A beef stew is a beef stew is a beef stew — unless you live in France, where stews have particular names depending on the cut of the meat in them, the booze they float in (there’s almost always something alcoholic) or the part of the country they come from.
A daube traditionally is made with cubes of beef and red wine, and, if you’re from Provence, you might add olives and/or a strip of orange peel. Beef a la mode, which uses a hunk of meat, is what Americans might call pot roast. Beef bourguignon comes from Burgundy (Bourgogne) and uses the pinot noir that’s the pride of its region. And then there’s carbonnade, the outlier.
Sometimes called Flemish beef stew, and most notable because beer is the braising liquid, beef carbonnade is the stew of choice in Belgium and in the north of France, places too cold for growing wine grapes but famed for their beer. Ale makes for a heartier stew than does wine, one that’s more suited to its original chilly terroir and one that’s welcome here while we wait for spring to show up.
At its most traditional, the carbonnade pairs beef with slow-cooked, caramelized onions. In fact, it’s as much about the onions as it is about beef. It always has a sweet-sour edge, thanks to the addition of brown sugar (beloved in northern France) and cider vinegar. Because I like playing the sweet-sour card, I’ve upped its punch here by adding mustard and tomato paste, allspice, cloves and more thyme and bay leaves than a French cook might. Seasoned like that, the stew has it all: It’s sweet, sour, (just a little) bitter (from the ale), salty and packed with umami.
A word on the beer: If you can, choose a Belgian ale, preferably a Trappist or abbey beer; I often use Chimay. But if what you’ve got is domestic, carry on.
It’s important to give both the beef and the onions a generous helping of TLC. Here are four tips:
Don’t crowd the meat. This is good advice for any kind of stew. Before you slip the beef into its flavorful broth, it should be well browned on all sides, even a bit charred. The only way to get good color is to cook the beef in batches, making sure there’s room between each morsel. Crowd the pan, and you’ll steam the meat.
Let the meat brown in peace. Put the cubes in the hot pan, then leave them alone. Don’t stir the meat, and don’t turn the pieces until you must. Allow the meat to brown on one side, then turn it.
If some bits stick to the pan, so much the better. You’ll unstick them when you add the liquid, and the stew will taste deeper and richer for their being there. However, if after you’ve browned the meat the oil has gone black, pour it out and lightly wipe the pan (leaving the bits, sometimes called the fond). Burned oil doesn’t make anything taste good.
For the onions, patience is the word of the day. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until they are the color of caramel. Once you achieve that color, you will get the onions’ distinctive sweetness.
Put your time in, in the beginning, then sit back. The stew cooks happily on its own — no stirring, no tending — for three hours. Like all good stews, it can be made ahead and reheated.
Belgian Beef and Beer Stew: A Carbonnade
Traditionally, a carbonnade is cooked without vegetables. However, there’s no rule about being traditional. If you’d like, you can drop some pieces of root vegetables into the pot — such as carrots, parsnips, celery root, Jerusalem artichokes and turnips — after the beef has cooked for about 90 minutes. Or steam some vegetables, and add them to the stew about 20 minutes before serving.
I like the carbonnade served over buttered noodles. And, yes, not surprisingly, I like it served with beer.
Serve with wide noodles, buttered or not.
MAKE AHEAD: The stew can be refrigerated, covered, up to 2 days in advance; reheat over low heat. It can be frozen for up to 1 month.
- 1/4 cup flour
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 1/2 pounds chuck or other stew beef, cut into 2-inch cubes, patted dry
- 3 tablespoons flavorless oil, such as canola, or more as needed
- 6 slices thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic (green germ removed), finely chopped
- One 12-ounce bottle Belgian, abbey or brown ale or beer, such as Chimay
- 1 1/2 cups beef broth
- 2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar (light or dark)
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste or concentrate
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- Pinch ground cloves
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 cups cubed, roasted vegetables, or as much as you like (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley, dill, chives, tarragon or mixed herbs, for serving
Put the flour in a mixing bowl, season generously with salt and pepper and drop in the beef; toss to coat.
Pour 2 tablespoons of the oil into a 4-to-5-quart Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add as many beef cubes as you can without crowding them, first shaking off excess flour. The beef will steam, not brown, if the pan is too full; cook, seasoning each batch with salt and pepper, until browned on all sides. The pieces should release easily from the bottom of the pot. As the meat is browned, transfer it to a separate bowl. If you need more oil to finish browning the batches, add it as needed. Reserve any leftover flour. If the oil in the pot has burned, wipe out the pot, leaving whatever solids (browned bits) have stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Toss the bacon into the pot and cook, stirring, until it has browned and its fat has rendered; transfer to the bowl with the beef.
Add the butter to the pot along with the onions and garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper; reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are caramel-colored. Be patient; this can take at least 30 minutes. If you had leftover flour, stir it into the caramelized onions and cook for 2 minutes, until it browns and loses its raw-flour taste.
While the onions are caramelizing, preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Spoon the meat, bacon and whatever juices may have accumulated in the bowl back into the Dutch oven. Add the ale or beer, the broth, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard, tomato paste, allspice, cloves, thyme and bay leaves; increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and pepper, adding more as needed. Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil, then with its lid, and slide it into the oven. Cook (middle rack) for 21/2 to 3 hours or until the meat is tender enough to cut with a spoon. Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaves.
When you’re ready to serve, stir in the roasted vegetables, if using, then sprinkle the stew with the chopped herbs.