Chasing beef bourguignon perfection
For as long as I’ve been a cook, I’ve been making boeuf bourguignon — the classic French wine-braised beef stew with mushrooms, lardons and baby onions. There’s something so deeply soulful about the dish, which simmers for a couple of hours in the oven, filling the kitchen with an incredible aroma.
Those transporting scents always deliver on their promise: Beef bourguignon, a dish that coaxes maximum deliciousness from humble ingredients, is a dreamy dish to serve to friends — with good red wine and a loaf of crusty French bread for soaking up the fabulous, richly flavored sauce. It’s impressive enough for any important occasion (a major birthday or holiday, dinner with the boss) — or no occasion at all. Maybe it’s just what you want to eat on a cold winter evening with a fire going in the fireplace. It’s a dish that never shows off but always thrills. And while it may look like a lot of steps, it’s no more complicated or time-consuming than making Texas chili.
And because you can completely make it ahead — even the day before — it’s the ideal (stress-free!) dish to serve at a dinner party, along with boiled or roasted potatoes or buttered noodles. Precede it with a wintry salad, celeri remoulade, or, as I did this past Christmas Eve, a super easy-to-make yet luxurious and velvety roasted cauliflower soup swirled with brown butter.
I must have originally learned to make beef bourguignon from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” but over the years, I’ve played with the recipe, trying to answer the questions that inevitably nip at a cook’s heels: What’s the best cut of beef to use? What kind of wine? Should you marinate the beef or not?
After so many years, and so many versions — abetted by a recent round of reading and more playing — I think I finally have my be-all-and-end-all version.
Let’s start with the red wine. You use a whole bottle, so you’d better use something really good, right? Well, no — happily, it doesn’t much matter what you use, as long as it hasn’t turned to vinegar. I never spend more than $8 or $9 dollars on the wine for this dish.
The beef: For the beef cuts, I had to abandon my beloved Julia, who calls for “lean stewing beef.”
What you want is a fattier cut, like beef chuck, which will become super-tender as its collagens break down through its long braise. Lean stewing beef becomes hard and tough. Chuck, by the way, is a cut often used for Texas chili.
From Anne Willan, author of many wonderful cookbooks and head of La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, I gleaned the idea of using a combination of chuck and beef shank. In her fine recipe in The Country Cooking of France, Willan calls for boneless beef shank. Why not keep the bone to cook in the stew, I thought, as it (arguably) adds body and flavor? Better than throwing it away, right? I was glad I did.
I read with great interest Serious Eats’ thorough story on how to make a great beef bourguignon, and pulled from it other great ideas. Author Daniel Gritzer writes about extensively testing using a marinade vs. not, concluding that there’s no point in marinating a long-braised dish such as this. I will gleefully accept his assays, as I’ve never noticed a difference in marinated vs. non-marinated versions, and it’s a pain to dry off the meat before browning it.
And here’s something even more interesting Gritzer concludes: Browning bite-size cubes of beef dries out their surface too much. That’s definitely something I’ve noticed over the years. His solution is to cut the meat into big slabs, and brown just two sides of the slabs, then cut up the meat. I took a different (and simplified) approach, cutting the meat into large-ish chunks (around an inch and a half is ideal), and browning just one side of the cube well, then a quick sear on another side and that’s it. It’s much less time-consuming (and boring) than throughly browning the cubes, as I used to do, and it resulted in a texture that was definitely softer and more appealing, while still getting some of the wonderful, flavor-enhancing caramelization of browning. It’s a lazy man’s solution that pays off!
The dish: Here’s the way it’ll go, in a nutshell. Brown the meat, then lightly cook your aromatic vegetables — onion, celery and carrot — which you don’t even have to dice (just cut ’em in a few pieces — another labor-saving idea I got from Serious Eats) and a little garlic.
Deglaze the pan with a little wine, then add back the meat, the shank bone, the rest of the bottle of wine, a little chicken broth and a bouquet garni, bring to a simmer, then shove it in a slow oven for almost two hours, nearly unattended (just want to stir it once or twice).
Skim off the fat, discard the aromatic vegetables and bone, strain the sauce and add the meat back in, then add the garnishes you’ve prepared: lardons, mushrooms and baby onions, and braise another half hour.
It’s more time than work, and the payoff is nothing short of awesome. Ready to start simmering and swooning?
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into cubes of about 11/2 inches (more or less)
13/4 pound beef shank (including the bone), the meat cut off the bone (reserve the bone) and cut into (more or less) 11/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional if necessary to brown the meat
1 medium onion, cut into big chunks
3 carrots, peeled and cut into big chunks
3 stalks celery, cut into big chunks
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
1 bottle red wine
1 to 11/2 cups chicken broth
Bouquet garni: 4-5 branches fresh thyme, 2 bay leaves, 10 peppercorns and a small handful of parsley tied into cheesecloth
6 ounces slab bacon, cut into lardons (rectangular bars about one inch long and 3/8-inch wide)
1 pound white or crimini mushrooms, trimmed and cut in half or quarters, depending on their size (if they’re very small, you can leave them whole)
1 pound pearl onions or small boiling onions, peeled and any large ones cut in half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons roughly chopped Italian parsley for garnish
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Add the cubes of beef and toss well to coat them.
Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven until it is hot but not smoking. Add as many beef cubes as fit comfortably in one layer. Brown them about 3 minutes on one side, then start turning them and searing another side for about another 2 minutes. They won’t be browned on all sides, but that’s good (about five minutes total is what you want). Transfer them to a bowl and brown the rest, along with the shank bone, adding a little more olive oil if necessary.
Once all the meat is browned, add the carrots, celery, onion chunks and garlic, and saute them over medium heat for 6 or 7 minutes, till the onions start to soften. Pour in about 1/2 cup of the red wine, and deglaze the Dutch oven by scraping the bits of browned meat off the bottom of the Dutch oven. Now add the rest of the wine, 1 cup of chicken broth and the beef chunks and bone, and stir to combine. The meat should be nearly covered by liquid; if not, add a little more chicken broth. Now add the bouquet garni. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, turn the heat to medium-low and let simmer about 5 minutes. Cover the Dutch oven and place it in the oven and let it braise 1 hour and 45 minutes, stirring it now and then and adding more chicken broth if necessary, until the meat is starting to be very tender. Remove from the oven and let it cool a bit while you prepare the garnishes.
Meanwhile, heat a large saute pan or skillet, add the lardons and cook them over medium heat until their fat is rendered and they’re browned on the edges. Use a slotted spoon to remove them to a small bowl. Add the mushrooms to the fat and cook them over medium heat, adding a little olive oil if they look too dry, until they start to release their water, about 12 to 15 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to transfer the mushrooms into a bowl. Add the pearl onions, shake them around in the pan (adding a little olive oil if necessary), and cook them 15 minutes or so, shaking the pan now and then, till they’re golden. Remove from heat and reserve.
Skim as much fat as you can off the top of the braised beef. Use tongs to remove the beef chunks to a bowl and reserve; discard the shank bone and the bouquet garni. Strain the braising liquid into a bowl, pressing on the vegetables to release as much liquid as possible, and discard (or snack on!) the vegetables. Wash the Dutch oven, then place the beef cubes and braising liquid back in it. Add the lardons, mushrooms, pearl onions the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, black pepper to taste. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer over high heat on the stove, then transfer, partially covered, to the oven and let it braise another half hour. Taste and adjust seasoning. If you’re going to serve it right away and feel the stew needs thickening (I usually don’t do this, and you certainly won’t need to do it if you’re going to chill it overnight), bring it back to a simmer over high heat and cook it rapidly 5 or 10 minutes, uncovered, to thicken it. Serve immediately, garnished with chopped parsley, or refrigerate overnight, then reheat on the stove. Serve with buttered noodles, potatoes or rice.