Beef pie filling – science of stewed meat

Ever experienced buying a nice looking piece of meat and after baking it in a frying pan for a little while, finding out that it’s dry and tough? I have for sure, and it’s probably due to the fact that you bought the wrong type of meat. In this post I’ll be diving into the science of meat, trying to solve that issue.

We’re eating more and more meat in this world. I myself try to limit eating meat, I generally eat it max. once a day and preferably less than 7 days a week. In the Netherlands, minced meat is the most commonly bought type of meat. It’s easy to use, you can mix it up with just about any mix of vegetables. I think it’s a shame, since I don’t think it attributes a lot to a dish. There are so many other pieces with a lot more flavour that can actually make me enjoy meat a lot more.

One of those preparations for me is braised meat. When I was in my short crust pastry rush, I also made a pie with braised beef. It’s turned out great! And since I already zoomed in on making the crust, I decided now would be the time to focus on the filling.

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The recipe is inspired by one that was made on the tv show Masterchef Australia, my favourite tv show by far. (I don’t watch tv that much, but this is one of the few shows I might make some time for to sit down and watch.)

Beef pie filling
Makes enough filling for one pie for 2 people
  • oil
  • 200g stewing steak (I'll explain in the blog post what type of meat this is, it's beef in this case. In my case I used 'beef poulet/soup meat', however, these are Dutch terms and meat names vary between countries.)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 carrot
  • ½ leek
  • thyme
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 tbsp pepperberries
  • 8 mushrooms (regular or brown)
  • 200 ml red wine
  • 200 ml stock (I used beef stock)
  • 15g butter
  • 15g flour
  1. Heat oil in a pan (preferably a thick pot, not a frying pan) and sweat of the onionn, carrot, leek and thyme.
  2. Add garlic and pepperberries and cook for a few more minutes
  3. Add the beef and brown it off
  4. Add the mushrooms and let it cook a little longer
  5. Add red wine and stock
  6. Leave to simmer at a low heat for at least two hours. As a test, you can eat the meat every half an hour. It will be cooked in half an hour, however, it'll be tough. The longer it cooks for, the softer and more tender it gets.
  7. Once the meat is tender and soft, you can continue with the next step. There should still be some liquid, but not too much. If it's very wet, boil off some water, if it's very dry it's better to add some water now. In any other case, first do the next step before adding extra moisture.
  8. Melt butter in a separate pan and mix in the flour. This will be used to thicken up your mix.
  9. Add the flour + butter mixture with the meat mix. Make sure is disperses well. It will thicken up your mix. If you think it's too thick, add some extra water (be careful), if it's still too thin you can either boil it a little longer or whisk in some extra flour (mix with a little cold water first to prevent clumps).
  10. The filling is now ready to put in your pie. It will not require a lot of cooking anymore, the cooking/baking time will mainly depend on your crust.

Different types of meat

Meat of course, is made up of the muscle structure from animals. The meat is carefully cut from the bones, although in several cuts the bones is kept attached to the meat. Each different part of the body will give a different type of meat. Some have more fat than others, the size and structure will also vary.

An important difference between meat cuts is the extent to which a muscle has been used during the life of an animal. Generally speaking, muscles that have been used a lot, provide a tougher meat cut. The other way around also goes up, the tenderloin for instance, which sits on the back of a cow and is barely used physically is very tender.

Let’s zoom in on that a little more. Meat is roughly composed of three types of tissue: muscle, connective tissue and fat. The mix of these three in a piece of meat determine how it should be cooked and eaten. Meat that hasn’t ‘worked’ a lot generally only has a limited amount of connective tissue, whereas muscles that have worked hard contain a lot more connective tissue. This is because the connective tissue reinforces the muscle, allowing it to exert larger forces.

When cooking meat a lot of things happen, its too much to go through all of these now, so I’ll focus on the meat I’ve used for this great pie filling!

Meat for a stew

When looking for meat to use in a stew you’ll be looking for meat of body parts that has been used intensively. In my case I used meat from the shoulder or neck of the cow, imagine a cow, having to bend down to eat grass (in Dutch: runderpoulet or ‘soup meat’1). But various cuts are suitable for stews2. The type I used is often called chuck or blade in English. I used a very lean cut.

So why would you want this type of meat? Well, when stewing meat or making a pie you’ll generally place the meat in a moist environment for quite some time. The meat will cook through completely. A steak will toughen up if you do that, so you need something that tenderizes the meat. Connective tissue can do just that.

Connective tissue consists of collagen, a protein which provides structure. The structures it forms are extremely firm and tough. The more a muscle is used, the more collagen it contains to ‘help’ it out. So the trick to softening this type of meat it to get rid of the collagen. By simmering the meat for a prolonged period of time you do just that. During the simmering hydrolysis of collagen takes place, which means that proteins break up in smaller pieces, which are also known as gelatin. Gelatin dissolves in water readily. You will see that a small piece of meat will fall apart in loose strands, that’s because the collagen that was holding it together doesn’t hold it together anymore. In Dutch we call this type of meat ‘draadjesvlees’, literally translated ‘thread meat’.

For the gelatin to dissolve, water has to be present, so that’s why you stew in a liquid (not on a grill). Furthermore, the liquid will keep the temperature just right for the collagen to tenderize. Adding acids will speed up the process, that’s one of the reasons wine is often used (as it is in this recipe). For the same reason lemon juice, tomatoes or vinegar can be added. Although you do want to prevent it from becoming too acidic.

I used a lean cut of meat, but you can also use one that comes for the same place in the cow but has more fat. This fat will dissolve during cooking and contribute to the flavour and texture of your filling.

Good luck choosing a great cut of meat for your next stew!



There are again quite some sources I used to look up information on the topic, here’s a selection of the most important ones: I found this on the Just Meat blog2 Article from the Guardian,, Exploratorium,  The Kitchn, Guelph university

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