There are many good reasons to revisit French cooking, and they don’t all involve butter and cream. There’s also alcohol.
Take the beginning of this recipe from Auguste Escoffier’s celebrated 1903 “Le Guide Culinaire”: “Lard the piece of beef along the fibres with large strips of salt pork fat which have been marinated in a little brandy ... ”
That’s the first step in preparing his version of Boeuf Bourguignon, or Burgundy Beef, a peasant stew that acquired a fancier reputation once the likes of Escoffier got hold of it. Getting those nonprime cuts of beef to become tender and tasty is a challenge that’s usually met by slow-cooking it for a long time. (An exception is something like London broil, which achieves its tenderness mostly because it’s sliced very thin.)
What gives Beef Bourguignon (as it’s usually styled in English) its unique flavor is an overnight spent in a red Burgundy wine. This isn’t a marinade that tenderizes the meat — for that you need something more aggressively acidic, or with the kind of enzymes pineapple juice contains. As with most marinades, this one’s purpose is to enrich how the meat will taste.
Slow cooking in liquid can be cruel to meat, as you know from too many encounters with bland pot roast. The liquid needs to be flavorful, and the pot needs to be correct. Beef Bourguignon calls for braising, as opposed to stewing. A stew completely immerses its components in the cooking liquid; to braise — the term comes from a French word meaning “smoldering coals” — is to reduce the amount of liquid and use a tightly covered pot.
As Madeleine Kamman writes in her indispensable book “The Making of a Cook,” “A braised meat cooks under pressure, and it is essential to choose a pot that will keep the pressure as even and constant as possible; such a pot should be thick and just big enough to contain the piece of meat. There should be absolutely no space or, at least, as little space as possible between the lid and the meat, so as to imitate the old-fashioned braisière in which the concave lid came very close to touching the top of the meat.”
In classic French cuisine, à la Bourguignonne describes a dish that has, alongside its red wine component, a garnish of bacon, mushrooms and small onions. The earliest published recipe for the beef version dates from 1894, in “Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique” by Joseph Favre, who worked alongside Escoffier at Paris’s Palais Royale. Escoffier’s recipe differs in that it calls for a whole piece of meat, as opposed to chunks, larded with salt pork. A similar recipe in Adolphe Meyer’s “The Post-Graduate Cookery Book,” also from 1903, calls for chunks of stewing beef, so this notion of making a Burgundian pot roast seems to have been unique to Escoffier. (The Alsatian-born Meyer was chef at Manhattan’s Union Club.)
Beef Bourguignon features in Ginette Mathiot’s 1932 recipe collection “I Know How to Cook,” which became as indispensable to French households as “The Joy of Cooking” is to American kitchens, but it was Julia Child’s 1961 “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” that not only opened that country’s cuisine to home cooks throughout the English-speaking world, but also put this beef dish on the map. She noted that when Beef Bourguignon is “carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man.”
Child’s recipe spreads across three meticulously described pages, complete with vegetable and wine suggestions (“buttered peas would be your best choice”). Like Mathiot, she does not call for a lengthy marinade, nor does a recipe in the 1984 edition of “Larousse Gastronomique.” My experience with the dish reveals a deeper flavor when the wine is allowed to soak in for several hours.
Older recipes suggest serving boiled potatoes on the side; more recent versions incorporate potatoes right into the dish, but at that point you might as well call it something else. In fact, my favorite accompaniment takes the Stroganoff route: a serving of buttered egg noodles.
Should it be cooked on stovetop or in oven? You’ll find more recent recipes tending toward the oven, probably because suitable stovetop cookware is harder to find. A good Dutch oven that seals tightly is your best bet, which means you can use the stovetop for its couple of hours of simmering, but if you’re using gas, put a flame diffuser below the pot and stir it from time to time. Also, if your pot is significantly larger than the contents, make a secondary top of tinfoil that rests near the top of what you’re cooking.
The sauce thickens thanks to the roux that forms from the flour-sautéed beef chunks and from the stages of reduction that the recipe calls for. Should your table be filled with hungry guests and you’d like the sauce thicker still, make a slurry of a couple of tablespoons of arrowroot in water and stir that into the boiling sauce after you’ve removed the finished meat and vegetables. Cornstarch also will work, but, unlike arrowroot, it clouds the sauce.
Modern recipes seek to simplify this dish, adding tomato paste as a thickener and even, as Ina Garten suggests, using frozen onions. If you can’t find fresh pearl onions, slice medium onions into quarters, keeping the leaves connected to the basal stem so that they stay in chunks (and don’t worry when some of them inevitably break apart).
This kind of cooking is about taking your time and experiencing the glory of transforming humble components into a dish that for centuries has graced the tables of rich and poor alike. The recipe below calls for only one bottle of wine. It is assumed that the chef also has another at hand.
Beef Bourguignon recipe
3 pounds of beef—round, chuck, or knuckle will work
2 medium onions
2 celery stalks
4 parsley sprigs
l bay leaf
1 bottle dry red wine
1⁄4 cup brandy
4 tablespoons cooking oil
4 tablespoons butter
24 pearl onions
1⁄2 lb. bacon
3 tablespoons flour
3 garlic cloves
15 button mushrooms
1 bouquet garni (sprigs of parsley, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf tied together)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cut the meat into 2-inch cubes and marinate overnight in a mixture of the sliced onions, carrots, peppercorns, parsley, bay leaf, and half of the wine.
Heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of butter in a casserole, add the pearl onions, and cook them until golden. Cut the bacon into strips and add them, stirring until ingredients begin to brown. Remove and hold the onions and bacon.
Remove the meat from the marinade, pat it dry and brown it in the casserole, in batches, if necessary. Meanwhile, heat the marinade to boiling in a saucepan, add the brandy, ignite it to burn off the alcohol, let it simmer a few minutes, then strain it.
Sauté the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter until they stop releasing liquid. Remove and reserve.
Return the browned meal to the casserole (add more oil and/or butter, if necessary), sprinkle with the flour, and stir over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic cloves, the marinade, the rest of the wine, the onions and bacon, the mushrooms and the bouquet garni. Season with salt and pepper and simmer, covered, over low heat for 2 hours.
When the meat is very tender, transfer it and the vegetables to a serving dish and keep it hot. Simmer the sauce over medium-high heat for a few minutes, then strain it through a fine sieve over the meat.