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 area around Lille and Pas-de-Calais, Belgium, and Holland.
Carbonade flamande is perhaps the best-known dish in beer cookery, rivaled 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, 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 similar, differing only in one or two details. Some add bacon (I don’t think it helps the dish); some mix beer and stock (I like beer only).
Some use ginger, nutmeg and/or mace instead of green herbs; some marinate the meat; some add the sugar or vinegar at the end, and on it goes. I have found that the recipe and method below give the best and purest taste.
A note on the beer: It may sound odd on a beer blog to suggest it, but the beer 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, a blend of different beers, flat beer, old beer – almost anything. Adash of any 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, it should be 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.
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, any kind but I find butter is very good, maybe 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 is good, too.
In a pot on the element pour over an Imperial 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 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, brown, even maple syrup works. In a pinch, honey or molasses.
Add as well a rounded teaspoon of mixed dried herbs – this is important – and a bay leaf or two. The herbs can be in bouquet garni form. Bring all to a boil, skim the scum that forms (this is also important, it makes for a better dish). Pour all onto the beef and onion mixture in the baking dish.
Next, take a couple of slices, or three, of semi-stale but good bread, any whole grain type 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 come to near the top of the beef-and-onion mixture.
Cover dish. 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 from a specialty baker but don’t I think it is better than a few slices of good whole grain. The idea is to lightly thicken the sauce.
You can use flour instead of bread for this, e.g., by flouring the meat before sautéeing. In that case put a couple of tablespoons of mustard directly into the stew when you add the boiling beer.
Drink the braise any beer you like or any red wine that can stand up to a sweet and sour dish. A good Zinfandel, or Beaujolais. Riesling is good too, a Spatlëse, say.
Brussels sprouts lightly steamed or boiled, with butter, or cabbage sections cooked ditto, go very well with this. Plain boiled potatoes, or noodles buttered, or the classic French fries of Lille and Belgium, also. French fries may sound odd with a braise but they are classic with this dish in numerous parts of Flanders including Lille.
N.B. For those who wish to try the dish with bacon or spice bread, or regular bread but adding ginger, nutmeg, mace or cinnamon, here is a French recipe which looks good. It calls for a liter of Pelforth Brune, a sweetish dark beer. Leffe Brune, a Belgian abbey-type, can be used for a “sweeter” taste, but you can adjust the sweetness with less or more sugar anyway. That’s why the beer doesn’t really matter except maybe at the extremes, Bud Light vs. Imperial Stout, say (maybe!).
One thing I would advise: don’t mix too many flavours, you may get a muddled result that is okay but not great. Escoffier’s fairly simple recipe is here, (see pg. 398), from 1904. It employs the classic lambic but his recipe otherwise is quite simple.
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