Ragoût is a thick, hearty stew of French origin; a similar version known as ragù is also made in Italy. Depending on the cook and the region, ragoût can be made with the intention of serving it as a main course dish, or it may be designed as a thick sauce to accompany boiled new potatoes, noodles, or some other form of starch. Many French restaurants which offer provincial foods have ragoût on the menu, and versions of this stew are also made in other regions of the world, especially during the winter, when a filling dish can be greatly appreciated.
The defining characteristic of ragoût is that it is cooked very slowly over low heat. The slow cooking allows flavors to develop over time, creating a richly layered flavor. Many cooks historically made ragoût over the fire or on a closed woodstove, allowing the stew to mature slowly over the course of the day while periodically adding ingredients as desired. Modern cooks simply use a low stove setting, or sometimes the oven.
In terms of ingredients, there are no rules with ragoût. Usually a main ingredient such as meat, mushrooms, or root vegetables is browned in the pan before liquids like water or wine are added, and then various spices such as pepper and herbs may be added as well. Ingredients can also be added as the ragout cooks to ensure that they don't melt away into the stew; the imagination is really the only limit when cooking this dish. Some cooks, for example, prefer to focus on one ingredient, while others like a diverse mixture.
The term “ragoût” comes from the French ragoûter, which means “to revive the appetite.” Recipes for this stew dating back to the 1600s have been found in France, which suggests that people have been making it for a very long time, and by the 1700s, a very diverse assortment of recipes were being published. Some ragoûts are entirely vegetarian, for example, while others are heavy on meat, and some cooks introduce ingredients like cream to vary the flavor.
When eaten as a main dish, ragoût is usually best paired with thick, hearty breads. When served as a sauce, ragoût is often thinned so that it will spread more easily. Because ragoût can be very filling, small portions are usually advised; people can always go back for a second helping if they want more, and the stew won't suffer if it's left on the stove through dinner. This stew also tastes excellent on the second day, after the flavors have mellowed.