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 can be singular or plural.
The dish is a star performer in the cookery of old Flanders, an area which straddles three modern countries: 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 popularity in parts of historical Flanders.
There are many recipes for Flemish carbonade, in countless books and online. Most are similar in the main points. 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 it with pork or veal.
“Carbonade” seems to derive from carbonado, connected today to the terms charbon (coal), carbonized, and similar.
Hence, carbonade was meat cooked over a bed of coals or burning embers, not a braised or baked dish as it is today. How these changes occur is one of the many mysteries of food history.
A point of interest: a search in Google Books limited to the 19th century produces a few recipes yet none that involves beer! The recipes are similar to today’s but call for vinegar, stock, water, or some combination.*
Sources from the Edwardian era, including the from the great chef Escoffier, type the dish as a Belgian Flemish specialty cooked with “old lambic” or another Belgian beer of the acid, lambic group.
Probably the “vinegar” in older recipes was sometimes a sour Belgian beer. The fact that vinegar is called for today in addition to a standard ale or lager makes sense in this light: the mix 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 appears a survival of medieval cooking practices that exhibit a sweet-and-sour note.
I give a recipe in summary form below 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 other books and online are similar, differing usually in a detail or two. Some add bacon (I don’t think it helps the dish), some mix beer with stock (I like beer alone), and some use ginger, nutmeg, or mace instead of green herbs.
Some cooks marinate the meat in beer first; and some add the sugar or vinegar only at the end, and on it goes
A note on the beer: It may sound odd from a beer maven, 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 comes out very similar.
So my rule is, I use any beer I have, or a blend of bottle ends. 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, it should be 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 meat 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 cooking time to avoid drying out the meat.
In a pot on the element pour an Imperial pint (20 oz) of beer or more, you probably will need about 30-35 ounces. Add vinegar, a tablespoon or two. Any kind will do but a good red wine vinegar is best. Sugar is important, you need a tablespoon or less, 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 and a bay leaf or two. The herbs can also be in bouquet garni form. Bring all to a boil and skim, the skimming 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, and cover well with Dijon or any good mustard. Place slices of bread, mustard-side down, on the top of the mixture, the liquid should just cover the meat and onion and lap the bread.
Cover and bake at 325 F or even 350 F for a couple of hours. I find at 350 F for barely more than an hour is often enough, but it depends on the meat and oven, so cook until tender.
It is better to let the dish cool on the stove, remove any noticeable fat, and then place in the fridge. Reheat thoroughly the next day.
Proverbially, such dishes improve over a day or two by such cooling and re-heating.
I should add: half-way through the cooking mix everything with a spoon, the bread disintegrates and helps lightly to thicken the sauce. Also, add salt and pepper at outset but don’t over-salt, you can always more later but too much will ruin the taste (for any dish).
I don’t like garlic in this dish, but it’s always optional. 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 regular bread. The idea is to lightly thicken the sauce. If you like the ginger taste, you can add a little grated or ground ginger.
With the dish drink 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 though, a Spatlëse, say.
Brussels sprouts lightly steamed or boiled, with butter, or cabbage sections cooked the same way, are traditional on the side. 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 somehow work with this dish.
One tip: don’t mix too many flavours, you may get a muddled result. Escoffier’s fairly simple recipe (see pg. 398), from 1904, employs the exotic lambic but is otherwise quite basic. The taste will be heightened and improved that way.
Note: For those who wish to add bacon, nutmeg, mace, or ginger this French recipe may interest. It calls for a litre 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 though with less or more sugar, so 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.