Beef Stroganoff, when done right, is one of those magical dishes that acts and tastes like a stew, but is actually a quick-cooking dish in disguise. With just about 45 minutes in the kitchen, you can make a dish that comes packed with tender meat and rich, deep, rib-sticking flavors that taste like they were cooked all day. Now that's the kind of dish I look for on a chilly January evening when some good whiskey and a movie speak to me more than a night in the kitchen.
Perhaps it's this dual nature of Stroganoff—the sauté that eats like a stew—that has given rise to its mixed up, complex history. Every recipe developer knows the conundrum I faced during the weeks I spent researching and testing this recipe for beef Stroganoff. What exactly is this dish, and who am I making it for? Do I toe a hard line and aim for the most traditional Russian version out there? Do I cater to the one-skillet Betty Crocker version we knew as children? How do I balance deliciousness with convention or originality with tradition?
Like goulash, American chop suey, or Bolognese sauce, beef Stroganoff is one of those dishes that has suffered from a severe identity crisis in the latter half of the 20th century. Depending on where in the world you order it, you end up with vastly different dishes in front of you. My mother, who probably learned her version from the Joy of Cooking, kept it pretty simple: strips of beef tenderloin whatever inexpensive cut of meat she could find, lightly sautéed to a deep brown simmered in its own juices to a pale gray in butter margarine (we were children of that era) along with gently sweated practically raw onions and sliced mushrooms, doused in sour cream and served with rice. It was pretty much identical to the versions I got at my high school cafeteria or my college fraternity house, broken, curdled sauce and all.
But if you order it in South America you may get beef in a creamy tomato sauce. Over in Scandinavia, you'll find briny pickles mixed into it (I've even had someone insist to me that Stroganoff must have pickles. Is there anything the Scandinavians won't stick pickles into?). Ask Tyler Florence to make you stroganoff and you'll get braised short ribs served with sour cream (his is the most out-there—despite its stew-like appearances, stroganoff is not a stew). Get yourself a time machine and travel back to Tsarist Russia, and you'll find cubes of beef served with a sauce flavored with mustard and smetana, the Russian term for sour cream that is almost onomatopoetic in the way it seeps out of your mouth and flows off your tongue.
Some French folks, of course, claim ownership of the recipe, and the version listed in Larousse Gastronomique is flavored with a touch of paprika and white wine, though the Oxford Companion to Food (and the official-sounding beefstroganoff.net) give the dish a Russian-by-way-of-a-French chef version of the story. Its true origin is more than likely forever lost to the creamy, murky, broken sauce of time.
So where does all that leave me? Luckily, with so many variations and no real "true" version, I've got quite a bit of latitude to work with. My goal: a beef stroganoff with the most tender, juicy beef around in a sauce that balances rich, browned flavors with brighter notes and most importantly, a creaminess that doesn't break or turn grainy under any circumstances.
I decided to break down the process one step at a time to get there, starting with the meat.
To begin testing, I started with a very basic working recipe that I pulled together after examining over a dozen popular recipes online and in books. I started by sautéing beef in a skillet, removing it, then adding sliced mushrooms and onions and cooking them until browned. Then I added a splash of wine to deglaze, along with some chicken stock, allowing the mixture to cook down. I finished it off by returning the meat to the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and whisking some sour cream and fresh parsley into the mix before dumping it all over a big bowl of buttered egg noodles.
Not bad, but it definitely smacks of high school cafeteria. We can do better.
Traditionally, tenderloin is the meat of choice for Stroganoff, and after testing out a few alternatives—strip steak and ribeye along with more inexpensive cuts like flap meat, hanger, flank, and skirt—I decided to stick with tradition (flap meat and hanger came in a close second). It's by far the tenderest cut of meat around, and though it's lacking in flavor, I figured I could compensate with a more flavorful sauce.
Next question: what shape should I cut the meat?
The most popular way is to cut the meat into strips, but this leads to a big problem: with so much surface area, strips of steak end up exuding a lot of moisture into the pan as they cook. This moisture drastically reduces the efficiency of cooking (It takes about 500 times as much energy to get one gram of water to evaporate as it does to raise the temperature of that water by one degree F!). Unless you've got a jet engine installed in your kitchen, it's nearly impossible to get a good, deep brown sear on a thin strip of beef without completely overcooking it. Tenderloin also happens to be one of the worst meats around when overcooked—with virtually no fat to lubricate it, it gets very mealy and dry. Cubes of tenderloin fared a little better, but they still ran into the same problem.
I wondered if adding some sort of marinade or rub that improves browning qualities would help things out. I tried a rub with a bit of sugar, as well as a marinade that used some soy sauce, and a simple dredge in flour (another common technique in recipes). They all helped a little, but none of them was a silver bullet against overcooking.
Then I thought: What's the point of cutting the meat before cooking it? Couldn't we get better results by simply cooking the meat whole as tenderloin steaks, then slice it for serving?
I brought home some thick tenderloin steaks, dried them carefully with paper towels (excess moisture can reduce pan temperature), then seasoned them up with a blend of salt, pepper, and some paprika (a common ingredient in many recipes that also improves browning), pressing the mixture firmly onto the steaks to make sure it fully adhered.
I then heated up some oil in a skillet over high heat until just barely smoking and added the steaks, flipping them occasionally until their centers hit a nice rare to medium-rare (flipping a steak multiple times as it cooks can actually improve how evenly it cooks internally).
Typically, I prefer my steaks more towards the medium side, as this allows internal fat to soften, making the steak juicier and more tender, but with lean tenderloin, more rare is the way to go.
As soon as they'd developed a dark brown crust and came up to around 115°F in the center (they'd continue to rise about another five degrees off-heat as they rest), I pulled the steaks out of the pan and set them aside and let them stand while I finished up the remainder of the sauce. Finally, I placed the steak back into the pan along with their drippings to rewarm, slicing them and fanning them out just before serving.
Did the final dish look exactly like the stroganoff in my mind? Nope. But it tasted a damn sight better than any beef stroganoff I've had in the past. In my book that's a win.
Now it was time to tackle the next element: the mushrooms and onions.
Having spent enough time working in fancy-pants restaurants to know how they work, I could tell you that the first thing a high-class chef would do to elevate beef Stroganoff is ditch those plain old white button mushrooms for something classy, like teeny tiny flavor-packed mousserons, or perhaps some nice seasonal chanterelles.
What's that? You can't get mousserons? That's ok. Neither can I, these days, and to be frank, despite their pedestrian pedigree, white button mushrooms can offer plenty of flavor so long as you treat them right. Typically, you'd thinly slice mushrooms and sauté them for a dish like this in order to maximize brown-able surface area. But I'm the kind of guy who likes to get a bit of textural contrast in my dish as well.
Instead of slices, I decided to go with nice, chunky, meaty quarters which still offer plenty of mushroom flavor, but give you something interesting to chew on as well. Cooking them in the skillet you just finished cooking the beef in gives you the opportunity to scrape up all those tasty browned bits from the bottom of the pan using the liquid that the mushrooms expel during the early phases of their cooking.
You want to know the real reason why folks seem to think button mushrooms are bland? The real reason why mushrooms in restaurants tend to taste better? It's got nothing to do with the exact variety of 'shroom and it's got everything to do with how they're cooked. In a restaurant kitchen, with its insanely hot burners, you can get some good browning going on a skillet full of mushrooms in a matter of minutes. Back home, if you want to brown a big batch of mushrooms, it's going to take a bit more time.
Looking through those recipes for Stroganoff I found, it's insane how short they give for the cooking times for a stroganoff-sized batch of mushrooms. Some call for a mere four minutes—barely enough time for them to even expel their moisture, much less take on any color. Others advise you to add the mushrooms and onions to the pan at the same time. This is a good way to end up with burnt onions and nearly-raw mushrooms.
Truth is, getting tasty mushrooms is a three-stage process. When they first hit the pan, their cell structure begins to collapse, releasing internal moisture into the skillet. Next, that liquid will start to evaporate. Only after that liquid has fully evaporated can we enter the third (and most important) phase: browning. You want tasty mushrooms? We're talking at least 10 to 15 minutes of cooking in a wide skillet (to promote evaporation) on a home burner.* Any recipe that suggests cooking a pound or so of mushrooms in less time should send up an immediate red flag.**
*Last weekend I was trying to sauté a skillet full of mushrooms at my aunt-in-law's country home in La Vega, Colombia, on a stove powered by a gas tank with a very thin lead. It took nearly 45 minutes to properly brown them at full blast!
**Unless said recipe happens to be on this site, in which case, uh... just trust us. (Or better yet, discreetly email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can quietly take care of the problem and execute gently admonish the offender.)
When a mushroom is properly cooked, it should shrink down to about half its original volume and actually be brown on the outside. Not white, not pale gray, but brown. Are we clear here? Good.
While yellow onions might be the typical allium addition in classic Stroganoff, I find it difficult not to add shallots to mushrooms. It's such a natural pairing, like hamburgers and cheese or trips to China and Imodium.*** I added my sliced shallots to the skillet along with a few whole sprigs of thyme just for the last minute or so while the mushrooms finished cooking—just enough to soften up and add their sweetness to the mix.
***Not that I know from personal experience or anything.
I figured that the shallots would add enough oniony flavor to the finished dish, but I found myself longing for some more substantial pieces to go with them.
At first I considered sliced globe onions, but instead I decided to go with peeled pearl onions, whose size and shape roughly mimic the quartered mushrooms, giving the whole dish a bit of balanced harmony. Peeling pearl onions is not really that difficult once you know how to do it (the trick is to cut off the tip and base, score a small X on one end, then blanch them in boiling water for about 30 seconds), but if you really don't like doing it, frozen pearl onions will do in a pinch, as our taste test has shown.
As with the mushrooms, it's important to brown the pearl onions well to tenderize them and convert their raw sulfurous aroma into a sweetly browned one. Adding them to the same pan as the mushrooms about half way through the mushrooms' cooking process gets them both finished at the same time.
Building a Sauce
With the meat and vegetables out of the way, it was finally time to start tweaking the sauce. Stock and sour cream were a given, but what about the other additions? I ended up going for a sort of more-is-more approach, letting ingredients build on each other, starting with white wine.
The acidity of white wine is essential here. It brings brightness to an otherwise heavy dish. Fully reducing it before adding other liquids is vital for good flavor.
I also added a dab of mustard along with all of the collected juices left on the plate as my steaks rested. No point in wasting that good flavor.
Long time Food Lab readers know what's coming next: the umami bombs.
Ingredients high in glutamic acid can make meaty dishes taste meatier, and there are a few sauces that are packed full of them. Typically I'd use fish sauce, soy sauce, and marmite (or a combination thereof), but as Worcestershire sauce (another umami powerhouse) is so common in Stroganoff recipes, I decided to add a splash of it here in place of the marmite.
After adding in my sauce ingredients, I finished off the dish by adding some homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock and a good amount of sour cream before letting it reduce into a rich sauce on the stovetop.
Uh oh. Not a good idea. Sour cream is inherently unstable and tends to break and turn into a nasty, curdled mess when brought to a boil. I tried fully reducing my sauce before adding in the sour cream. This works, but the sauce loses a lot of its noodle- and meat-coating richness. I considered turning to thickening my sauce with crème fraîche, a similarly acidic dairy product that doesn't curdle, but it didn't have quite the same thick richness as sour cream.
So what's the problem here?
The issue is that for a sauce that contains both water and fat—like the sauce in a Stroganoff—to remain smooth and rich, it has to be fully emulsified. That is, the fat molecules have to be dispersed in drops that are so tiny that they have a hard time coming back together and separating into distinct, curdled clumps. There are a few ways you can help ingredients emulsify. One is through mechanical stimulation. I could potentially strain my sauce out, pour it into a blender, blend it on high speed until smooth, then add it back to the pot, but that seems ludicrous for such a simple dish.
The other method? By introducing some sort of physical particle that will prevent fat molecules from coming into close contact with each other while simultaneously increasing the viscosity of the liquid enough that the chances of molecules flowing around and bumping into each other is minimized.
It's for this reason that many recipes have you dredge your beef in flour or add flour to the mushrooms as they cook down. Flour releases starch granules which in turn both thicken a sauce and run interference, preventing fat from coalescing.
Personally, I don't much like the stodgy nature of a flour-thickened sauce for cases like this. Instead, I turned to an animal-based source:
Powdered gelatin can act as a stabilizer in much the same way that flour can, and it does it in a way that doesn't lead to gloppy or stodgy sauce. Unfortunately, I found that I needed way more gelatin (about a quarter cup!) than I really wanted to make a bulletproof, unbreakable sauce. As soon as I dumped the cold sour cream into the hot skillet, it would break.
The solution? Treat the sour cream exactly the same ways as I'd treat an egg in a custard by tempering it. By slowly whisking the hot liquid into the sour cream in a separate bowl, I was able to raise its temperature more gently, to the point that when it was finally hot, it was diluted enough by the gelatin-rich sauce that it never got a chance to break.
Once the stock is fully incorporated into the sour cream, it's a simple matter of pouring it back into the skillet...
...and adding back the meat for some gentle reheating.
Though Stroganoff is often served spooned over buttered noodles, I took a more Italian approach here by removing the heated meat to a cutting board, then adding the noodles directly to the sauce along with a bit of their cooking water, heating the noodles, sauce, onions, and mushrooms together until the sauce fully coated each piece of pasta with flavor.
After that I plated it (warm bowls, please!), sliced the meat, fanned it out on top, and spooned over a bit more of the leftover sauce. A big dollop of sour cream on the side and a sprinkle of parsley finish it off.
What you wind up with is a dish that's at once recognizable for what is is—one taste of this and your heart will be singing Stroooooganooooooofffff!—yet is tastier than its inspiration in almost every way I can think of. Tender, juicy, medium-rare meat napped in a rich, deeply browned sauce with chunks of (properly cooked!) mushrooms and onions on top of pasta that has soaked up every last ounce of extra flavor.
Now if that doesn't sound comforting to you, then I give up. I'll be over in the corner eating my dinner.