Carbonnade à la flamande (Belgian Beef Braised in Beer)

Today is Columbus Day so, of course, I decided I would make a Belgian meal… ;) One of my favorite Belgian dishes is carbonnade, a wonderfully deep-flavored dish of beef braised in onions and beer. It is simple but satisfying, just the kind of cooking and eating that I like best, especially as the temperatures cool.

Start by cutting up some good stewing beef—I prefer chuck—into serving pieces, either cubes or (as the older recipes call for) small, thick slices. Brown each piece well in lard (or butter) and set aside. In the same skillet, sauté lots of onions, about half as much as you have beef by weight (or even more if you like onions) until they have softened.

Now layer a Dutch oven or braiser with half the beef, then half the onions. Season well with salt and pepper. Repeat with the rest of the beef and onions. Then take a ladleful of good, strong beef stock and deglaze the skillet in which you browned the beef and onions, and pour it into the pot. Top off with some good beer or ale—preferably Belgian ale, of course—enough to cover the beef completely. Nestle a bouquet garni, made with a bay leaf, a spring of fresh thyme and a sprig of parsley, among the beef pieces. Most recipes also call for adding a pinch of brown sugar at this point, just enough to balance some of the bitterness of the beer but not enough to add any actual sweetness to the dish.

Bring the pot to a simmer on top of the stove, cover, and place in a moderate oven (180°C, 350°F) to braise for 2-1/2 or 3 hours, until the beef is fork tender. (The dish can be made ahead up to this point.)

A few minutes before serving, remove the pot from the oven and, keeping at a slow simmer on top of the stove, thicken the sauce with a slurry of corn starch and water, together with just a few drops of vinegar, if you like. (Again, not too much—just enough to add a tiny bit of ‘zip’ but not so much that you can actually taste any sourness.) Let the dish simmer for a few minutes and serve hot, accompanied by pommes frites, mashed or steamed potatoes or buttered noodles.

NOTES: As with many classic dishes, you will find many variations of carbonnade à la flamande. Not all recipes calls for the final fillip of vinegar, some call for a dollop of mustard. Some versions will have you add some lardons at the start, some add mushrooms—at which point the dish begins to resemble a boeuf bourguignon made with beer rather than red wine. The herbs and spices that go into the bouquet garni can vary; personally, I like adding a few cloves, while some recipes call for some allspice or nutmeg. And some recipes thicken the dish not with cornstarch but a beurre manié or—believe it or not—with some gingerbread (pain d’épices) that is either crumbled or placed on top of the beef to braise along with it. Of course, as the dish cooks the gingerbread breaks up and melts into the braising liquid, providing a nice liaison and an old-fashioned flavor.

One crucial choice will be, of course, the beer or ale, which can really transform the character of the dish. Needless to say, a good Belgian ale, perhaps of the Lambic or Trappist variety, would really be the best choice. But any beer or ale with good character, particularly amber ales, will work. (So will your average lager in a pinch, but the dish will inevitably lack some ‘oomph’.) If you want a really interesting taste, you can do what the Irish do and use stout, I which case (if you add some carrots along with the onions) you will be making a typical Irish dish called Beef in Guinness.

I am not sure of the origins of carbonnadethe word actually refers to cooking over coals—but it is surely very, very old. Some of the older variations that call for spices like nutmeg, the use of bread as a thickener and the sweet-and-sour flavoring (I suspect the vinegar was probably originally verjuice) are all quite typical of Medieval European cuisine.


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13 Responses to “Carbonnade à la flamande (Belgian Beef Braised in Beer)”

  1. Susan from Belgium
    17 December 2010 at 05:17 #

    Most carbonnade recipes call for something added to sweeten. In the northern part of the country they add cassonade (which looks a bit like demerara sugar) or a couple lumps of white sugar and in Liege they add apple and pear syrup (sirop de Liege, a local specialty). The choice of beer is also typically regional.

    Personally I make it with Kriek (cherry beer) and just before leaving it to simmer I add a few slices of pain d'epices (I think that the American concept of gingerbread is more of a cookie than a loaf, and somewhat resembles to what we call speculoos) with a generous layer of dijon mustard (the real stuff) spread on top. This will then “melt” in the gravy to thicken and sweeten. No need for sugar or sirop here.

    The original recipe calls for plain bread under the mustard but the pain d'epices adds a little je-ne-sais-quoi that makes your dinner guests go back for one last serving…

    The seasoning that works well in this recipe is bay leaves (lots), a few sprigs of fresh thyme and a couple of cloves.

    Very important also is to make the dish the day before, like for most stewed meats. And of course don't forget the frites.

  2. 30 October 2010 at 11:12 #

    Thanks, folks, for all the comments. They mean a lot to a humble blogger like myself…

    @Dan: Long, slow cooking is definitely a must!

    @Drick: More proof that, as the Italians say, tutto il mondo e' paese–it's a small world, and most especially when it comes to cooking.

    @SpicieFoodie: Yes, goulash is also one of our favorites here at home! We lived in Vienna for a couple of years and picked up the habit.

    @s.stockwell: I'm happy I could bring back some fond memories. Not surprising so see similarities between Belgian and Central European cookery.

  3. 19 October 2010 at 20:35 #

    What a superb staple in any kitchen. The beer, gingerbread, mustard seeds and touch of vinegar is a combination that does appear in the kitchen notes of my great grandmother and she called it sauerbraten. You never fail to “bring it” and we love it. We will be making this one asap. Best from Santa Barbara.

  4. 14 October 2010 at 15:29 #

    Una pietanza squisita! Complimenti per le ricette e per il blog in generale :-)

  5. 14 October 2010 at 08:37 #

    This looks like a big pot of flavour, and I bet the house smells great as it cooks :)

    Love the idea of adding gingerbread too, would really like to try that.

  6. 13 October 2010 at 09:29 #

    Such a delicious sounding dish! It reminds me a bit of Goulash, looks the same. In my house we love these kind of stewed meat with sauce meals, they are easy to prepare and always taste great. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. 13 October 2010 at 05:59 #

    Stew beef is always welcome in my family and this one looks like a winner! Can't wait to try your recipe the next time we stew beef.

  8. 12 October 2010 at 23:18 #

    Your version of this classic looks sooo good! Perfect with a pint…

  9. 12 October 2010 at 22:26 #

    Your recipes are consistently drool inducing

  10. 12 October 2010 at 19:18 #

    another beautiful dish – hearty and will stick to your ribs … we add vinegar during the cooking in stews such as this, Momma said it helps tenderize the meat…

  11. 12 October 2010 at 05:49 #

    Carbonnade a la flamande is my favorite beef stew, and yours looks delicious. I think I'll try the vinegar at the end next time.

  12. 12 October 2010 at 03:40 #

    woow, it looks really amazing ..

  13. 11 October 2010 at 19:39 #

    This looks excellent. I've made something similar, however, the meat didn't stew for as long as you recommend. I think following your method will make a big difference (i.e., improvement).


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