a/k/a Beef Burgundy, This Classic French Dish Is Perfect for Fall Entertaining
Julia Child introduced the US to Boeuf Bourguignon in the 1960s. Until then, the few Americans who knew about the dish had encountered it in a French restaurant or on travels abroad.
Then we saw Julia cook it on her PBS television show, The French Chef — and we were smitten! It was so exotic and delicious. And once you got past the fancy French name, it was really nothing more than beef stew. Boeuf Bourguignon instantly became the entertaining dish in the 60s — and for a decade or two beyond.
It seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years, which is too bad. Because you can prepare most of it a day or two ahead, and then finish it when you’re ready to serve — perfect for entertaining.
Recipe: Boeuf Bourguignon
There are three major steps in making this dish. In the first step, you cut the beef into cubes and brown them. You’ll add some vegetables for flavoring, along with wine (a whole bottle!), and usually some beef stock. If you want, you can do this step a day or two ahead, and let the beef marinate with the wine in the refrigerator.
The second major step: Slowly braise the meat. You can do this either on top of the stove or in an oven (my preferred way). Again, you can do this step in advance. Simply cook the meat until done, let it cool, then refrigerate with its sauce (cooking liquid) for a day or two.
The third major step is to prepare the small whole onions and mushrooms that traditionally are added to the dish before serving. It’s also traditional (and a nice touch) to thicken the sauce at this point. The thickening is best done right before you serve the dish; but see the Procedure and Notes.
Boeuf Bourguignon is traditionally accompanied by boiled potatoes tossed with parsley, but I prefer Homemade Noodles. You could also serve it on a bed of rice or mashed potatoes.
I learned to make this dish from Julia Child’s books, so she is my source. She offers several variations of Boeuf Bourguignon in her cookbooks, but they’re all quite similar. My favorite of her recipes can be found in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, and my recipe is adapted from that one. This recipe serves 6 to 8, and leftovers keep for several days in the refrigerator.
It’s a bit hard to estimate preparation and cooking time for this recipe, because it depends partially on your skills (and how large a skillet you have for browning meat). Cutting up the meat and chopping vegetables might take 20 minutes (30 tops). Browning the meat usually takes me at least half an hour, often a bit longer. Braising time for the meat is 2 hours, largely unattended. Cooking the onions and mushrooms takes maybe another half hour (though you can prepare them during the final 30 minutes that the meat is cooking). Bottom line? Preparing this dish does take some time. You may want to spread your cooking over 2 or 3 days — see the first Note below for a strategy on how to do this.
- ½ pound slab bacon or salt pork, cut into pieces measuring about ½-inch x one-inch (optional but mighty tasty)
- 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil (you may need more as you brown the meat)
- ~4 pounds boneless chuck roast (see Notes for substitutions)
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- ~1½ cups peeled onions, cut into ½ inch dice (for flavoring the stock, not for eating)
- ~1½ cups scrubbed and peeled carrots, cut into ½ inch dice
- 1 head garlic, peeled, with the cloves crushed
- 1 bottle red wine (French burgundy or US pinot noir are ideal; but you can use any hearty red wine you like — see Notes)
- 14- or 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 - 2 cups beef stock (see Notes for substitution)
- 1 bag frozen white pearl onions (usually 16 ounces; pearl onions are traditional but optional, IMO)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil for cooking the pearl onions
- 1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters
- 1 tablespoon olive oil for cooking the mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon butter for cooking the mushrooms
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch (for thickening the sauce; optional but recommended — but see Notes)
- 3 tablespoons red wine or cold water (for thickening the sauce)
- chopped parsley as a garnish (optional)
(I’m writing the Procedure as if you’ll make this recipe all in one go, but it’s more convenient for most of us to prepare it over 2 or 3 days. See first Note for specific instructions on how to do this.)
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F if you plan to make this all in one day (see Notes for timing strategy).
- Prepare the slab bacon or salt pork, if using. Fill 1-quart saucepan ¾ of the way with water, and put on stove to heat. Meanwhile, cut slab bacon or salt pork into strips about 1 inch x ½ inch. Simmer in saucepan with water for 10 minutes. After bacon has finished simmering, drain and pat dry. Heat large frying pan (12 inches is ideal) on medium heat. When hot, add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. When the oil is hot (it shimmers), add the chunks of slab bacon or salt pork, and sauté for 5 minutes. Remove bacon and put it into a 5- or 6-quart Dutch oven or casserole. Don’t dump the oil (and rendered pork fat) from the skillet — you’ll be using it in Step 4.
- As the bacon simmers, I usually start cutting the beef into chunks to be browned. Slice the beef along the natural muscle separations as much as possible, cutting into pieces of anywhere from 1½ inch x 3 inches to chunks of 2 or even 3 inches square. It’s more important to have uniform sizes than a specific size. I usually like bigger pieces rather than smaller, but do whatever you prefer. You’ll be generating some excess fat and gristle as you’re cutting up the beef, so discard that. Pat the beef chunks dry with paper towels (wet beef doesn’t brown), then lightly salt and pepper.
- After you’ve completed Step 2, you can begin browning the beef chunks. This takes some time and attention to do well — the better the crust you put on the beef chunks, the tastier the stew will be. (See Notes for discussion of the Maillard reaction.) Heat the skillet that you used to cook the bacon chunks until the fat is hot, then add a few chunks of beef. Start with just 4 or 5 at first, because the fat cools as you add the meat. When the fat returns to heat, add as many beef chunks as will fit comfortably in the hot frying pan. Do not crowd! They should not be touching, or they’ll steam rather than brown. Brown each chunk until the first side is a deep brown, then (using tongs) turn and brown another side. This will take at least 5 minutes for the first side, a bit less for subsequent sides. As each piece becomes fully browned, remove it and place it in the Dutch oven/casserole, and add another piece to the skillet in its place (easy to do when all the pieces are cut to a uniform size — you know the next piece will fit). Continue (adding more oil if necessary) until all the beef chunks are browned.
- While the meat is browning, prepare the onions, carrots, and garlic — keeping a close eye on the browning process. If you’re not sure you can handle both at the same time, then either do this step first, or do it after the next step.
- When all the meat is browned, discard the oil. You should have a nice, brown crust on the bottom of the frying pan. Check to make sure the pan crust isn’t burned (if it is, discard it). Add a cup or so of wine to the frying pan and deglaze the pan: Using a spoon or wooden spatula, scrape the brown crusty bits off the bottom of the pan until they dissolve in the wine.
- Add the contents of the skillet to the Dutch oven/casserole, along with the rest of the wine, the garlic, tomatoes, thyme, and diced onions and carrots. Add just enough beef stock to barely cover the top of the meat. Bring meat and wine sauce to a simmer on top of the stove. Skim off and discard any scum that floats to the top, then cover the Dutch oven/casserole and place it in the oven. (You can also simmer this gently on top of the stove, though you'll need to check on it from time to time to give it a stir and make sure it's not simmering too vigorously.) It should take two hours for the meat to braise in the oven, but start checking after 90 minutes. The meat is done when a fork will easily pierce it, but it isn’t falling apart.
- When the meat is done, remove it from the Dutch oven/casserole dish (using tongs) and set aside. Place a strainer over a large bowl, and pour the contents of the Dutch oven/casserole into it (the strainer will catch the vegetables and stray pieces of meat you may have missed). Remove any pieces of meat from the strainer (and the bacon, if you wish — I always do) and set aside. With a spoon, push on the vegetables to extract as much liquid as you can, then discard the vegetables.
- Pour the strained beef stock into a big measuring cup (one of those 8-cup jobs is ideal). You want to end up with 3 to 4 cups of sauce. So if you have more than that, pour it into a saucepan and reduce it until you have 3 to 4 cups.
- Pour the sauce into the Dutch oven/casserole and add the meat that you have set aside. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning. Keep warm on low heat while you cook the pearl onions and mushrooms. (Note: If you plan to serve from the Dutch/oven casserole, you may want to wash it out before you return the meat and sauce to it.)
- (If you prefer, you can do this step and the next one during the last half hour of the beef’s cooking time in Step 7.) To prepare the pearl onions, place them in a microwave-safe covered dish and nuke them on high until they’re just cooked through — usually about 8 minutes. Pat the pearl onions dry with paper towels (they may be damp). Take a skillet just large enough to hold the pearl onions in one layer, and heat on medium. Add a tablespoon of olive oil. Heat until it shimmers, then add the pearl onions. Sauté them until they brown, about 10 minutes. Add to the Dutch oven/casserole containing the Boeuf Bourguignon.
- To prepare the mushrooms: Heat a skillet, then add 1 tablespoon of oil and 1 tablespoon of butter. When hot, add the mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until well browned, and add to the Dutch oven/casserole containing the Boeuf Bourguignon.
- With the pearl onions and mushrooms added to the dish, you can thicken the sauce if you like. Here’s how to do it: Mix corn starch with cold water or wine (make sure you completely dissolve the corn starch). Remove the Dutch oven/casserole from the heat, and add about half of the corn starch mixture. Stir to incorporate — it will thicken almost immediately. If the sauce is still not thick enough (it may not be), add more of the corn starch mixture until the sauce is as thick as you like.
- You can serve the Boeuf Bourguignon from the Dutch oven/casserole at table. Alternatively, you can ladle (or pour) it into a dish and serve from that. I usually sprinkle on a bit of chopped parsley as a garnish.
- If you want to prepare this recipe partly in advance, there are a couple of natural points where you can pause (just put the ingredients into an airtight container and refrigerate). The first such point is right after you’ve browned the meat and added it to the Dutch oven/casserole with the wine, stock, and vegetables (Step 7). At this point, you can refrigerate the mixture for a day or two, and then proceed to braise the meat. The second natural stopping point is after the meat is cooked and you’ve reduced the sauce (if necessary) to 3 or 4 cups (Step 10). At this point, you can let the meat and sauce cool, and then refrigerate it until you’re ready to continue.
- You can also complete the recipe through Step 12, then let the dish cool and refrigerate it (although the flavor will suffer a bit, since mushrooms in particular taste better if freshly prepared). If you do this, just gently reheat the dish and proceed with Step 13 to thicken the sauce.
- I like the flavor that bacon (or salt pork) adds to the dish, but incorporating it requires an extra step. So feel free to skip the bacon/salt pork — you’ll lose a bit of flavor, but just a bit.
- Same with the pearl onions — they’re nice, but IMO not essential.
- You can also skip the mushrooms, if you like. You’ll still have a really nice stew. But I should let you know that it’s the mushrooms (along with the onions and wine) that make this dish à la Bourguignonne (for more on that, see the discussion below).
- If you want to use fresh whole onions rather than frozen in Step 11, buy about a pound of pearl or small onions (no more than an inch in diameter). To prepare the onions: Heat a skillet just large enough to hold the onions in one layer. Add a tablespoon of olive oil. Heat until it shimmers, then add the onions. Sauté until the onions begin to brown. Add enough water so it halfway covers the onions (you could substitute chicken or beef stock, or wine, if you prefer), bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the onions are tender (about 25 minutes). Add to the Dutch oven/casserole containing the Boeuf Bourguignon.
- For this dish, you want a cut of meat that holds its texture during the long braising process. I really like chuck roast. It’s flavorful, relatively inexpensive, and when you cut it up it’s easy to follow the natural muscle separations, so you can create some good-sized chunks. But any stewing cut will work. Top round should also work well. If in doubt, tell your butcher what you want to make — he’ll have some suggestions. And if you don't want to face cutting up your own chuck roast, the butcher can do that for you, too. (You can also buy the "stew meat" the butcher has already packaged, but usually that's not as good a quality as buying a chuck roast.)
- The crust that forms on the bottom of the pan when you brown meat holds a great deal of flavor — more than the meat itself. As you brown meat, a process called the Maillard reaction is taking place (named after Louis-Camille Maillard, who described it in 1912). Essentially, this reaction helps intensify the meat flavors — all of which are left on the skillet as crust. We can release these flavors by deglazing the frying pan with a liquid (wine in our case). The liquid not only helps loosen the crust, but also dilutes it. We can then pour the scraped crust and deglazing liquid into the cooking stock, recapturing all the flavor that was left behind.
- Most of us aren’t going to spend the $$ to use real French Burgundy in this dish — although of course that would be most appropriate. As noted above, a pinot noir makes an excellent substitute. You could also use a zinfandel, a Côtes du Rhone, or any other hearty red wine with a bit of oomph to it. You should definitely use something that would be good enough to drink on its own, but you don’t have to go overboard. Usually something in the $8 to $12 range is quite nice (though I often go just above that).
- Rather than use beef stock, I often dissolve a bit of beef base in some water. Beef base is concentrated beef stock that has been reduced to a paste. It’s more flavorful and much better quality than bouillon cubes. For more detail, see my post Stock Excuses.
- Corn starch isn’t the traditional thickening agent for this dish, but it’s easy and relatively healthy, so that’s what I use. The traditional thickener is beurre manié (French for kneaded butter), which consists of equal parts butter and flour blended (kneaded) together. For the amount of stock used in this recipe, you would probably need a couple of tablespoons each of flour and butter. To make beurre manié, just put the ingredients in a small bowl and blend them with a spatula. Then add a bit of wine or stock to the paste to make it liquid. Add this to the stock, stir it in, and let it cook for 3 or 4 minutes so it has a chance to thicken. If the stock is still not thick enough, repeat the process. Corn starch is easier, IMO.
- A great first course where Boeuf Bourguignon is the main attraction might be Chopped Kale Salad with Creamy Lemon Dressing or Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing.
The Origin of Classical French Recipes
Boeuf Bourguignon is also sometimes called Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which essentially translates as “beef prepared the way they like to make it in the French region of Burgundy” (or in French, Bourgogne). It means that the dish uses wine from Burgundy, which is usually made from pinot noir grapes (that’s why the wine of the same name makes such a great substitute in this recipe).
But the term also indicates that the dish includes salt pork, glazed onions, and sautéed mushrooms. In fact, it’s the presence of the onions and mushrooms that today identifies something as à la Bourguignonne. So how do we know that?
Boeuf Bourguignon probably originated as a peasant dish — one that was less elaborate than what we know today. The recipe for what we now think of as “classic” Boeuf Bourguignon was essentially codified by Georges Auguste Escoffier in his 1903 Le guide culinaire. This seminal work both described and defined French haute cuisine. It is the source for all the Boeuf Bourguignon recipes that have been adapted in cookbooks ever since — as well as most of the other classic French recipes.
Escoffier was a talented cook and a genius in the kitchen. But his real gift to chefs and diners alike was to develop standard recipes. This meant that a diner who visited any restaurant serving classical French haute cuisine could order a dish and be confident about exactly what was going to show up on the plate.
Individual chefs could (and did) display their particular flourishes. But if something was described as à la Bourguignonne, for example, it had to have a garnish of mushrooms and onions. (The term “garnish” as used here did not refer to a decorative finishing touch. It indicated a set of ingredients added to a dish that established its identity.) The term à la Bourguignonne (entry 353 in Le guide culinaire) includes onions, mushrooms, salt pork, and wine. Escoffier specifies that the completed dish should be accompanied by the sauce from braising the meat. This is essentially all the information he gives, but it’s all professional cooks need to prepare this dish — it’s assumed they will already know about browning the meat and so on.
Many of the fancy dishes you see in restaurants have “garnishes” defined by Escoffier. So you know that whenever you see something prepared à la Florentine, it will include spinach (and Mornay sauce if it’s a fish dish). That’s entry 383 in Le guide. Have you ever seen a dish (usually meat) described as à la financière? Entry 381 tells us the finished dish must have mushrooms and truffles, among other things. How about meat or poultry prepared à la Parisienne? It will include Parisienne potatoes (i.e., cut into 1-inch balls), mushrooms, truffles, and a thick velouté sauce. And it will be finished under a broiler (entry 438).
Nowadays, we’re all about fusion cuisine and being inventive in the kitchen. We like to create our own recipes rather than slavishly adhere to the old standards. And that is usually a good thing. But it’s also valuable (and fun!) to sample some classic dishes — which are, after all, the source from which our modern variations have developed.
Make this Boeuf Bourguignon and you’ll be tasting hundreds of years of cooking history. And standing on the shoulders of giants.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Homemade Pasta and Noodles
Chopped Kale Salad with Creamy Lemon Dressing
Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing
Red-Braised Beans with Sweet Potatoes
Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes