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First off a little backgound: I am a member of a cooking club in my local village center. We have a reasonably well fitted kitchen, but the logistics of cooking in it for 20 people are always a bit tricky. We start at 17:30 and our menus always consist of an amuse, 2 starters, a main and a dessert. The aim is to serve the main between 21:00 and 21:30.

For this question, please assume that the oven is always taken for a different dish, so the stew has to be prepared from start to finish in a large pan.

We have often found that we fail to get stews cooked in time for serving. I am aware of the following factors that will increase the total time from start of prep to serving:

  • It takes a long time to prepare and brown 20 portions of meat before adding it to the stewing liquid
  • It takes longer for the stewing liquid to get to simmering temperature because of the higher volume

Even when taking these factors into account, there seems to be a sizeable difference between the cooking times we are used to when cooking 4 to 6 portions and the time it takes for the big pan for 20 portions.

We have a theory that this might be due to a temperature gradient between the bottom and top of the pan, but I don't know if this makes any sense.

Can anyone come up with something resembling a formula to adjust our cooking times in this situation? It might help us decide which dishes are (not) feasible to cook in the available time.

  • Do you have a high-powered burner? We brew beer and bought a turkey fryer gas burner to heat the wort more quickly. It took an hour to come to a boil the first time (on our gas range) and only 15 minutes on the new burner. Of course, we bought a heavy-bottomed pot to protect our high-sugar mixture from scalding. I know chili cookoff contestants regularly use these, too. – Catija Feb 10 '15 at 16:19
  • Nope, we do not. We have a standard 6 burner gas stove. We sort of work in the way that Joe describes, putting at least part of the stewing liquid on early and using an electric water boiler to add hot water. That part of the process we seem able to fix. The cooking time once the pot is simmering has so far alluded us. – Richard ten Brink Feb 10 '15 at 16:30
  • Ah. It might be a good option if you were open to new equipment. You'd have to watch it to be sure it didn't burn on the bottom but it would definitely be great for huge quantities... I know that's not your question, which is why I'm not answering but it would speed up the process. – Catija Feb 10 '15 at 16:39
  • Here are 2 thoughts I have. First, do you have an electric roaster? These are marvelous and can cook turkeys, roasts, rice pilav, you name it, you got it including chilis and stews (browning the meat and doing everything that you do in the pot). Second, did you ever think that if you cut your meat and veges smaller, it would cook faster? Third thought, oops, how about a microwave to heat up your liquid in small batches and add to the pot? Just a thought. – user33210 Feb 12 '15 at 23:18
  • Useful thoughts of course, thanks. The fact remains that we have to work with what the community center has, so it has to be a pan. We cook our pieces fine and heat up liquid outside the stewing pan. These things help to cut down the total time, but don't offer an explanation about why the stewing takes longer in the large pan or a way to recalculate the stewing time. – Richard ten Brink Feb 13 '15 at 6:22
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+100

Normally, cooking a stew (not counting prep) in less than a three hours seems like rushing it to me. I can't imagine that you'd ever get the fall-apart tender meat that people expect from a stew, but...

There are a number of techniques that I've seen professional cooks use when they're in a time crunch that may help you overcome time constraint problems such as this one:

  • Cut the ingredients into smaller pieces
  • Use larger bottomed or multiple pans (even electric ones as mentioned in the comments)
  • Use a deep fryer (not recommended for a stew ;-), though it would certainly help get the meat up to temperature)
  • Use a microwave (works well for some ingredients, not so much for others)
  • Use a pressure cooker (if available, this is what I would recommend for a stew)

From a scientific perspective, it's going to take 5 times as much energy to bring 20 portions worth of ingredients to temperature as it would 4 portions. Coming up with an exact formula would require some detailed information such as the BTUs put out by the stove, the spread of the burner, and surface area, shape, and material of the pan being used, etc. However, we do know that a lower portion of the energy will be lost when cooking 20 portions due to more surface area of the pan being in contact with the ingredients (even if only on the sides). I would guess that the wasted energy probably ranges from 50% if you're cooking small portions to 20% if you're cooking large portions (again, depending on the efficiency of your cooking arrangement, which will vary widely).

So, if F is the energy required to bring 4 portions of the food to temperature, and S is the energy per time unit put out by the stove, and t1 is the time required to bring 4 portions up to cooking temperature, and we guess that we have 50% efficiency when cooking 4 portions, we have F=.5*S*t1. When we increase to 20 portions, assuming the efficiency increases to 80%, we'd have 5F=.8*S*t2. Solving for t2 relative to t1, we get t2=5*.5*S*t1/(.8*S), or t2=3.125*t1, so (given the assumptions of course), bringing 20 portions up to cooking temperature would take 3.125 times as long as bringing 4 portions up to temperature. To speed things up, you would have to alter the input energy (more burners, electric assistance, etc.), or increase the efficiency (more pan surface area, smaller cut ingredients). A more general equation would be t=M*Eb*tb/(Mb*E) with tb, Mb, and Eb being the time to cook a baseline amount, its mass, and the efficiency for that volume, and t, M, and E being the time for the new amount, its mass, and its efficiency.

Of course this is just the time to bring the ingredients up to cooking temperature. Once there, the volume of ingredients doesn't matter much unless there is a lack of convection due to the thickness during the cooking phase, so with more portions you may need to stir more (this would be the solution to the gradient problem). After coming to cooking temperature, adding energy faster or more efficiently won't help much (if at all), but changing the pressure will change how quickly the food cooks, which is why this is what I would recommend. The cooking phase is the majority of the time, so a 10% savings there will save you more than a 10% savings during the 'coming up to temperature' phase. Depending on the stew, you may or may not need some time at the end for reduction and thickening as well.

In addition to all this, if you're doing prep work during the time you've listed, I'd skip the mise en place and get whatever you can heating up immediately so you can get as much heat as possible into as much of the stew as possible as quickly as possible.

  • Nice one Sir! Very close indeed to the answer I was looking for. Would you not say that removing the lid for constant stirring would also have a detrimental effect on the cooking time due to the loss of heat? – Richard ten Brink Feb 13 '15 at 22:35
  • You lose some heat each time you remove the lid, but if the stew is thick, you may have to open and stir in order to prevent clumping and/or burning. The heat lost from removing the lid can probably usually be compensated for by increasing the stove output (especially if you're just trying to simmer). Remember that the lid isn't adding any heat, just preventing it from escaping, so unless you're steaming something above the liquid, it's simply a matter of balancing the heat in and out to keep it at the right cooking temperature. – James Feb 13 '15 at 23:05
  • Sorry, just a thought on my comment that was not clear. One large pot/pan, like a rectangle chaffing dish or pot on two burners cooking at the same time. One pot/pan using 2 burners and it is excellent to keep half of it covered at all times with a lid and the second one to stir so the heat does not escape and not burn. Just a thought. (We've done this with 2 burner chaffing dishes and had the water ready boiled with lighted gas burners to serve and keep hot) – user33210 Feb 14 '15 at 4:53
  • +1 for pressure cooker. It's a great option if you can get your hands on one of sufficient size. – Preston Feb 15 '15 at 18:42
  • Well, even though your answer did not fully provide me with the answer I was looking for I truly appreciate the effort you put into helping me. Da bounty is yours James! – Richard ten Brink Feb 19 '15 at 15:58
2

I tend to cook my stews for so long, I'm not really sure what the minimum time that it would take to cook ... however, there are some things that you can do:

  • Heat up some of the liquid separately, while you're browing the meat. Deglaze with the cold liquid, then top off with the hot liquid to cook.
  • Use multiple pots (or pans) to brown the meat. (and you can start the liquid heating while the last batch is browning in the other pan)
  • Cut things a little bit smaller (note that this may require more browning time)
  • Use a wider pot, not a taller pot. (would minimize the chance of there being an issue with temperature gradients) Or use two pots, rather than just a taller pot.
  • If the oven isn't taken when you're starting your prep, you can brown the meat in the oven (using the broiler) ... but don't flour it, instead add a roux if you typically floured your meat.

If you didn't have the oven restriction, I'd also have recommended that you cook it in the oven to completely remove the temperature gradient possibility.

  • Thanks for the comments. We partially already work this way so shorten the total time it takes to cook our dishes. It's just the difference in cooking time once everything is done and the stew is simmering that continues to baffle me. – Richard ten Brink Feb 10 '15 at 16:32
  • @RichardtenBrink : is it the meat, or the vegetables? You can roast the vegetables 'til fully cooked and add them towards the end of the stew, but their flavors won't have a chance to meld. You don't want to do this with the meat, or it won't get tender. Personally, I prefer making stews a day or two before, and then reheating them, so the flavors can blend. – Joe Feb 10 '15 at 16:38
  • It's the meat. Veg take so much less time to cook than stewing meat that we've never had any problems there. The only thing that might be of influence there is that if you add the veg cold you might lose temperature again. We have tried quickly stirfrying the veg to avoid this, but it did not solve the base issue. – Richard ten Brink Feb 10 '15 at 16:48
  • @RichardtenBrink : that's a good point about the vegetables cooling off the stew. With a larger volume, your temperature recovery is going to be worse, as the burner can only put out a given amount of heat. And I'd roast the vegetables, no stirfry, just because it's easier to manage large volumes. (assuming you have space in the oven ... it doesn't even have to be high heat, just put them in with whatever else you have to knock the chill off) – Joe Feb 10 '15 at 17:21
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When I prepare stew, it's usually a 3 hr process. Half hour for prep (including browning the meat), and 2 1/2 hours cooking time. I make 5 quarts at a time in my cast iron dutch oven which serves 6 hungry people, or maybe 8 with smaller serving.

I just brown the meat in the bottom of the dutch oven saute style, push them to the sides and saute my onions next, then start dumping in the fluids (I use red wine) and root veg (potatoes, parsnips, turnips) and herbs (oregano, thyme and bay), tossing in carrots an hour before completeion, and celery in 30 minutes before done.

If you increase the volume it takes longer to get to temp, but once it's to temp cooking time is the same regardless of volume. Perhaps you could split this into 3x 5 quart preperations or 2x 7 quart preperations. 7 quarts I would SWAG take an additional 5 minutes to bring to boil. Once there you bring it back down to a light simmer and would take the normal 2 1/2 hours (time obviously depending heavily on your recipe and intended outcome)

I know I just gave you mostly a recipe, but that wasn't my intention, just letting you know how I make my stew so you can perhaps adjust your order of operations. Minimize the number of pans (even though you would still need 2 or 3 pots or dutch ovens), and get it cooked quickly yet completely and so deliciously.

  • The problem as I said is that there is a difference between the simmering times between the different numbers of portions. I'm trying to get an explanation for why that is and a formula to recalculate the stewing time. Your claim that it takes X amount of time regardless of the total volume is not true in my experience. – Richard ten Brink Feb 13 '15 at 6:24
  • Temp is temp...what takes longer is getting TO temp. Once there, food cooks the same. If you are using larger pieces of meat, that would influence cook time, but not volume once temp is reached. Also keep in mind, if you are boiling a cup of water in a tiny sauce pan, and 7 gallons in a stock pot, not only will it take longer to get to boiling, but the boiling will be much more violent in the stock pot due to volume of water being converted to steam. Maybe what you are calling simmering in a smaller pot isn't actually simmering in the larger one, maybe you need a touch more heat. – Escoce Feb 17 '15 at 15:58

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