My Recipe Box

Master Class: Beef Bourguignon

Though it may seem time-consuming, all home cooks—from beginners to masters—should learn how to make a well-executed Beef Bourguignon. Author and teacher Madeline Kamman shows you step-by-step how to marinate the meat, prepare the braise, make the spaetzle, and finish the dish with a rich sauce.
 

by

from Fine Cooking
Issue 37

When well-executed, Beef Bourguignon is a truly glorious dish, perfect as the centerpiece of a dinner among friends. The concept is simple: beef is marinated overnight in red wine and aromatic vegetables and then braised in the oven with the marinade, stock, and vegetables until the meat is succulent and tender. About 15 minutes before serving, garnishes of tiny onions, mushrooms, and bacon are added to the beef and to the robust mahogany sauce created during the cooking.

The techniques that govern the preparation of this dish do involve a few extra steps (for example, the wine is reduced before marinating the meat; the stewing pot must be prepared correctly), but these are the details that ensure moist meat and a rich sauce, the signature of a superior Bourguignon. Familiarize yourself with my techniques and the rationales behind them, and your braise will have no rivals.

Also, please don’t be discouraged by what at first glance seems a time-consuming recipe. The length is largely due to the many descriptive details I’ve included to help you along the way, not to any formidable or labor-intensive tasks. There is nothing about the method that even a novice cook should have trouble performing, even the very first time. And as with any braise, the whole recipe can be prepared a few days ahead of time and carefully reheated just before serving, which is another reason that it’s an excellent choice for a special winter dinner party.

The shape of the pot made all the difference

I learned to cook in France during the German occupation, a time when food and gas shortages forced many households to return to cooking on the hearth. On the rare occasion when my mother made beef stew, she used a thick old copper pot called a braisière (or brazier), which sported two lids, one deep and concave, the second more decorative. She filled the pot with seared meat, aromatics, stock, and wine, and fitted the concave lid inside so it rested just a hair above the ingredients in the pot. The pot was then nestled into a bank of smoldering coals, known as braises, and the concave lid was filled with more coals (later on, when we had a gas stove, we filled the lid with boiling water). Then the second lid was set on top.

In the moist atmosphere of the brazier, the seared meat would soon lose its inner juices to the stock and wine. But as the cooking continued, the meat juices, stock, and wine slowly penetrated back into the fibers of the meat. Beef that had been so braised always had a shiny and very moist appearance when sliced.

When I started to cook in my own home in the U.S., my attempts to produce such a rich braise were frustrating: I got tough, stringy meat and a thin, watery sauce. I finally figured out that the only way to get a good braise was to modify my modern stewing pot to make it act more like the old brazier of my childhood. To do this, you need the following items:

  • A heavy so-called stewing pot or cocotte, made of enameled cast iron, heavy stainless steel, or another heavy nonreactive metal. What is important is the heavy material, not the shape of the pot, which can be round, oval, or oblong. This recipe serves a crowd, so if the pot isn’t at least 7 quarts, divide the braise between two smaller pots.

  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil to make an inverted lid for the pot (see the photos below for how-tos). If you don’t have heavy-duty foil, use two sheets of regular foil. While the braising takes place in a 325°F oven, the upside-down foil lid will catch any condensation that might squeeze between the pot sides and the foil, thus preventing it from diluting your good sauce.

  • Parchment cut to fit inside the braising pot. The parchment will be set directly on the surface of the braise, below the aluminum foil, and will prevent the acid in the wine from reacting with the foil.

Reduced wine and the right cut of beef are key

In the old days, we larded our beef with seasoned pork fat back to prevent it from being dry after being braised. There is no longer a need for this, as long as you choose a cut with either a lot of collagen, such as the blade roast, or one with visible marbling.

The best cut is the blade roast, braised whole, cut into 3/4-inch thick steaks (called blade steaks), or cubed. Remove any traces of fat visible around the meat, as well as the underlying bluish-white membrane, called the silverskin, if the butcher hasn’t already done so. Whether you use a whole roast, steaks, or cubes, don’t remove the white band of collagenic tissue that runs through the center of the cut from end to end. It will turn to soft gelatin during the long cooking and give the meat a very pleasant and soft texture.

Another good choice is chuck. Cut the meat into 1-1/2-inch cubes, removing only larger blocks of fat or tough membranes. For this cut, it is the marbling fat that keeps the meat moist during cooking. If there is a bone in the piece, brown it and add it to the braise.

Before letting the meat marinate in the wine and aromatics, you’ll simmer the wine for 15 to 20 minutes with some aromatics and cool it completely. This simmering step allows most of the alcohol to evaporate so that the meat taste remains integral without taking on that slightly unpleasant “winy” flavor so noticeable in the stew meat that has been marinated in raw wine.

The stock or broth for the braise must be meaty and robust. It is traditionally made with veal; the best cuts are meaty pieces of veal neck, the thinnest end of the breast, or the bonier ends of shanks (use any basic veal stock recipe). Beef stock is less traditional but quite acceptable. You can also make a good stock with large turkey legs, adding a blanched veal knuckle or two blanched ends of veal shank to the pot.

I wouldn’t say that I endorse canned broth, but if you can’t get around to making your own, use a low-salt broth and always taste before adding more salt.

  • Beef Bourguignon Recipe
    Drying the meat means better browning, which ultimately gives more flavor to the sauce.
  • Beef Bourguignon Recipe
    Sautéing the aromatics until softened releases their flavors.
Three ingredients that make or break the dish
Beef Bourguignon Recipe
The secret ingredient. Pork rind, scraped of fat, gives this beef braise its voluptuous sauce

As you review the recipe, a few ingredients may strike you as odd. I’ll explain them.

  • Pork rinds from ham hocks. These are simmered, cut in pieces, and set in the bottom of the braising pot. The rind is mostly protein, which melts during the long, slow cooking and gives the sauce its luxuriant body and shine. You’ll probably need to buy whole ham hocks (either fresh or smoked) and remove the rind yourself after simmering. You can freeze the meat and bone and use it in a pasta or bean dish.

  • Beef bouillon cubes. I use 1-1/2 cubes of beef bouillon for its salt content and for the trace amount of monosodium glutamate it contains, which rounds up the flavor of the sauce.

  • No tomato products. It’s not uncommon for braise recipes to include tomatoes, but mine does not. Both fresh and canned tomatoes contain acids. When a stock or sauce with tomatoes reduces, the acidity increases. The high acidity can break down meat gelatin, which results in a watery sauce that slides off the meat onto the bottom of the plate. If you try to correct with a flour or cornstarch thickener, the acid wreaks the same damage on the starch.

For the garnishes: slab bacon, tiny onions, and button mushrooms

While the beef is braising, you’ll prepare what we call the garnishes, though don’t be misled by the term: these are not plate adornments but rather integral parts of the dish. The garnishes are mushrooms, onions, and, traditionally, fresh pork brisket, cut into short, thin strips, called lardoons. Since pork brisket is close to impossible to get in this country, I use the best slab bacon I can find, blanching it (starting in cold water) to remove some of the smokiness. The lardoons of bacon should be cooked to be as golden as possible all around, but never crisp to the core.

The onions should be the regular small white pearl onions sold at any good market. If you can’t find them, use the smallest onions available, peeled of their outer layers to shrink their size. Sweet small red onions are not desirable. The mushrooms should preferably be button mushrooms, either white or cremini. Otherwise, quarter larger mushrooms.

Thickening and finishing the sauce. If you like the texture of the sauce as it is straight out of the pot, you may leave it as is. Most likely, however, you’ll want to thicken it slightly, which is easily done with a butter-flour paste, called a beurre manié. Keep in mind while thickening that a brown sauce will always be somewhat thin (though it shouldn’t be watery) and should never acquire the thickish texture of a medium white sauce. As a final rounding touch to the sauce, I sometimes add an ounce of Cognac when deglazing the garnish pan with the braising sauce.

Beef Bourguignon begs to be served with a starchy side dish that will soak up the sauce. One of my favorites is spaetzle. The braise is wonderful served over egg noodles lavished with butter.

  • Beef Bourguignon Recipe
    Pressing on the vegetable solids during straining extracts as much liquid—and flavor—as possible.
  • Beef Bourguignon Recipe
    A final strain of the defatted sauce removes protein particles that coagulated during the reduction—no pressing this time.
Recipes:

Beef Bourguignon

Spaetzle

Photo: Ben Fink

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