Carbonade flamande is a simmered or baked dish of beef, onions, beer (and sometimes stock), vinegar, sugar, green herbs. Mustard is often added, but not invariably. A thickening of some kind is usually present, it can be bread, flour or some other starch. Spellings vary, you will also see carbonnades flamande or à la flamande, and the noun in singular or plural. The dish is a star performer of the cookery repertoire of the old region of Flanders, an area which straddles three countries: the far north of France (the area around Lille and Pas-de-Calais), Belgium and Holland.
Chatting with Jordan St. John recently, I was explaining I have a recipe I consider perfected, and he suggested I place it down here. Carbonade flamande is perhaps the best-known dish in beer cookery, rivaled perhaps only by welsh rabbit, a melted cheese and beer dish. There are many recipes online, and many are similar in their essentials, but I find small changes can make a difference. I will set down the recipe I feel gives the best result. I will stick, too, to beef versus other meats. I find the dish is best with beef, but it is interesting to try it with pork or veal, say.
The etymology of “carbonade” is not without interest. It seems to derive from carbonado, and anyone who thinks twice will see the connection to charbon (coal), carbonized and similar words. Originally, a carbonade was meat cooked over a bed of coals or burning embers, not a stewed or baked dish as it is today. How these shifts occur is one of the mysteries of food history. A point of interest is, if you search the dish in Google Books for the 19th century, a few recipes come up, yet none involves beer, or that I could find. The recipes are similar to today’s, but call for vinegar or stock or water or some combination.
However, reputable sources from the Edwardian era, including Escoffier, state the dish is a Flemish (Belgian) specialty and was cooked with “old lambic” or another “acid” beer, so I’d guess sometimes, or originally, the “vinegar” in old recipes was in fact a Belgian sour beer. The fact that vinegar is called for today when using a standard western ale or lager makes sense as this would emulate the sourish beer style that lambic or gueuze is. So in all likelihood, the dish is not a 20th century invention but goes back hundreds of years in the areas of Flanders where sour agents – vinegar, acid beer, and verjuice or sour grape juice – were used in cooking. In general, carbonade flamande is certainly a survival of medieval cooking practices.
My recipe, which I will give in summary form only but in a way any moderately experienced cook can follow, is not actually mine. It is from a book of Belgian beer cookery which dates back to the 1970’s or 1960’s. I looked for the book but can’t find it conveniently, it is in a box somewhere. Still, the thousands of recipes you can find for Belgian beef carbonade are very similar, differing only in one or two details. E.g., some add bacon (I don’t think it helps the dish); some mix beer and stock (I like beer only); some use ginger or nutmeg or mace in addition to or instead of green herbs; some marinate the meat; some add the sugar or vinegar at the end, and on it goes. I have found the recipe and method below give the best and purest taste.
First though, a note on beer. It may sound odd – on a beer blog – to suggest it, but the beer you use doesn’t really matter. I have used lambic, porter, Imperial Stout, strong ale, Coors Light, and everything in between. If you use the sugar, vinegar and mustard, which you should, it all comes out similar. So my rule is, I use any beer I have, often a blend of different beers, flat beer, old beer – almost any will get a good result. A small dash of any whisky, brandy, port or gin is good too, but don’t add too much, you don’t want a “brandied” overtone as in certain French braises.
You need a kilo of beef, a second cut like chuck, round, shoulder, even shank. It can be sliced in half-inch slices or in chunks. I like chunks. You can flour the meat or not, but sauté it to a medium browning in a pan. Don’t add too much beef to the pan otherwise it will “steam”, do it in two or three batches. Slice yellow or white onions (four or five), sauté them in more fat (butter, olive oil, lard, Crisco, corn or safflower oil, or combination). Some people like the onions brown, I think it is better to do them translucent only. Transfer meat and onions to a casserole dish, I use the oval enameled type. A Creuset is good too.
In a pot on the element, pour over a pint (20 oz) of beer, you may need about 30-35 ounces. Add the vinegar, a few tablespoons – any kind will do but a good red wine one won’t hurt, and sugar. Sugar is important, you need at least a tablespoon, it modifies and mingles with the beer and vinegar to produce the classic sweet and sour palate. The sugar can be white, brown, even maple syrup. In a pinch, honey or molasses perhaps. Add as well a rounded
tablespoon teaspoon of mixed dried herbs, and a bay leaf or two is good. The herbs can be a bouquet garni as well. Bring all to a boil, skim the scum that forms at the top (this is important: it makes for a better dish). Pour all onto the beef and onion mixture in the baking dish. Then, take a couple of slices, or three, of semi-stale but good bread, any whole grain say, and smear well with a Dijon or any good mustard. Place slices of bread mustard-side down on the top of the mixture, the liquid should have come to near the top of the beef and onion layer.
Cover. Bake at 325 F or even 350 F for a couple of hours, I find at 350 sometimes barely more than one hour is enough, test meat until it is cooked but still firm. Cooking will take more or less time depending on the meat, your oven, etc. It is better to let dish cool on top of stove, remove any noticeable fat, and then put in fridge and reheat well next day, it is at its best that way. Half-way through the cooking, blend everything with a spoon, you will see that the bread disintegrates and helps lightly thicken the sauce. Salt and pepper to taste at outset, it is better to add less than more, you can always adjust later, but too much salt ruins the dish (or any dish).
I don’t like garlic in this dish, or not more than a hint. Some Belgian recipes use a spice bread for the thickening element. I have tried this with certain breads you can get at a specialty baker but don’t think it is better than a couple of slices of good whole grain. You can use flour only instead of bread to thicken, e.g. by flouring the meat before sauteeing. In that case just put a couple of tablespoons mustard directly into the stew when you add the boiling beer.
Drink with any beer you like or any red wine you like that can stand up however to a sweet and sour dish. A good Zinfandel, or Beaujolais. Riesling is good too, IMO, and Ontario has many suitable ones.
Brussels sprouts lightly steamed or boiled with butter, or cabbage sections cooked ditto. Plain boiled potatoes or noodles buttered, or the classic French fries of Lille and Belgium – all work very well.
N.B. For those who wish to try it with bacon and spice bread (or regular bread but adding ginger, nutmeg, mace or cinnamon), here is a French recipe from the Internet which looks good. It calls for a liter of Pelforth Brune, similar perhaps to Black Oak or Amsterdam brown ale in Ontario, or, Leffe Brune for a “sweeter” taste (but you can adjust the sweetness with less or more sugar anyway). One thing I would advise is, don’t try too many flavours willy nilly, you will get a muddled result that is okay but not great. Escoffier’s recipe is here, (see pg. 398) which first appeared in 1904. It employs the classic lambic. As sours are a dime a dozen in the craft beer world, try any of those in lieu of lambic but if you have that, or any gueuze, or any Flanders red ale, go with that. Otherwise, from Coors Light + vinegar to Sam’s Old Chitterling Ale Aged in Ancient Mead Casks + vinegar, you will acquit yourself very well.
Note re image: image is in public domain and source used is here.