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Great cuisine—and the ability to cook it—comes from a strong foundation. Many culinary professionals choose to study at French institutions because France was the first to define the essential building blocks of (their own) cuisine. They made a cream sauce and called it a Béchamel, and said that henceforth, all cream sauces made in this fashion will always be called a Béchamel. Adding cheese? Well, now it’s a Mornay.
I respect and admire this rubric, but understand that it can be very easy to get tripped up in all the terminology for different cooking methods, the names of all the pots and pans, the organization of cooks in the kitchen brigade (garde manger! saucier!). This dizzying wall of names can sometimes cloud our vision. All the excitement and intrigue at the idea of cooking classic French dishes can quickly dissipate when you realize you may not know what it means to glaze your pearl onions au brun or au blonde or what fond de poulet blanc is. It's just white chicken stock!
I love dishes like coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, and now is the perfect time to cook them. We're past having nightmares about dry turkeys or how many pies to make for a holiday dinner. All is quiet, and in the post-holiday rush, I believe you can find meditative pleasure in a pot of beef stew. Off the couch and into the kitchen you go! Cooking, at its barest bones, always uses the same basic process to approach a variety of dishes. I say, if you master boeuf bourguignon, the dish that infamously put Julia Child on the map, you can cook many, many things.
For actual measurements and quantities of ingredients, you can refer to Julia Child’s classic recipe, or a popular recipe here on our site that I’ve cooked from myself. This recipe calls for the braising vegetables to be strained out, and some pretty glazed pearl onions, carrots, and mushrooms. If you are cooking for small children, if you’ve recently visited the dentist, or if you just like soft vegetables, there is no need to strain them out. You can serve the stew straight out of the oven with some noodles or a little swish of fresh herbs. It is entirely up to you.
Be Prepared (Mise en Place)
Before making a stew, I like to have all my ingredients ready. I line them up like little soldiers on my cutting board, all awaiting their turn in the pot. This reduces the frenzy and the anxiety, and you can really give each element the love and the attention it deserves. I get asked all the time as a chef what makes my food stand out, why my cooking is so good. I say: Anybody wanting to take their culinary skills to the next level need only pay more attention to process. Take your time to cook each ingredient properly, and you will be dazzled by the results.
Boeuf bourguignon is a brasier or braise. Braised meat is essentially a piece of meat that is browned on all sides, and then cooked gently in liquid. That is how we begin: Sear your cubes of meat on all sides and set them aside. You’ll be adding them back in later. If you are using bacon “lardons” or small rectangular strips of bacon in your dish (like Julia Child did), you can cook them down first and sear the beef in the bacon fat for extra bacon-y goodness. You want to do this in a pot that is oven-friendly, since there is no better way to ensure even, low, gentle cooking than by placing the entire vessel in the oven at a low temperature. A braiser, or an enameled cast iron pan like one from Staub, is ideal for this.
Pay attention to the bottom of the pan while you are cooking. As you sear, little pieces of meat will brown and stick to the bottom. The French call these sucs, tiny bits of flavor for sauce. Browning them, and allowing them to hang out is fine—ideal, really. Burning is not. The best way to scrape up these little flavor bombs is with alcohol. Our recipe happens to be extra boozy since we deglaze with cognac and braise our meat with red wine. If you don’t happen to have cognac laying around, you can use brandy, more wine, some good homemade stock, or even water in a pinch.
At this point, you will have accumulated a mix of beef fat and bacon fat (if using) in your pot. I like to cook the vegetables for my stew in them and then drain it out. There is no hard and fast rule about this. If the idea grosses you out, pour it out and add fresh vegetable oil to the pot. The typical vegetables for a classic bourguignon are carrot and onion, which will get cooked until it is very, very soft. The braising vegetables often get strained out and replaced with pretty ones that are cooked separately. If you like soft vegetables, you can keep them in: again, completely up to you.
Add your vegetables back into the pot with the tomato paste, if you are using it. Some recipes say to add it later with the liquid, but tomato paste is something you really want to cook out to help develop flavor. Stir it around vigorously as it burns quite easily, until it turns a deep brick red color.
Uh Oh, Stew Too Watery?
In Julia Child’s bourguignon, and in many classic renditions of this recipe, the cooked bacon and the beef get tossed in flour after the initial sear and lightly roasted, which accomplishes two things: The flour thickens up the stew, and the searing of the floured meat removes that unappealing raw flour taste. Now, if you don’t add flour in the beginning, and after braising you find that your stew is too watery, fear not!
The French have come up with a number of solutions for this situation as well. They are called liasons because they are literally cooking aids, like a beurre manie which is a paste of equal parts butter and flour that you mash together and stir into the stew. Just bring the whole pot back up to a boil after you add it, stirring constantly, and you will notice the heat will activate the flour and it will thicken like magic. (Note that a beurre manie is different from a roux, which gets cooked in the very beginning before adding liquid, and not vice versa.) You may also add a cornstarch slurry, which is just a tablespoon or two of cornstarch whisked with some water and stirred in at the end as well. Finally, there's my favorite: monter au beurre, which literally translates to mount with butter. It is a way of adding a few tablespoons of cold butter to a sauce right before serving. The milk solids thicken things up and add a lovely sheen. It is what makes that infamous beurre blanc sauce, well, beurre blanc. But that’s for another time.
Now we’ve gotten all of that terminology out of the way, you’ll find that you are really just taking some browned meat, tossing it with flour, and adding it to the other components of the stew. The process is not all that intimidating if you strip it down to the basic techniques it calls for. Another great aspect of this stew is that it literally calls for an entire bottle of wine. You want to use something that you would happily drink with this meal. If you can avoid it, don’t skimp too much on the wine you use. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking to you: Put that jug of meh wine back on the shelf and walk away.
Here comes the fun part: After some sampling, slowly add the wine to the pot. As we discussed earlier, this deglazing removes any bits of stuck meat from the bottom of the pot. The initial deglazing was done with cognac, but red wine is the bourguignon or in the style of Burgundy part of the recipe. You can add a little bit initially, and stir and scrape up those meat bits and browned tomato paste. This is why it was so important you didn’t burn your sucs earlier.
Getting Ready for the Oven
I don’t even measure my cooking liquid. You just want enough wine and stock to cover the meat and vegetables so that everything cooks evenly. The best way to eyeball is to add the entire bottle of red wine and a couple of cups of beef stock. (If you haven’t already, throw your vegetables, meat, and bacon back into the pot, or as I like to call it “everybody in the pool” time.) If everything is not fully submerged, add more beef stock until it is. Bring the whole stew up to a boil, cover the pot and throw it in the oven at 325° F (or whatever your recipe says). After about 2 hours or so, give or take depending on the strength of your oven, your meat should be fork tender, and that’s basically it. Let the whole thing stand at room temp for a bit, and all that gross fat will rise to the top and you can scoop it off.
How classic dishes like this one has earned a reputation for complexity or level of difficulty, but not its rather approachable nature and off-the-charts payoff, baffles me. Since we have been experiencing sub 20-degree weather here in New York, and bone-chilling temperatures overall across the country, I urge you to warm up your kitchen, and your home, with a pot of delicious stew.
- 3 pounds beef chuck, cut in 2-inch chunks
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup cognac
- 4 large carrots
- 1 large yellow onion, cut in chunks
- 4 large garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 750 ml. bottle full-bodied red wine
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 6 oz. can tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 10 ounces pearl onions, peeled
- 1/2 pound white mushrooms, halved (quartered if large)
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar