Beef Stroganoff has had its heyday: terribly popular with both restaurant chefs and dinner party hostesses of the 1950s to 70s, I can’t remember the last time I saw it on a menu or dinner table. It’s been relegated to buffet dishes and ready meals, beige and bland, insipid and gloopy. It sits in canteen chafing dishes, or is blitzed in the microwave, until it’s rubbery, grey, congealed. No wonder we don’t think of it fondly. Of course, that’s not how it should be.

True beef Stroganoff is a treat: punchy and rich, with a silky brandy-spiked sauce made from beef stock, sour cream and mustard, covering sautéed onions and mushrooms and impossibly tender, rare meat. It’s a luxury dish, made with expensive cuts. But then, it should be, as it has lofty heritage. The origin story frequently given is that the dish was created in 1891 by a French chef working in the kitchens of Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov. This chef created the dish for a cookery competition and (cannily or sycophantically; you choose) named the dish after his employer.

In this story, the Count is often aging, and the strips of beef used in the dish were to account for his near-toothlessness. But, alas, this is not quite true. In 1891, the Count in question would have been 117 years old — which would seem pretty implausible, even if he hadn’t already died in battle 74 years earlier. But there are kernels of truth in the tall tale: the dish was named after the powerful Stroganov family, which was the wealthiest dynasty in Russia, from the time of Ivan the Terrible until the fall of Czarist Russia. And the dish did win a St Petersburg cookery competition in 1891, put forward by a French chef called Charles Briere under the title ‘beef Stroganov’.

But Chef Briere wasn’t the creator of the dish: the first written record of the recipe is from 1871, in a Russian cookbook called A Gift to Young Housewives, compiled by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets. There, cubed, rather than strips, of beef were tossed in a spice mix and then cooked with mustard and beef stock, with a small amount of sour cream. Mushrooms and onions were absent. It seems most likely that Briere refined an existing recipe, fancied it up, and popped a name on it that evoked the richness of his version.

At its heart, beef Stroganoff remains the same: sautéed beef, in a thickened, mustardy, stock-based sauce. Now, more usually, the beef sits alongside slivers of golden onion and bronzed mushrooms; more sour cream is used to enrich, and a splash of brandy at the end elevates the whole thing. For the mustard, I like wholegrain, for those little pops of mustard seeds on the roof of your mouth. Stroganoff gained popularity first in China and then the US, followed by the rest of the world; non-Russian chefs ran with the idea. Stroganoff variations abound around the world — pork, chicken, mushroom, even veal — but beef remains the most traditional. This was a dish which was made for the ruling Russian classes, which sets it apart from the usual cheap and cheerful casseroles.

Unlike many stews, which take a cheap cut of meat and cook it slowly and gently until it breaks down, Stroganoff tends to use the expensive cut of beef fillet. Consequently, the meat should be cooked hot and fast, just searing it, so that it caramelizes and takes on color, but remains tender inside, pink and soft. Making sure you get good color on your beef, onions and mushrooms will ensure a real depth of flavor, and make the most of the cut. Of course the knock-on effect of this is that start to finish, beef Stroganoff takes no more than 15 minutes to make. But you’d never know it: beef Stroganoff is fast food which tastes like slow food. This is comfort cooking at speed. In Russia, the traditional accompaniment to beef Stroganoff is straw potatoes, potatoes that have been thinly sliced and fried, in the US and UK, it is more usually served with boiled white rice, or wide-cut pasta or noodles, tossed with a little butter.

beef stroganoff

(Samuel Pollen)

Beef Stroganoff

Makes: Enough for 4

Takes: 15 minutes

Bakes: No time at all

1 tablespoon oil

1 onion, peeled and sliced

⅓ oz butter

9 oz mushrooms

sliced 1 lb beef fillet

2 tablespoons plain flour

1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard

7 oz sour cream 7 oz beef stock

1 tablespoon brandy (optional)

  1. Slice the fillet against the grain into half-inch-wide strips
  2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan until very hot. Sear the beef strips in batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for a couple of minutes on one side and then a couple of minutes on the other; just long enough to create a dark-golden crust. Set the cooked beef to one side
  3. Turn down the heat in the pan, to a medium heat, and add the butter. When it is foaming, add the onion and the mushrooms, and cook until golden
  4. Stir the flour into the buttery onions and mushrooms and cook for a couple of minutes until the flour is sizzling and beginning to smell nutty
  5. Stir in the beef stock, and bring up to a gentle simmer for a couple of minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir through the sour cream and whole grain mustard. Return the beef to the pan, and stir, to coat the beef with the sauce. Taste the sauce, and adjust the seasoning as necessary, then stir through the brandy. Serve straight away; if you need to reheat the sauce, do so gently to avoid the sour cream in the sauce splitting — and don’t leave on the heat, or you’ll overcook the beef

This article was originally published on Spectator Life.