Carbonnade – sometimes called Belgium’s answer to beef bourguignon – is a rich, simple stew of beef cooked in beer, with a little mustard and an ambiguous bread topping. Much, much more on the bread part later.
The etymology is probably via charbon, from meat cooked over a coal brazier, or perhaps the stewpot itself simmering over warm coals. Either way, it’s a Flemish classic that makes use of the sensational beer brewed in northern Belgium. At its very simplest, you can just dump a kilo of beef shin in a pot with some onions, herbs, and a bottle of oud bruin. But then you’d miss the (questionably authentic) mustard croutons, and those are sodding delicious.
I’ve been making carbonnade for as long as I’ve been cooking, and its evolution in my repertoire is a mini history of me learning to cook. If I had a change log (sauce control?) it would be fascinating. Not least because I recently got all in a lather about the history of the dish, wondering exactly when people started topping it with mustard-slathered croutons?
It turns out, after asking on twitter, that I started adding them in around 2005, when the mother of a friend I was living with sent us a cache of Waitrose recipe cards, and I thought it seemed like a lark. You can find that recipe right here. I’ve drifted less than I thought.
(I really need to make this again and get good pictures.)
- Beef shin, 1kg
- Onions, 2 large
- Bacon lardons (smoked if you don’t mind the flavour being prominent), 150g
- Beer (oud bruin or similar, see notes below), 500ml
- Beef stock, about 300ml
- Garlic, 2 cloves
- Flour, 2tbsp
- Thyme, 1/4tsp
- Brown sugar, 1tsp
- Dijon mustard, 2tsp plus more for the croutons
- Red wine vinegar (if not using a sour beer, see note below), 1tsp
- Bay leaves, 3
- Bread (preferably a decent baguette), enough to top the casserole dish
Serves 4 generously, 5 just fine.
I strongly recommend beef shin, as it’s cheap-ish, flavourful, and the connective tissue breaks down over slow cooking to keep things moist and release succulent gelatine into the sauce. Ox cheeks work well, too, but any stewing cut will do in a pinch.
Note on the beer:
This is discussed at length below the recipe, but I would recommend either:
- 500ml of a Belgian oud bruin style (slightly sour & fruity dark ale), and maybe a bit more stock. Bacchus is fairly easy to find in the UK.
- A large bottle of Leffe Brune (750ml) and a dash of sugar and vinegar. Chimay Blue is a popular less-sour choice, too.
Cut the beef into large chunks. Roughly dice the onion, and chop the garlic.
Heat the oven to around 140c.
Heat a little oil (or ideally lard/animal fat) in a large heavy casserole with a lid, and fry the onions at a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Take them most of the way to caramelising, so they colour a little and are beginning to get sticky-sweet. Add the garlic.
Raise the heat and add the beef and lardons. Fry for a few minutes until it colours a little. Browning is standard in casseroles like this, but don’t worry too much – it’s going to cook for hours and there will be bags of flavour anyway. A good bit of shin shouldn’t give off much moisture at this stage, but if it does, drive most of it off.
Add the flour, and stir everything round to amalgamate and cook it out a little. Add the beer and stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon, making sure to get any tasty gooey brown bits off the base of the pan, and thoroughly mixing in the flour.
Add the stock, along with the thyme, bay leaves, mustard, and the sugar and vinegar if you’re using them. Stir it all together, cover, and put in the oven for about two and a half hours.
Check periodically to make sure it’s not drying out too much.
After two and a half hours, remove the lid, and put it back in the oven for a few minutes. Cut slices from the baguette, and spread them thickly with Dijon mustard. Arrange these on top of the casserole. Firm or slightly stale bread is fine, and some people like to toast it a bit first, but I prefer the gooey overall effect of leaving it untoasted.
Return the casserole to the oven, uncovered, for half an hour and serve.
You should have something rich and unctuous. It doesn’t thicken massively, but the gelatine gives it some extra body. The beer brings some fruity-sour flavours, as well as just a little nutty spice. The mustard sharpens and offsets, and then the croutons beautifully soak up the gravy, giving you a little extra bite of mustard.
Honestly, I like to serve this with chips. It’s Belgian.
If things like “restraint” and “healthy eating” are your bag, consider some steamed kale or green beans, and maybe some mash. Pair with (Belgian) beers, maybe a tripel or something gentle like the Brugse Zot. It’ll also take a light red wine. Beaujolais and Valpolicella are ubiquitous on my wine rack, and won’t serve you ill here.
There are very few petty little gastronomic hills I won’t at least try to die on, but I’m sadly behind the curve for yelling about clumsy/naïve use of beer in recipes. Momentum is building, however, and people are starting to realise that just listing “beer” as an ingredient is just as clumsy as “wine”.
I’m not looking for year-and-Château granularity. Nobody really needs that. But if we can get as far as “a big fruity red” then perhaps it might be time to note that a modern American-style IPA will give you rather different results to, say, a dark mild or an imperial stout.
We’re getting there, but slowly. Mistakenly believing I’d originally got my recipe from Delia Smith, I looked up hers, and found, well, I’ll let you read the intro, but the title is unpromising to say the least: Beef in Designer Beer
Oh, Ms Smith.
Still, it beats Constance Spry’s assertion at the fag-end of the fifties that it’s ok to use beer in cooking because you can’t really taste it:
(From The Constance Spry Cookbook)
Or Robert Carrier’s 1972 monstrosity of a cooking tip for his sickly-looking carbonnade:
Constance gets points for trying, but the king of lurid canapés can proper do one.
Elisabeth Luard’s no-frills carbonnade in the splendid European Peasant Cookery just says “strong beer”, but at least suggests you use plenty and get the Belgian stuff. The old Waitrose card uses Guinness. To be fair, that wasn’t a bad bet for mass-availability flavour at the end of the nineties. I think I made it with Theakston Old Peculiar at the time.
So what should we use in a carbonnade? As with the crouton question, my recipe books haven’t been much help. But there seem to be three main schools of thought:
- Sweet & sour – something like an oude bruin or a Belgian red ale
- Light & feisty – an abbey tripel or something in that milieu
- Just use Leffe Brune or Chimay Blue and get on with your life
The first two are style choices and each have their merits. The last one is the grimly inevitable compromise of expediency. But let’s pretend for a minute that we’re not just going to go for the acceptable, accessible, cost-effective concession.
The aim here is a little bit of sharpness under the malty depth. The mustard is going to give you some of that anyway, but Belgium is famous for its sour beer styles, and it does seem a shame not to use some.
I’d stop short of a lambic or gueuze – far too sour. Softer sours like the Rodenbach Grand Cru or a Petrus Oud Bruin will give you some heft and fruit behind the sharpness. Some recipes avoid this entirely and use a tripel, the lighter, higher-strength, and often more malty Belgian abbey style.
I’m going to skip over the tripel approach, because I don’t like it as much. The malt is good, but I worry the freshness gets lost in the long cook, and I like the sour notes and the colour you get from a darker beer. However, much of the carbonnade I’ve eaten in Belgium has taken a tripel base. Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, the delightful Bruges tourist trap, base theirs on Gulden Draak, a darker tripel with just a bit of musty character from the wine yeast. This is an elegant solution to the problem.
My favourite suggestion (from Twitter) was combining a dubbel with a sour, in this case St. Bernadus 8 and Rodenbach Grand cru. That’ll give you the sweetness, and soften out the sour. Just oud bruin on its own, while probably traditional, might be a bit much.
There’s a really handy list of by no means all the Belgian beers (there are thousands), but the ones you might plausibly expect to find in the UK, here on the BeerToursim site. At a large UK supermarket, you might just luck out and find Bacchus Oud Bruin, Rodenbach Grand Cru, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Chimay Bleu is an easier find, a dubbel rather than a sour, but reasonably tasty.
Then again, do you want to spend the money? 750ml of Leffe Brune is three quid in Tesco. Chimay Blue and Bacchus Oud Bruin pop up in supermarkets too. I live a ten minute walk from a genuinely fantastic beer shop, and I still mostly use Leffe for this. Heck, two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale, and a tablespoon each of dark sugar and red wine vinegar is totally blaggable, and I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
Croutons, mustard, and gingerbread?
The reason I was trawling through all of those cookbooks in the first place was that I noticed my Waitrose-begotten habit of topping carbonnade with mustardy baguette slices does not appear in all that many recipes. And it looks like a daft affectation.
I never did quite get to the bottom of it, but here’s what I can piece together without hitting the library.
A lot of ancient slow braises are thickened with whatever comes to hand, if anything at all. Stale bread is common. Moby Dick talks about biscuits thickening chowder. The carbonnade in Luard’s piece-together of European heritage recipes is unthickened, relying on the onions. But the dish has another lineage, one thickened with scraps of peperkoek, the local firm gingerbread.
This persists though a lot of recipes, particularly the French ones I found online, with lots of little notes like “…and, would you believe it, crumble in some gingerbread to finish” but not a lot by way of references.
I don’t know where the mustard creeps in, but this post gives a handed down family recipe that spreads it on the bread topping used to thicken, and many recipes will add a dollop of wholegrain or Dijon earlier in the cooking.
Carbonnade gets written up in Larousse Gastronomique (1938), and my 1961 edition has it Luard-minimal and thickens with flour. It also suggests lambic. Hard nope. Similarly, I’ll spare you the closest Saulnier gets in Le Répertoire (1914). It’s not pretty.
There’s nothing in any Elizabeth David I had to hand, but by 1956, Constance Spry had written up something pretty recognisable, using a lump of stale bread, submerged to thicken the sauce.
At this point, I lose track slightly, but that would bring us up around the sixties, where Delia finds carbonnade to be a bit of a naff bistro staple. My best guess: the croutons are a 60s affectation, like the 19th century fancying-up of French onion soup, something to give it a bit more visual interest at the table.
If anyone has a better grasp of the lineage of stews, some actual Flemish cookbooks, or just a lot more time on their hands, I’d be fascinated to know how we actually got from gingerbread-thickened peasant fare to the mustard crouton flourish. But either way, it’s bloody delicious.