Cowboy stew was made on the trail during cattle droves that provides a fairly quick and easy meal after a long day in the saddle. Cowboys working along or in pairs or threes would make it themselves, or if it was a big round up then the cook at the chuck wagon would make the stew.
Cook wielded enormous power – be rude to the cook or indulge in a spot of hazing at his expense and a cowboy could: a) go hungry or b) get something added to the stew that might give him the runs – usually some sort of horse medicine!
Cowboys wanted to be on the cook’s good side and would make sure his chuck wagon was set up nice and level, that he got what he asked for, and that they behaved when it came to time to dish up – also they learned never to complain about the food because a) or b) above could apply.
What Goes Into a Cowboy Stew?
Being outdoors and far away from farms meant that tinned goods or dry goods were taken along with potatoes and onions, which lasted fairly well to make the stew, which usually incorporated ground beef or beef chunks.
The beans served by the chuck wagon cooks would have been dried ones, soaked and then cooked for the stew, as carrying cans for an outfit of up to 20 men would have been costly.
The canned goods were used when cowboys were out on a trail with just one or two companions for a couple of nights and needed to cook quickly as unlike the chuck wagon cook then did not have time during the day to prepare food.
If they happened to be pass a homestead where they could get some fresh carrots or garlic these would be added. Most chuck wagon cooks would have had a little stash of bay leaves for flavoring, but if these extras were not around the food was still tasty.
When it came to herbs and spices the stew was pretty basic with just salt and pepper, unless the cook had decided to use some of the spices normally carried in the early days mainly for medicinal purposes – like nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, or had access to herbs.
In the Southwest closer to the border with Mexico the ranch hands would incorporate some chillis and other Mediterranean dried herbs if they could get hold of them.
Why Make Cowboy Stew?
These days cowboy stew provides a quick and easy meal and providing you have a freezer for the meat everything else can be obtained from your prepping stash.
On the trail on cattle droves the cook would have access to fresh beef and with some of the outfits being fairly large at 16 to 20 men the cook would have a busy time preparing the quantities needed each day.
Cowboy stew is a good recipe to perfect in case of power outages and other emergencies as it is a one pot meal requiring only one source of heat – a little gas cooker, open fire, or whatever system you have ready for emergency use.
Here’s how to make cowboy stew with Ground Beef to feed 6 hungry people.
Cowboy Stew with Ground Beef Recipe
- 2 lbs ground beef
- 3 onions
- 6 potatoes medium-sized
- 1 can baked beans (15 ounces) or 1cup fresh pinto beans soaked for ½ hour then boiled until just tender
- 1 can tomatoes tinned
- 1 can corn kernels fresh corn cut from two ears of corn
- salt and pepper to taste
- chilies to taste (fresh or dried) chopped fine
- chunk of bacon fat or around 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil – olive, coconut etc.
- 2 tablespoons flour moderately heaped
- 1-2 cups water
- Heat skillet and drop in bacon fat (If you don’t have bacon fat use 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, but the traditional use of bacon fat added flavor).
- Add the onions and 2-3 chilies and sauté until just a light gold over medium heat – around 5 minutes –stirring to ensure even sautéing.
- Make sure the onions don’t burn otherwise they become bitter.
- Remove onions and challis from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside in a dish.
- Add the potatoes that have been peeled and cut into chunks – around 8 pieces per potato and brown the outside, turning to cook evenly. If at this stage you need to add more bacon fat or oil then do so.
- Once potato chunks are golden remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add ground beef to the pan, and spread and turn so it cooks through evenly.
- Return onions and challis to the pan and stir for 1 minute.
- Add the potatoes back to the mix and stir in.
- Tip in the can of tomatoes.
- Add the can of beans or the fresh cooked pinto beans.
- Add the can of corn or fresh corn.
- Allow to cook over medium heat for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn’t catch and burn. If you need extra water at this stage add some.
- Add salt and pepper to taste, and check the chilli level – you may want to add more – it’s easier to add chilli than to reduce the fieriness of a chilli dish.
- Add two tablespoons of wheat flour mixed to a thin paste with a cup of water, stirring in to thicken the sauce.
- Reduce heat and simmer slowly to allow flavors to develop for another 10 minutes or so.
- Serve with sourdough bread or hard tack the traditional cowboy accompaniment or with rice, cous cous, or quinoa if you prefer.
Cowboys on the trail who were separated from the chuck wagon for a day or so would have only one pot and may have omitted some of the steps like removing the onions and potatoes and simply added onions and potatoes first, browned them then added the meat and other ingredients.
Sometimes, the corn was omitted but the basics remain the same – ground beef, and beans, which are high in protein to put back the energy used out on the range all day.
Traveler, photographer, writer. I’m eternally curious, in love with the natural world. How people can survive in harmony with nature has fueled my food safety and survival gardening practices.
At the age of 12, I found a newspaper advertisement for a 155-acre farm at a really good price and showed my parents one Sunday morning. They bought it and I happily started planting vegetables, peanuts, maize and keeping bees with the help of the local labor. Once I married wherever we moved it was all about planting food, keeping chickens and ducks, permaculture and creating micro-climates. I learned how to build wooden cabins and outdoor furniture from pallets, and baked and cooked home-grown produce, developing recipes as I went along.
Over the years on numerous trips to wild places and cities I’ve learned all sorts of survival hacks, but there is always someone out there who can teach you a new trick so I remain an eternal student and forever humble.