Beef stroganoff, you don’t think about it as a Christmas food. Largely because it’s simply not. However, the first time I ever cooked beef stroganoff it was Christmas back home in Sydney and we were in a lovely house by the beach. There was the beef stroganoff in the centre of the table standing proudly next to a pile of crab cakes, some homemade butternut squash ravioli, tomato risotto and of course the turkey, roast potatoes (extra crispy of course) and veg. It was the weirdest Christmas meal I think we’ve ever had. You see we used to have a tradition that everyone got to choose one dish and then that dish had to be cooked. It was a lovely idea, and it worked so well growing up with us all pitching in. Then one year it was really just me making it and I think that meal near the beach was just a little too strange. Anyway, that stroganoff was the last time we ever followed that tradition. We’re so spread out around the world (3 continents!) that when we come back together it’s traditional ham and trimmings. However, I’ll always remember making that first beef stroganoff by the beach and pretty much ballsing it up as I mixed it up with goulash in my head. Thankfully though, I cooked it again and again and again and the recipe I’d like to share with you today is nothing like that one. This one is one of my genuine favourite weeknight meals to cook.
Beef strogannof is often really quite tough meat in a loose but creamy sauce that lacks a real punch of flavour. I think that’s a real shame because when done right it’s simply divine. The trick, in so far as it’s a trick, is really building flavour in each component. That means seasoning each element but it also means making sure to roast the mushrooms fully to add lovely roast flavours and deglazing the shallots with a bit of brandy. Most people only cook mushrooms to soften them or they cook them over too low a heat (or too crowded in the pan) so they end up stewing and not browning. You’ve got to treat mushrooms like steak – really hot pan to form a nice crust. Browning is actually a process called maillard reactions which happen at temperatures above the boiling point of water. However, if the mushrooms are too crowded, the pan gets full of the water which comes out of them and then nothing can get hotter than that boiling water until it has all evaporated. By that time the mushrooms have stewed and your beef stroganoff will end up quite insipid. Additionally, if you don’t crowd them but don’t have a hot enough pan or don’t cook them long enough you’ll still end with an anaemic stroganoff sauce which is actually really watery because you haven’t driven off the excess moisture in the mushrooms.
I used to cook stroganoff all in one go by adding ingredients one after another, and I got all these problems. To cook the mushrooms properly the onions burnt. It was impossible to get good colour on the meat because the vegetables kept the pan moist. So I kept ending up with an average beef stroganoff which had to all be cooked last minute. That’s when I started cooking each element separately. Now I could soften the onions just right and flavour them with brandy, keeping them moist and sweet with just a little bite. After that I could wipe down the pan and cook the mushrooms in batches until they were golden brown. I could then remove the mushrooms and add the sliced, paprika covered meat to a rippingly hot pan until they were just seared before adding the vegetables back, adding crème fraiche, and adding some finishing flourishes of acidity and freshness through cornichons and parsley. This was getting pretty close to my ideal beef stroganoff and had the added benefit that I could now do a lot of the work in the hour before everyone arrived and it would then only take less than five minutes to finish. However, there were a couple of bits and pieces left to sort out.
First things first, what meat should you use? Every recipe I’d ever read in a book or online told me that you should use strips of beef but never really specified a cut. So I’d always bought the supermarket pre-cut strips of beef and they’d ended up a bit chewy. The reasons for that are various. Firstly, the supermarkets use a non-prime cut to make the strips. Sometimes with a blend of cuts it’s not guaranteed to be a tender meat suitable for flash cooking. It’s also cut wrongly, meat needs to be cut against the grain in order to be pull apart tender after a short cook. If you imagine several parallel pieces of rope encased in playdoh (muscle fibre encased in meat) it would be tough to cut through the rope but easy to pull the playdoh apart and separate the rope pieces. The same is true of muscle fibres, if you have a long strand it’s hard to bite through it and it feels chewy. If you’ve got short strands separated by meat then bites feel tender as the teeth glide through the meat avoiding the fibres. Finally you have a food safety problem with supermarket strips. Bacteria live on the outside of meat but beef, unlike chicken, is dense and the bacteria don’t penetrate the surface. That’s why it’s safe to cook the outside of a steak and leave the inside very rare. However, when it’s cut by machine the bacteria ends up on all the cut surfaces. That means the meat needs to be cooked more thoroughly and it’s hard to serve it rare. Now, I’m fairly comfortable taking the risk for myself and I’ve never had a problem but I wouldn’t cook it that way for guests. It occured to me that all these problems would be solved if I simply sliced my own. I now buy either rib-eye or rump steaks and slice them about a centimetre thick against the grain. The result is miles better and I wouldn’t make it any other way.
Then you find the choice of mushrooms and paprika. Paprika comes in loads of forms; smoked, Hungarian, Spanish, hot, sweet and the list goes on (here’s a brilliant video of what happens when you buy too many types!). To be honest beef strogannoff with almost all of them (I find Spanish paprika a bit aggressively spicy for this dish). My favourite is a smoked, sweet paprika but try a few out and see what you like. As for the mushrooms, if I get them I’d use a selection of wild mushrooms but normally I’m restricted to things more readily available. For me a mix of oyster and chestnut mushrooms is pretty good and I like to leave them chunky. Even button mushrooms will work in a pinch. I’ve always thought button mushrooms a bit bland but they were the only ones left in the supermarket and they tasted very good once they were all nice and golden. Just make sure not to slice them too thinly (I actually cut them in wedges) and don’t overcrowd the pan!
Ingredients (Serves four hungry people):
- 2 rib eye steaks sliced 1cm thick against the grain
- 100g bacon lardons
- zest of 1 lemon
- 500g mushrooms cut into bite sized chunks
- splash of brandy
- 1 Bunch of parsley leaves finely chopped and stalks finely chopped
- 2-3 tablespoons of crème fraîche
- 2 tablespoons of finely chopped cornichons
- 2 tablespoons of paprika
- 2 banana shallots or 1 large onion finely diced
- Fry lardons until crisp, remove from the heat and add the shallots in a frying pan with a glug of olive oil if necessary over a medium heat and season them lightly with salt and heavily with black pepper. You want to sweat them without colour and soften them. Once soft, turn the heat up, add the brandy and reduce until it is all absorbed. Remove the onions and wipe pan with kitchen roll.
- Place pan over a high heat until very hot. Add a glug of olive oil (mushrooms need more than you think) and add enough mushrooms to cover the base of the pan without any overlapping. Cook without stirring for a couple of minutes until the start to develop colour. Stir them and flip them over and cook until well coloured on both sides. Cook the mushrooms for a total of about 7-10 minutes or until golden brown and intense. You should season the mushrooms with salt thoroughly during the cooking process. Once cooked remove from the pan and add to the shallots.
- Toss the strips of rib eye with the paprika and some salt. Lightly oil the meat and add to a rippingly hot pan. At this point you need to work quickly. It should only take about 30 seconds to start to develop colour after which you should toss the meat, add the parsley stalks and cook for a further 30 seconds. Add the shallots and mushrooms and after about 20 seconds add the crème fraîche and remove from the heat. The sauce should be thick but not clumpy.
- Add the lemon zest, cornichons and parsley. Adjust the acidity with lemon juice if necessary and add black pepper. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately with some rice or potatoes.
TimedEating tips for cooking stroganoff ahead of time
- Do all your prep ahead of time. I always start the tips with don’t bring a knife to a fire-fight and it’s very true
- You can cook the mushrooms and onions in advance. If you really want up to a day but you’re better off doing it a few hours in advance
- You can slice the meat and season with salt and paprika up to 2 hours in advance
- If you’re serving with crushed potatoes, then you can cook those in advance too (here’s the recipe)
- Although this doesn’t seem like much, if you do all those steps in advance it will take 4 minutes to finish the dish for your guests and it makes a large difference