Carbonade flamande is a simmered or baked dish whose essentials are meat, onions, beer and sometimes stock. Vinegar, sugar, herbs, and/or mustard often figure as well. A thickening of some kind is usually present, bread, flour, or another starch.
Spelling varies, you will also see carbonnades flamande or à la flamande, and the noun in the singular or plural.
The dish is a star performer in the cookery of the old region of Flanders, an area which straddles three countries: the far north of France around Lille and into Pas-de-Calais, Belgium, and Holland.
Carbonade flamande is perhaps the best-known dish of beer cookery, rivaled only by Welsh Rabbit, a melted cheese and beer dish. The latter also enjoys great popularity in the area of historical Flanders.
There are many recipes for Flemish carbonade, in countless books and online. Most are similar in the main points but the variations can make a difference. I set out below the recipe I feel gives best results. I stick to beef among the meats as I find the dish best that way, but it is interesting to try pork or veal.
“Carbonade” seems to derive from carbonado, connected today the words charbon (coal), carbonized, and similar.
Hence, carbonade was meat cooked over a bed of coals or burning embers, not a stewed or baked dish as it is today. How these changes occur is one of the many mysteries in food history.
A point of interest is that a search of the dish in Google Books limited to the 19th century produces a few recipes yet none that involves beer, or that I could find. The recipes are similar to today’s but call for vinegar, stock, water or some combination.*
Sources from the Edwardian era, including the great chef Escoffier, remark on the dish as a Flemish (Belgian) specialty that is cooked with “old lambic” or another Belgian beer of the acid, lambic group.
Probably “vinegar” in the older recipes was sometimes a sour Belgian beer. The fact that vinegar is called for today with (usually) a standard ale or lager makes sense: the combination emulates the sour taste of lambic or gueuze.
So in all likelihood the dish is not a 20th-century invention but goes back hundreds of years in Flanders where sour agents – vinegar, acid beer, or verjuice (sour grape juice) were used in cookery. In general, carbonade flamande is a survival of medieval cooking practices that revealed a sweet-and-sour signature.
I give my recipe in summary form but any moderately experienced cook can follow it. It is not actually mine but from a Belgian beer cookery book dating to the 1970s or 60s. (I looked for it but can’t find conveniently find it, it is in a box somewhere).
Still, the thousands of recipes in books and online for beef carbonade are similar, differing usually in a detail or two. Some add bacon (I don’t think it helps the dish), some mix beer and stock (I like beer only), and some use ginger, nutmeg, or mace instead of green herbs.
Some cooks marinate the meat in the beer; some add the sugar or vinegar only at the end, and on it goes
A note on the beer: It may sound odd in a beer blog to suggest it, but the kind used doesn’t really matter. I have used lambic, porter, Imperial Stout, Coors Light, and everything in between. If you use the sugar, vinegar, and mustard – which you should – it all comes out very similar.
So my rule is, I use any beer I have, or a blend of leavings – almost anything. A dash of whisky, brandy, port or gin is good too, but don’t add too much, you don’t want a “brandied” overtone.
You need a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of beef, a second cut like chuck, round, shoulder, or shank. It can be sliced in half-inch slices or in chunks. You can flour the meat, or not.
Sauté it to a medium brown in a pan. Don’t add too much beef when browning else it will “steam”, do it in two or three batches. Slice yellow or white onions, four or five, sauté them in more fat, any kind will do but I find butter is best, maybe mixed with olive oil.
Some people like the onions browned, I find it better to have them translucent. Transfer the meat and onions to a casserole dish, I use the oval enameled type. A Creuset-type is good as well but watch the cooking time, as the extra insulation holds the heat and these vessels need less time to avoid a drying out.
In a pot on the element pour an Imperial pint (20 oz) of beer or more, you may need about 30-35 ounces. Add the vinegar, a few tablespoons. Any kind will do but a good red wine one is best, and the 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 or brown, and even maple syrup works. In a pinch, honey or molasses is fine.
Add a rounded teaspoon of mixed dried herbs – the mix is important – and a bay leaf or two. The herbs can also be in bouquet garni form. Bring all to a boil and skim, this is also important, it makes for a better dish. Pour the hot beer mixture on the beef and onions in the baking dish.
Next, take a couple of slices of semi-stale but good bread, any whole grain type, say, and cover well with a Dijon or any good mustard. Place slices of bread mustard-side down on the top of the mixture, the liquid should come to near the top lapping the bread.
Cover and bake at 325 F or even 350 F for a couple of hours. I find that at 350 F often barely more than an hour is enough, but test the 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 the dish cool on the stove, remove any noticeable fat, and then place in the fridge. Reheat well the next day.
Proverbially such dishes improve over a day or two.
I should add: half-way through the cooking blend everything with a spoon, you will see the bread disintegrate and helps lightly to thicken the sauce. Also, salt and pepper at outset but don’t over-salt, you can always more later but too much salt will ruin the taste (for any dish).
I don’t like garlic in this dish. Some Belgian recipes use a local spice bread, a gingerbread-type, for the thickening. I have tried that but don’t think it is better than using good whole grain. The idea is to lightly thicken the sauce. If you like the ginger taste, add a little grated or ground ginger.
Drink the braise with any beer you like or a red wine that can stand up to a sweet and sour dish, a good Zinfandel, or Beaujolais, say. Riesling works well too, a Spatlëse, say.
Brussels sprouts that are lightly steamed or boiled, with butter, or cabbage sections cooked the same way, are traditional to accompany the meat. Plain boiled potatoes, or noodles buttered, or the classic French fries of Lille and Belgium, as well. French fries may sound odd for a braise but they are classic with this dish.
One thing: don’t mix too many flavours, you may get a muddled result. Escoffier’s fairly simple recipe (see pg. 398) from 1904 employs exotic lambic but is otherwise quite basic. Taste is heightened and improved as a result.
Note: For those who wish to add bacon, nutmeg, mace, or ginger this French recipe looks sound. It calls for a liter of Pelforth Brune, a sweetish, dark beer. Leffe Brune, a Belgian abbey-type, can be used or a similar beer for yet a “sweeter” taste. You can adjust sweetness, that is, with less or more sugar, that’s why the beer doesn’t really matter except perhaps at the extremes, Bud Light vs. an imperial stout, say.
Note re image: image appears to be in the public domain and is sole property of its lawful owner, as applicable, it was sourced here. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*I documented some of these in a later post, here.