You’re strolling a back street in Paris when you pass the open door of a bistro and see a waiter walk by carrying a carrying a crock of stew that smells divine. Sight unseen, you grab a table and order your own. You immediately dig in as your order arrives. Each bite is filled with generous amounts of falling-apart and tender beef, mushrooms, potatoes, and a rich, decadent broth.
You’ve just discovered boeuf bourguignon (or Burgundy beef in English). The dish that was the focus of Julia Child’s first television episode of The French Chef, and is a staple of French bistro cuisine. When done right, it has an elevated flavor that blends each ingredient perfectly and showcases exactly why boeuf bourguignon receives so much deserved attention.
Boeuf bourguignon is a beef stew that gets a lot of flavor from the Burgundy wine that gives the dish its name. Ironically, the first evidence of the dish being served in a restaurant isn’t in the Burgundy region of France, but rather the bistros of Paris. Although the dish doesn’t originate in Burgundy, due to the dish’s popularity, it’s commonly found there today. Instead, the name is more about how it’s inspired by Burgundy and evokes the flavors popular in that region. Burgundy wine is an essential ingredient, but the use of beef (which southern Burgundy is famous for) draws from the region, too.
While the dish was popular in France after its recent revitalization, it may not always have enjoyed the sparkling reputation it does today. This may have been because the meat used in the stew was leftovers used by restaurants to save money and was tough and stringy as it stewed. This changed in the 20th century when fresh meat started being used. Over the years, many chefs would leave their mark on boeuf bourguignon, including the legendary Paul Bocuse and Julia Child, making it the world-famous stew we know and love today.
Boeuf bourguignon is a very flexible dish; feel free to adapt the dish to your own preferences and style. Some prefer a more brothy stew, while others make it so thick, it becomes a sauce for the beef. Some add bacon, or lardons, for flavor and others choose to go without. Some people prefer to brown the vegetables to caramelize them before stewing them, others leave them out of the stew until closer to the end to avoid losing their natural flavors. Boeuf bourguignon’s classic origins are an invitation to the cook to be inventive and tweak the recipe to fit your tastes.
What sets boeuf bourguignon apart from other beef stews is the size of the meat. While many beef stews cut their beef into bite-sized portions, boeuf bourguignon uses larger pieces. These cuts can range anywhere from 1 ½ inches to three inches. This almost makes the dish a steak served with a sauce, only it’s falling apart and tender, with a cohesive flavor throughout the dish.
The cut of beef is also very important. It’s important that whatever cut you use has good marbling throughout the beef. Marbling is fat found within the muscles and keeps the meat moist. You’ll want to avoid more tender, leaner cuts of meat like sirloin or filet mignon. These won’t hold up well to the stewing process, becoming chewy and dry with the long cooking. Instead, aim for pieces that start tougher, generally the strongest muscles in the cow’s body. Think shoulders or legs. Both cuts work well and are usually easy to find. Each chef has their own preference (Paul Bocuse reportedly used flank steak while his mentor, Eugénie Brazier, preferred chuck).
The final main ingredient is, of course, the Burgundy wine. Much like with coq au vin, you’ll want to choose a wine that you like the taste of, but don’t worry about spending too much. When you cook the wine, you won’t know the difference between a high-end, expensive bottle and solid, but less expensive bottle, since the intricate differences, more than likely, will be cooked out. You will notice the difference between a solid bottle and bad one, though, or even worse, “cooking wine,” which often has added ingredients like salt, sweeteners, and preservatives.
1A fancy word for browned caramelized bits of protein and fat left behind when you cook meat or vegetables. It’s the foundation of flavor.