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Is there a proper distinction between a slow cooked meat dish labelled a casserole and one labelled stew?

And if there is a traditional distinction would it be fair to say that the distinction is no longer observed?

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In my experience casseroles are baked (usually open, usually in a casserole dish or similar) and stews are usually stove top (possibly covered to braise the meat). Some dishes transfer from the stove to the oven, in which case I don't know what to call them! –  Jared Updike Nov 1 '10 at 22:33
    
Um, yeah. One is a soup, the other is not a soup. –  Zombies Jan 12 '11 at 15:31
    
@Zombies: Neither are soups where I come from. Though admittedly, all of these one-pot things differ little, a soup is a liquid-heavy stew/casserole/curry. –  Orbling Jan 12 '11 at 19:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In today's modern culture and cooking style, the difference is likely unobserved.

I would consider a stew less constructed than a casserole, however.

While the stew would start with generally uncooked ingredients (perhaps except for browning the meat, and likely be mixed together while cooking to give a single-dish of meat, vegetables and sauce.

A casserole might include some cooked ingredients, often be more properly layered and probably not mixed while cooking.

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I am torn by your comment. Although I agree with the latter three sentences, I think that your answer is wholly wrong. There may be some sloppiness, but I have never heard anyone refer to a tuna and macaroni casserole as stew. –  mfg Nov 2 '10 at 18:04
    
again there could be a cultural difference ... here in the uk no one would talk about a tuna and maccaroni casserole either –  Tea Drinker Nov 3 '10 at 9:08

One factor not mentioned in the other answers is that there is a class of cookware called a "casserole dish" -- ceramic or pyrex, somewhat shallow, often with a lid. I suppose it follows that a casserole is the kind of dish you prepare in such a vessel.

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Good point -- I can't believe I didn't mention that part of it. It's my understanding that the cooking vessel was named first, and the food cooked in it took the name, but I'm not a food or language historian. –  Joe Jan 12 '11 at 13:57
    
Go to France and ask to buy a "casserole" in a shop, somebody will try to sell you a saucepan. This is one of those cases where a "loan word" has acquired a specific meaning, which has then become further distorted with time. –  klypos Jul 30 '12 at 12:53

In addition to Joe's great answer, in my childhood (where they were usually called 'bakes' (the food), but they came out of a 'casserole' (the vessel).) I learned two other important differences:

  1. time. A 'stew' was never done in less than 2 hours. It wasn't uncommon for it to bubble away in the crock pot or a dutch oven for 4 or 5 hours. A 'bake' by comparison was usually well under an hour in the oven and then done. If the menu called for a stew, and it wasn't already bubbling along and the kitchen cleaned up when I got home from school, I made sure I got a decent snack for myself, 'cause dinner would be a tad later than normal. :)

  2. meal vs entree. A 'stew' was traditionally an entire meal. It might be served with some bread or roles to dredge up the last bits from your bowl, but the stew was really the entire meal. A 'bake' always had supporting dishes of some sort. Chicken noodle casserole came to the table with green beans (sometimes in a casserole of their own.) and carrots on the side, lasagna arrived with a salad and garlic bread. etc.

As to your second question, I still see the distinction in my family, my wife's family, friends and many formally trained cooks. But largely I think because I'm in the midwest, where hotdish is king, and everyone here knows what hotdish is; I see more blurring of the line between 'soup' and 'stew' than I do 'stew' and 'casserole/bake/hotdish' to be honest.

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As Jared mentioned, 'stewing' always involves a fair amount of liquid -- it's a slow, moist cooking process. It's not quite a braise, as with a braise, the item is only partially submerged, whereas with a stew, you have smaller chunks of things that might float, but for the most part are submerged. You can make really thick stews (I tend to grate a potato into the stew towards the end to get it to thicken up 'til it's thick like a good gravy), but they tend to be loose, not a single congealed mass. It might be an American thing, but 'stew' in general is always assumed to have meat in it (typically a red meat, eg. beef or venison)

Casseroles (might be called a 'bake' or a 'hotdish' depending on your region) are almost always baked and untouched during the baking process. They can be layered (as with a lasagne or a shepherd's pie) but can also be just a mixture put into a baking dish and tossed in the oven (eg, my mom's tuna noodle casserole ... but she might've topped it with some extra cheese or breadcrumbs, so I guess you can consider that a layer). Casseroles tend to be less 'soupy' than a stew -- some will hold their own shape when they're scooped, if let to cool down for a few minutes after they come out of the oven. (eg, lasagne, most macaroni & cheese casseroles)

... as it looks like you're from the UK, it's possible that these distinctions aren't made over there. If the terms are used differently outside the US, please add to the Translating Cooking Terms post.

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yeah, this could be a UK v. Am Eng problem –  Tea Drinker Nov 2 '10 at 9:13
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in UK Eng a lasagne or shepherd's pie would never be called a casserole. perhaps then my Q makes no sense to Am Eng speakers. for me a casserole is very close to a stew; lots of liquid, long cook time –  Tea Drinker Nov 2 '10 at 9:15
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@Tea Drinker: Most people wouldn't use the term 'casserole' for them, even though they fit the criteria to be one, as 'casserole' in the US has a kind of negative connotation as something hastily thrown together and baked, which isn't always the case; I have a great 'enchilada casserole' recipe from an ex, where it's assembled like a lasagne, but we stick the 'casserole' on there to denote it's not the rolled and baked on a tray style. –  Joe Nov 2 '10 at 12:00
    
This question almost belongs on english.stackexchange.com - there is definitely a difference in the English interpretation of these words. Casserole and stew have little difference here. Though I would say that I would expect a casserole to cook in the oven, stew may or may not. –  Orbling Jan 12 '11 at 19:51

Is there some dialectical thing going on here? I have always known stews as stovetop and casseroles as baked, just as Jared said in his comment. See for example on wikipedia: stew vs. casserole; or in Merriam-Webster: stew (click the verb form) vs. casserole. (Casserole refers to the dish as well as the food cooked in it; it's pretty definitely something you would only bake in.)

Now and then I see things get muddled when I'm reading recipes, but these are definitely the meanings I grew up with and see in the vast majority of what I read.

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I agree, to me a stew is on the stove, casserole is in the oven. Because the casserole is put in the oven and left there its more "structured" or layered than a stew which is stirred during the cooking process. –  Manako Nov 2 '10 at 13:51

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