin from the beef and any large lumps of fat.
2. Slice the meat, across the grain, into ⅜-½ inch slices.
Note: I bought meat that was pre-cut into these steaks.
3. Cut half of the meat into ½ inch cubes and put them in a bowl.
4. Add the port, thyme, rosemary, sage, black pepper and two cloves of mashed garlic.
5. Toss to coat the meat and marinate the meat for at least half an hour.
Tip: Toss the beef every few minutes to redistribute the marinade.
6. Pat the rest of the steaks dry with a paper towel and let them air dry for a few minutes.
7. Cut the mushrooms, onion, celery, carrots, green bell pepper into a brunoise cut—¼ inch dice— and place them in separate bowls.
Tip: The easiest way to make a brunoise cut is to use a mandoline with a thick julienne cutter—this is a plate with evenly spaced vertical blades. Take small bunches of the julienned vegetables and cross cut them into small cubes.
Note: Do not dice your potatoes at this time. They do not get added to the pot until much later and you do not want them turning brown on you.
8. Mince the garlic and set it aside.
9. Finely chop the tomatoes and put them in a separate bowl.
Tip: Cut the tomatoes in half at the equator and scrape the seeds into a sieve placed over a bowl. Press the flavorful jelly into the bowl and discard the seeds. Chop the tomatoes and put them in the bowl with the jelly.
Note: Usually for a dish like this I would peel the tomato skins. However since I was using not salt, I was not willing to give up any flavor the skins would provide. I might end up with less than attractive bits of tomato skin floating in my stew, but it was a price I was willing to pay.
10. Once you have all of your vegetables prepped and ready to hand, it is time to start cooking.
Note: I used my 12 quart cast iron Dutch oven and it was just big enough to hold this stew.
11. Put a tablespoon of oil in a large stew pot and heat it to shimmering over medium high heat.
Tip: Vegetable oil is the no salt option, but if you can risk just a little more salt, bacon grease adds a good boost of flavor for not a lot of salt. Which you use depends on how low salt you are trying for.
12. Sauté the diced mushrooms until they are well browned.
Tip: Do not over stir the mushrooms, especially when you first put them in the pot. Fresh mushrooms release their moisture too quickly if you knock them around with your spatula—especially when they are cut into such small pieces. If you are rough with them, the mushrooms will steam, rather than fry, in the excess moisture and then turn into rubbery little rocks. Stir the mushrooms once, to coat them with grease, and then let them sit for 1-2 minutes before stirring them again. Let them sit undisturbed again for another minute, before beginning to sauté them in the regular fashion.
13. Transfer the mushrooms back to their bowl and start adding the beef steaks.
Tip: You may need to fry the steaks in batches.
14. Fry the beef steaks until they are well browned on each side and transfer them to a plate to cool.
Tip: When the steaks have cooled enough to handle, cut them into half inch pieces. Reserve the meat and any released juices until later.
15. Add the onions to the pot and sauté them for about five minutes, until they are starting to pick up some color.
Tip: Use their release moisture to deglaze beef fond in the pot.
Note: Usually I would add salt to the onions to speed up the release of the onion’s moisture. If you feel the beef fond is in danger of burning, you may use a splash of port to deglaze the pot.
16. Add the celery and carrots, continue sautéing for another five minutes, until the vegetables have started to pick up some color.
17. Stir in the bell pepper and sauté the vegetables for another minute.
18. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pot and add one tablespoon of oil the open space in the center.
19. Add the garlic to the oil and sauté until fragrant, about one minute.
20. Stir the garlic into the vegetables and transfer half of them to the bowl with the mushrooms.
21. Transfer the rest of the vegetables to a second bowl and reserve them for later.
Tip: It will be several hours before these vegetables are returned to the pot. You may cover them in plastic wrap and refrigerate them.
22. Use the liquid in the bowl of tomatoes to deglaze the vegetable fond in the bottom of the pot and then add half of the chopped tomatoes.
Tip: It will be several hours before the rest of the tomatoes will be added to the pot. You may cover them in plastic wrap and refrigerate them.
23. Cook the tomatoes, stirring and scrapping the pot constantly, until they have started to darken, 3-5 minutes.
24. Add the marinated beef with all of the marinade to the pot, scrapping the bottom of the pot to deglaze the tomato fond.
25. Stir in the contents of the mushroom and vegetables bowl, the chopped fried beef steak with any released juices, and the bay leaf.
26. Use the beef broth to rinse any remaining goodness out of the vegetable and marinade bowls and off the meat plate.
27. Stir in all of the beef and chicken broths into the pot.
28. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for two hours.
Tip: Stir and scrape the bottom of the pot about every half hour to ensure that nothing is sticking and burning.
29. While the beef is simmering, peel and cut the Russet potatoes into a small dice, brunoise.
Tip: If you cut up the white potatoes at this time, submerge them in water to prevent them from browning.
Note: Do not peel the white potatoes skins—don’t lose the vitamins.
30. Stir the Russet potato cubes into the pot and continue simmering for another hour.
31. Stir in the reserved vegetables, the cubed white potatoes and continue simmer the stew until the white potatoes are almost tender, about 20 minutes.
Tip: Stir the pot more frequently, you want the Russet potato cubes to break apart and thicken the stew.
Note: Decide if the Russet potatoes have thickened the stew to your satisfaction.
32. If you think the broth is too thin, stir in a quarter cup of powdered barley and the reserved fresh tomatoes.
Tip: Let the barley cook for five minutes. If you feel the stew is still too thin, add a second quarter cup of powdered barley and continue cooking for another five minutes.
33. Serve the stew warm and enjoy.