The Ingredient All Steaks Need In Order to Be Steaks

October  6, 2017

Every account of a favorite dish from France, the one that exemplifies the French experience, follows the same formula. First, we’re told, it’s a simple thing, just an ordinary thing—green beans or lamb stew or lemon tart, but one never knew how beautiful or delicious it could be until… Then, the thing (green beans or lamb stew or lemon tart) is sourced to an old bistro or auberge in one arrondisement or another, or in some small town with three names (Evanie-les-Beaux or the like) in Provence. Then, we get the news that the bistro or auberge has since closed or been degraded, and so you have learn to make it at home, where, good as it is, it is mysteriously not as good.

That this formula has all the elements of a cliché will not prevent me from conforming exactly to it in the following account.

See the shallots; love the shallots. Photo by James Ransom

My dish is a simple one—an entrecôte with sauce Bercy—and though it is really nothing more than a rib steak with white wine and shallot sauce, it was, the first time I ate it, still the best steak I had ever eaten, leaving me with a lifelong conviction that steak served without shallots is not worth eating at all, like shrimp served without salt. I had it for the first time at Chez René—yes, a lacquered old bistro, yes, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, all the way east on the Boulevard St. Germain. It sums up France for me because, as a young man, I was startled to have a steak that tasted like a steak, but also later, and more foodishly (which many will take as a typo for "foolishly," which perhaps it is), because I was startled to have a white wine sauce with a steak. I was accustomed either to the standard red wine sauces—like sauce marchand du vin, the red wine sauce also made with shallots—or else to the excellent whole grain mustard sauce they used to make at Le Voltaire. A filet of beef with sauce béarnaise* is also still a big dish for me, though my travails with béarnaise sauce are ones I have spoken and written of at length.

The steak is merely a vehicle for the shallots

At Chez René they served the sauce Bercy on the side, and it was so heavy with shallots that at first I thought it was just shallots, with some kind of warm vinaigrette added. But it isn’t: It’s a proper, cooked sauce of shallots with white wine and fond de veau. Just to drive you crazy, there’s a completely different sauce, also called sauce Bercy, made with white wine, shallots, and fish veloute; it's used, obviously, on fish.

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My experience of entrecôte and sauce Bercy left me with the permanent conviction that a steak is not a steak at all if it is not sauced with shallots. My one improvement on the thing is to save—"reserve" is the recipe book word—some caramelized shallots from the pan to sprinkle on top of the steak, in addition to the ones that sit in the sauce. And this, to me, seems echt French, simply because the core idea of French cooking is things with things—not just the one perfect thing with clearly subsidiary things around it, as with good Tuscan steak that has only olive oil and lemon to season it—but one perfect thing with another perfect thing added. (It can be as simple as jarret de porc served with lentils, or as complicated as salmon in a pastry crust.) In fact, I can’t eat steak without the shallots anymore, and sometimes, given the paltry condition of many American steaks, the steak is merely a vehicle for the shallots.

Chez René, in the day, did not do pommes frites—this was not an unusual thing; most bistros didn’t. (They were more a brasserie and restaurant thing.) Pommes sautées are a thing apart from pommes frites, and what I serve. Green beans, too—good French ones enrobed in butter—but don’t get me started on that unless you want to hear the story of the little auberge. Bercy, I should point out, is the neighborhood of Paris where the old wine market was, which perhaps explains the origin; some brave wine merchant ran out of red and used white and… oh, make up your own story.

Tiffany Case, James Bond lovers will recall, sealed her love for Bond by making béarnaise sauce for him on the Queen Mary, on their way home in the novel Diamonds Are Forever, and if Tiffany could make it while the boat was rocking, you’d think I could, but I can’t.

This post originally ran in June 2017. We're running it again here because we feel like eating steak.

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Top Comment:
“I don't recall seeing a recommendation on the type of white wine to use in the sauce Bercy. Any suggestions?”
— Kevin S.

For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.

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Adam Gopnik

Written by: Adam Gopnik


Kevin S. July 7, 2017
I don't recall seeing a recommendation on the type of white wine to use in the sauce Bercy. Any suggestions?
702551 June 23, 2017
Actually, the classic bistecca alla fiorentina (from Pellegrino Artusi's time) is served plain with just a blob of butter on top. Artusi disses the use of olive oil (especially before cooking) and makes zero mention of lemon, the latter is a modern affectation.

This is the true way to enjoy a truly great steak: the sauce is the meat juices from the cooking, only enhanced by the minimal addition of some salt, pepper, and a little butter (or oil). Butter is truly the way to go, it is "cow on cow."

Steak with shallots is great, but it's still steak accompanied by something else.

If your beef is not top notch, yeah, go ahead and slather something else on it: shallots, Bercy, bearnaise, Périgueux, foie gras (Rossini), New Zealand plum sauce, teriyaki sauce, whatever.
Iolanthe June 24, 2017
Usage note: I do not read comments that begin with the word "Actually,..."
Kurt,Meister June 26, 2017

Then why did you?
BerryBaby October 8, 2017
I agree. A good steak doesn't need anything more than a bit of butter.