Traditional Brunswick stew is made with small game, namely squirrel or opossum. Since they don’t generally sell squirrel meat at the grocery store, these days most recipes substitute dark meat chicken instead.
In truth, most people do have access to squirrel. The hitch comes in turning a squirrel into squirrel meat.
If you can’t get up the gumption, go ahead and make this recipe substituting one chicken thigh for each squirrel. Odds are no one will notice, squirrel tastes remarkably like chicken anyway. If you do have a fresh squirrel, this is a wonderfully traditional way to prepare it.
James Beard’s American Cookery calls Brunswick stew “one of the most famous of American Dishes” but notes that he doubts “if there are two recipes alike for it.” Everyone makes it a little bit differently.
Some people will make it with a combination of squirrel and chicken to pad out the meat content, others keep it sparse and let the veggies shine through. Brunswick stew generally has a tomato base and is filled with veggies including lima beans, corn, and okra. Some recipes include potatoes, other recipes serve it over potatoes and more still leave them out altogether.
Know that there is no “official” recipe for Brunswick stew, but the old-time traditional Brunswick stew recipes always come back to one thing: squirrel.
The recipe from James Beard’s American Cookery claims to be a recipe from Kentucky, and it’s the one I’m following with a few minor variations. The first step is to coat fresh whole squirrel in flour and then brown it in bacon grease before braising it whole.
The thing is, he then makes no mention of de-boning the squirrel. Those bones are brittle and tiny, and definitely shouldn’t be left in the stew.
I’ve tried to bone out fried squirrel before and it’s a nightmare. You really need to feel the tiny hard bones as a contrast to the tender meat.
For that reason, I’ve chosen to just begin with fresh whole squirrel and braise it in stock. There are no crispy browned bits to confuse the issue when de-boning, and the meat is wonderfully tender.
The other thing I’m omitting from James’ Beard’s recipe is okra. There is just no way to get okra in Vermont, and I know those of you in the south may find that hard to believe.
I’ve only seen it once at a farmers market, and everyone had to ask what it is. It’s just not something that’s available here, and definitely not during squirrel hunting season.
If you have access to okra, add it into the stew in equal parts with the corn.
Beyond that, know that there’s no wrong way to make a Brunswick stew. It has boneless meat and a rich broth full of vegetables, and beyond that, the sky’s the limit.
I will note though, Brunswick stew is not always served as a stew. Other times it’s made a day ahead, and then served as a squirrel pot pie. Again, from American Cookery:
“The stew is sometimes prepared, cooled thoroughly, topped with a rich pastry crust which is brushed with beaten egg yolk and cream, and then baked at 375 degrees till the crust is lusciously browned and the stew thoroughly reheated. In this case, the stew would be baked in an earthenware baking dish. The crust should be very rich and rolled about 3/8 inch thick. A vent should be cut in the center and a small cone of paper inserted to take care of juice that may boil over.”
Traditional Brunswick stew is made with small game, namely squirrel or opossum.
- 2-3 squirrels
- 2 cups stock
- 4 tbsp bacon fat
- 2-3 onions, sliced very thin
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 tsp rosemary
- 1 tsp thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup Madeira
- 3/4 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1 cup lima beans , or other broad bean
- 1 cup corn
- 1 cup cut okra, optional - I couldn't get any
- bread crumbs
- chopped parsley
- Place whole squirrels in a dutch oven with 2 cups stock. Braise the squirrel meat, covered for about 30 minutes until tender.
- Remove the squirrels and stock to a separate container to cool. Debone the squirrels when they're cool enough to handle, and add the meat into the stock. Reserve it all for adding back into the dutch oven later.
- Add 4 tablespoons of bacon drippings to the empty dutch oven, and fry the onions until browned.
- Add in chopped garlic and fry for another minute.
- Pour the stock and squirrel meat into the hot dutch oven to deglaze the pan.
- Add in all the remaining ingredients including spices and vegetables. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
- At this point, serve immediately or add a few handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs to help thicken the soup a bit, along with fresh parsley if desired. If adding breadcrumbs, simmer for another 10 minutes before serving.
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