Stewing is suitable for the least tender cuts of meat that become tender and juicy with the slow moist heat method. This makes it popular in low-cost cooking. Cuts having a certain amount of marbling and gelatinous connective tissue give moist, juicy stews, while lean meat may easily become dry.
Stews may be thickened by reduction or with flour, either by coating pieces of meat with flour before searing, or by using a roux or beurre manié, a dough consisting of equal parts of butter and flour. Thickeners like cornstarch or arrowroot may also be used.
Stews are similar to soups, and in some cases there may not be a clear distinction between the two. Generally, stews have less liquid than soups, are much thicker and require longer cooking over low heat. While soups are almost always served in a bowl, stews may be thick enough to be served on a plate with the gravy as a sauce over the solid ingredients.
Stews have been made since ancient times. Herodotus says that the Scythians (8th to 4th centuries BC) "put the flesh into an animal's paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself."
Amazonian tribes used the shells of turtles as vessels, boiling the entrails of the turtle and various other ingredients in them. Other cultures used the shells of large mollusks (clams etc.) to boil foods in. There is archaeological evidence of these practices going back 8,000 years or more.
There are recipes for lamb stews and fish stews in the Roman cookery book Apicius, believed to date from the 4th century AD. Le Viandier, one of the oldest cookbooks in French, written by the French chef known as Taillevent, has ragouts or stews of various types in it.
Hungarian Goulash dates back to the 9th century Magyar shepherds of the area, before the existence of Hungary. Paprika was added in the 18th century.
The first written reference to 'Irish stew' is in Byron's "The Devil's Drive" (1814): "The Devil ... dined on ... a rebel or so in an Irish stew."
In meat-based stews, white stews, also known as blanquettes or fricassées, are made with lamb or veal that is blanched, or lightly seared without browning, and cooked in stock. Brown stews are made with pieces of red meat that are first seared or browned, before a browned mirepoix, and sometimes browned flour, stock and wine are added.