When I think about alcohol in main dishes, wine usually comes first to my mind. But beer is an equally delightful way to go, especially in a Belgian dish known as Carbonnade, or beef and beer stew.
A simple dish, peasant-food if you will, beef and beer stew is perfect on a cold night. Paired with a salad, a loaf of crusty bread, red cabbage and a tall glass of beer, Carbonnade is easy to prepare on the stove-top, in the oven, or in a slow cooker.
Upon discovering that this month’s Progressive Eats theme would be boozy cooking, Carbonnade immediately sprang to mind. But how to recreate it?
Julia Child’s version from Mastering the Art of French Cooking was my introduction to Carbonnade. I enjoy it, but had always felt the recipe was missing something. I started to look online and in my many cookbooks for inspiration, but the array of choices was dizzying. Who knew that beef and beer stew could have so many variations?
Luckily, we happened to go to a wonderful Washington DC Belgian restaurant, Belga Cafe, a few weeks ago. When I saw Carbonnade on the menu, of course I ordered it. This Carbonnade did not disappoint. Timidly, I asked the server if she would get me the recipe from Belga’s chef. Remembering what happened last time I asked for a recipe, I kept my expectations in check.
She went to the kitchen and returned, smiling, with a list of ingredients handwritten on the back of a ripped-off piece of a menu. It was definitely a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that at least now I knew the ingredients the chef used. The bad news was that I had to figure out all the proportions and most of the directions on my own.
Even the bad news turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As I looked through other recipes with the chef’s ingredient list, I began to develop my own take on this venerable dish.
I kept to the ingredient list of the Belga Cafe version, except that I added some bacon and a bit of flour. My proportions provide four generous servings of meat. If you supplement the stew with lots of vegetables, the recipe will serve six.
Tips for Making Belgian Beef and Beer Stew
- The Beef – Although you may be attracted to leaner meat, choose a cut such as chuck, with fat marbled through. The fat keeps the meat tender during the long, slow cooking. The chunks should be big, but not mammoth. Pre-cut stew meat cubes work if the pieces are relatively uniform. I floured the cubes, which gives them a nice crust, but that step is optional.
- The Beer – Dark beer is essential, preferably Belgian brown beer. I used Leffe brown ale, which has a nice, slightly sweet taste. Do not use light beer. The beer bubbles like a potion when you add it. Go ahead and say an incantation as it does its magic. Feel free to sip as you cook, but don’t shortchange the Carbonnade – open another bottle!
- Onions – This recipe gets them caramelized, but with a shorter cooking time than the “old school” method. Of course, if you keep caramelized onions on hand in the refrigerator, you can skip this step and simply add the ones you’ve already made.
- Mustard – This ingredient, missing from Julia Child’s recipe, gives the stew a spicy, distinctive taste. I used a combination of Dijon and coarse ground “country” mustard. Either or both work. American, yellow mustard is a “no go” here. It doesn’t have the same depth of flavor.
- Bread – I used sweet brown bread. Topped with mustard, it sits on top of the stew as it cooks and slowly dissolves into the sauce. If you use white bread (a chewy artisan type, not packaged sandwich bread), add a bit of brown sugar. A baguette has too much crust to work well here.
- Bacon – Once I saw this version of Carbonnade, I just had to add bacon, however it wasn’t in the Belga Cafe list of ingredients. If you omit bacon, you may want to add a bit more salt to the sauce at the end of cooking.
- Cooking. Long and slow no matter which way you go – stovetop, oven or slow cooker.
- 2 1/4 - 2 1/2 pounds of beef stew meat, cut into 1 1/2 - 2-inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, freshly ground pepper
- 3-4 ounces bacon (optional)
- 3-4 medium-large onions, about 1 1/2 pound, thinly sliced (4 1/2-5 cups)
- Dash of granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) olive oil divided or 6 tablespoons if omitting the bacon
- 2 cloves garlic, finely diced or mashed
- 1 bottle (11-12 ounces) brown ale + more if needed
- 2 cups beef broth or stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 1-2 thick slices of bread, preferably dark brown bread - add a teaspoon of brown sugar to the sauce if your bread has no sweetness to it
- 1-2 tablespoons mustard, Dijon or coarse brown or a combination
- Coat the stew meat in the flour (optional), salt and ground pepper and set aside.
- Slow cook the bacon in a large pan. When done, remove and drain it on paper towels.
- Leave 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat in pan and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil or use 3 tablespoons olive oil if omitting the bacon. Add the thinly sliced onions and cook on a low heat, covered for 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle on the dash of granulated sugar and cook additional 20 minutes, adding the garlic and thyme 2 minutes before the end of cooking. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.
- In two batches, brown the meat in the pan, using the rest of the oil. (Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, heat, and brown half of the stew meat on all side, making sure each piece has enough space to brown without crowding. Repeat.) Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
- Add the bottle of beer to the pan on a medium-low heat. stir as it bubbles, scraping up any bits that have adhered to the bottom. This process is called deglazing and adds all the yummy bits on the bottom of the pan to the sauce.
- Bring the beer to a boil, add in the browned beef cubes, the caramelized onions, the bay leaves, brown sugar (if the bread is not sweet) and the beef stock.
- Slather the mustard on the bread, tear the bread in large pieces, and place it on top of the stew. Cover and cook on a low simmer, covered, for about 2 1/2 hours, stirring gently once or twice. At the end, stir whatever bread remains on top into the sauce and add more beer if the sauce is too thick for your taste. Consider adding additional salt and pepper to the sauce after tasting it.
- One thick slice of bread with one tablespoon of mustard yields a medium-thin sauce that is lightly flavored. Doubling those ingredients thickens the sauce and makes it spicier. With flour on the meat as it browns and two slices of bread, the sauce is quite thick. If you like those proportions but prefer more sauce, thin it out by adding more beer toward the end of the cooking time.
- For slow cooking, add the cooked ingredients to the slow cooker on low for about 6 hours.
- For oven cooking, put the covered casserole in a low setting. Simply Recipes, a site I trust, recommends 300 degrees F for carbonnade.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a progressive dinner involves going from house to house, enjoying a different course at each location. With Progressive Eats, a theme is chosen each month, members share recipes suitable for a delicious meal or party, and you can hop from blog to blog to check them out.
We have a core group of 12 bloggers, but we will always need substitutes and if there is enough interest would consider additional groups. To see our upcoming themes and how you can participate, please check out the schedule at Creative Culinary or contact Barb for more information.
- Carbonnade Beef and Beer Stew from Mother Would Know
- One Hour Ham and White Bean Soup from Miss in the Kitchen
- Rum Jerk Chicken from Stetted
- Peruvian Pisco Roast Chicken from The Heritage Cook
- Red Wine and Pork Pasta Sauce Food Hunter’s Guide
- Sous Vide Chinese Drunken Wine Chicken from Jeanette’s Healthy Living
- Guiness Chocolate Cupcakes with Irish Whiskey Frosting from Creative Culinary
- Irish Cream Pots de Creme from That Skinny Chick Can Bake
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter Ice Cream Sauce from Pastry Chef Online