Irish stew an ideal dish for the colder months

We wanted stew: John Cropley delivered
Pinhead Susan's Chef Anthony Bianchine with a bowl of his stew in early September.
Pinhead Susan's Chef Anthony Bianchine with a bowl of his stew in early September.

Few main courses are better suited to the approaching colder months than a hearty stew.

With the air cool and crisp rather than warm and muggy, one doesn’t mind standing by the stove for an extended period to brown and braise meat and vegetables or prepare a meat-based stock. And with the windows closed, the simmering dinner fills the house with an aroma that is both appetizing and evocative.

Every culture has its own variations on stew. But for this story we focus on Irish stew, the potato-vegetable-meat combination that has millions of fans and thousands of variations.

The problem with identifying a single preparation as The Official Irish Stew is that there isn’t one. If you go back far enough into Ireland’s impoverished history, Irish stew was a simple preparation of mutton and potatoes that modern diners would likely find unappetizing. 

Fast forward to the modern day, and the Irish eat food their forebears would not have been able to afford, if they could even find it for sale.

Cross the Atlantic Ocean and mix in 150 years of Americanization, and you’ll have something else altogether.

But that’s the beauty of stew: There are many ways of making a tasty and satisfying dish that fills that the house with great smells. 

To research this story, The Daily Gazette visited Pinhead Susan’s, an Irish pub in downtown Schenectady, to see how a professional chef adapts Irish stew to 21st century America (answer: very nicely). The newspaper also commissioned its business editor to see how he could fare with a more traditional preparation at home (answer: very well, but not nearly as delicious).

Here’s how it unfolded.

Pinhead Susan’s

The restaurant at the corner of Liberty Street and North Broadway was opened in 2000 by brothers Dennis and Jack McDonald. With dark-stained wood everywhere and large windows on both streets, it’s a comfortable place to eat, drink and socialize. It presents an Irish identity but offers a menu with something for everyone, some of which has nothing to do with the Emerald Isle.

Making it happen in the kitchen is Anthony Bianchine, a 30-year-old graduate of Schenectady County Community College’s culinary program who’s been in restaurant kitchens a quarter-century. (No exaggeration or misprint — he grew up at the late, great Luigi’s Restaurant, which his family owned.)

Pinhead’s usually waits until autumn and winter to put Irish stew on the menu, but the timing for this exercise turned out to be perfect: Bianchine cooked up 4 gallons right after Labor Day and it went on the specials list during that cool, rainy stretch in early September. Each time a server opened the swinging door to the kitchen, the scent wafted out into the seating area, and people would order it by the bowl and cup, said manager Tom McDonald.

“He’s had the kitchen smelling for two days, which is nice,” McDonald said.

Bianchine isn’t Irish by heritage or even by association, after two years at Pinhead’s, but he knows how to make things taste good. His take on Irish stew incorporates seasonings that aren’t especially Irish, such as basil and tomato paste, but it’s the core of the stew that is important to its Irish identity, he said.

“To me it’s the big beef chunks, the potatoes.”

Lamb is the traditional meat for an Irish stew but Pinhead’s veers from tradition based on the American palate.

“Me and Tom were kind of thinking … more people like beef than lamb,” he explained.

“Come St. Patrick’s Day, we’ll put a little lamb in it too,” McDonald added.

Like many serious and/or professional chefs, Bianchine doesn’t measure ingredients out by the half-teaspoon. So precise quantities aren’t included in his recipe. Generally speaking, when trying this at home, add meat and vegetables in reasonable quantities and proportions as you like but be temperate with the seasonings — you can always add more of a flavor but you can never take away what’s been added, only try to neutralize it. 

See recipe for ingredients and steps.

McDonald said two key ingredients come from right nearby: The 6 pounds of beef chuck are from Avon Meat Land and Fightin’ Irwin India pale ale is from Mad Jack Brewery at the Van Dyck. (“Mad Jack” is Jack McDonald, owner of the Van Dyck and co-owner of Pinhead’s.)

“It’s a nice cold rainy day meal,” Tom McDonald said.

And so it is. A Daily Gazette photographer and writer put down their camera and pen to sample a cup of the stew and pronounce it delicious, with or without the foul weather outside. The beef melts in the mouth; the flavor of the stew is bright, neither too sweet or too salty; the body is smooth and silky.

As for the departure from the traditional Irish ingredient list? McDonald said Bianchine goes with what works and his instincts are good.

“He’s always had a nice touch,” McDonald said.

Chez Cropley

Each winter, I make a nice Belgian-styled beef stew with dark beer, and a variation of the classic French boeuf bourguignon, and various stews from other cultures with pork and chicken. But I’ve never made Irish stew.

The traditional Irish stew, many sources say, is just lamb and potatoes. Some say root vegetables have a place in it, particularly carrots. But most iterations have a very short ingredient list and a simple preparation; I can tell right away that they will produce a subtly flavored stew.

I illustrate Pinhead’s point about Americans liking beef more than lamb — I didn’t like the greasy lamb chops I sometimes was fed as a child and have had no real interest in lamb as an adult. I decide to go traditional, though, and use lamb instead of beef.

I work from a 2015 St. Patrick’s Day story and recipe by David Tanis in the New York Times.

Lamb selection was limited to nonexistent in the three stores I checked; running short on time and patience, I grab the whole inventory of thin-sliced loin chops at my neighborhood supermarket and a package of neck chops, about 2.5 pounds in total. Thin-sliced is not ideal for stew, and neck chops don’t contain a lot of meat, but neck bones do make good stock.

(The original Irish stew was probably made with mutton — the meat of older sheep — rather than lamb, given the economics in old time Ireland. If mutton is available you can try that instead, but there’s probably a good reason mutton isn’t popular.)

About 30 hours before dinner time, I remove the bones, marrow, connective tissue and most of the fat from the meat, a slightly tedious process that will yield big dividends: a beautifully silky stock and lamb that isn’t greasy like the chops of my childhood.

Take all that waste material — bone, fat, membranes — and deeply brown it in a pan large enough to fit it all, covering the pan to keep the spattering fat contained. Add a few ounces of water and deglaze the pan, then add 4 cups of water to cover everything, bring it to a boil, cover and simmer for eight hours. Before going to bed that night, pour the stock through a strainer into a four-cup glass measuring cup and refrigerate until ready to make the stew.

The next day, carve the solid layer of fat off the top. What’s left will be a rich brown glob of gelatin, the result of all that collagen cooking out of the non-meat parts of the lamb chops. 

It will improve the quality and nutritional value of your stew.

See recipe for other ingredients and steps.

I made my stew on a cool, rainy Sunday, just as Bianchine made his on a cool, rainy Tuesday.

I would match mine against his for consistency, but not for flavor. Not even close. I wouldn’t use the word “bland,” but mine is quite subtle — just as I expected it to be, based on the recipe. Also not a surprise, mine tastes like it has less fat, thanks to all that careful trimming of the meat.

There’s an Acadian chicken stew called fricot that’s like this. All the recipes I’ve seen are very plain, with little or no seasoning. I know it’s possible to make a delicious and flavorful fricot — I’ve had it in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. But in both cases the chef departed substantially from the traditional recipe, I suspect. That’s what needs to happen here.

If I make Irish stew again, I’ll experiment with beer and bacon, or something else altogether.

Sort of like that chef down at Pinhead Susan’s …

Pinhead Susan’s Irish Stew

  1. Marinate beef chuck 12 hours in Guinness stout beer
  2. Cut meat into chunks and braise in some of the Guinness 
  3. Add sliced carrots and chopped onions and simmer until onions turn translucent 
  4. Add a mixture of beef stock and India pale ale
  5. Add a roux of flour and butter to thicken the stew
  6. Season with basil, parsley, garlic, tomato paste, salt and pepper 
  7. Cut potatoes into spoon-sized chunks and add to the pot 
  8. Simmer as long as you like, but at least until potatoes are tender. Don’t boil the stew. Use indirect heat or a slow cooker if needed to prevent stew from scorching to the bottom of the pan during extended periods of simmering.

Cropley’s Irish Stew


  • 4 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 pounds onion, cut into half-inch dice
  • 1 pound baby carrots, cut into chunks
  • 3 pounds boneless lamb, cut into 2-inch chunks and patted dry with paper towels
  • 4 tablespoons white flour
  • 2 large sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into spoon-sized chunks of uniform size
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 cups meat stock


  1. If making your own meat stock from lamb or other bones, start 24 to 36 hours in advance; simmer stock at least eight hours; chill stock overnight; remove and discard fat; add enough water to make 4  cups total
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  3. Saute onions in 1 Tbsp oil in large dutch oven until softened, set aside on plate
  4. Saute carrots in 1 Tbsp oil until starting to brown, set aside on second plate
  5. Brown half the meat on all sides in 1 Tbsp oil, remove to third plate
  6. Brown other half of meat on all sides in 1 Tbsp oil
  7. Return first batch of meat to pot, add flour, stir constantly for two minutes 
  8. Add 4 cups of stock to pot, scraping free all the browned bits stuck to the bottom and sides of the pan; add salt, pepper, thyme
  9. Add carrots, stir
  10. Spread potatoes evenly on top — if some are not submerged they won’t cook as quickly as the others
  11. Spread onions on top of potatoes
  12. Cover and bake one hour at 350 degrees. Stew is ready when potatoes and meat are fork-tender

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