How to cook the perfect boeuf bourguignon

There are no shortcuts for this giant of French classical cooking, but that doesnt mean its not manageable. What cuts of beef are best? Can bacon replace salt pork? And how pricey a wine do you need to use?

Its a mystery to me how this giant of the French classical repertoire has escaped the clutches of this column for so long. Richard Olney( another big brute of the Gallic cookery scene) describes boeuf bourguignon as likely the most widely known of all French preparations, while Elizabeth David introduces it as a favourite among those carefully composed, slowly cooked dishes, which are the domain of French homemakers and owner-cooks of modest restaurants rather than of professional chefs.

Sounds manageable. Yet Olney goes on, somewhat worryingly, that beef burgundy surely deserves its reputation or would if the few details essential to its success were more often respected. There is nothing difficult about its preparation, but there are no shortcuts. And David doesnt help the situation, with the airy assertion that such dishes do not, of course, have a rigid formula, each cook interpreting it according to the commission taste.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, la bourguignonne refers to anything( generally poached eggs, meat, fish or sauteed chicken) cooked with red wine and usually garnished with small onions, button mushrooms and pieces of fat bacon. That much we are aware. Everything else, it seems, is up for grabs.

The beef

While, like most stews, this will work with almost all slow-cooking cuts, cooks have their own particular predilections. Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham call for well-hung sinewy beef chuck, shoulder or shin perhaps in The Prawn Cocktail Years. Anthony Bourdains Les Halles Cookbook specifies paleron of beef, which, a helpful butcher informs me, entails featherblade. Richard Olneys much lauded French Menu Cookbook indicates Desperate Dan-style heel( which takes a while to track down) and Michel Roux Jrs The French Kitchen opts for braising beef( chuck is good but cheek is best ). Harry Eastwood is also a fan of cheek, writing in Carneval that: My father introduced me to the joys of eating cheeks[ and] it turns out that beef cheeks are the perfect vehicles for a bourguignon since they assimilate all the flavours in the pan and the meat surrenders completely.

Anthony Bourdain specifies paleron( featherblade) of beef for his boeuf bourguignon. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Featherblade proves the least successful with testers its just too lean, which induces it seem instead dry in comparison with the more gelatinous cuts. A good well-marbled chuck( not always the case with supermarket versions) does the job, and the more gelatine-rich shin and heel are even better, but my own favourite is the cheek, which seems to offer the best balance between meat and melting. Cut it into relatively large chunks because, as Hopkinson and Bareham find, A true boeuf la bourguignonne is not about little cubes of meat stewed in Hirondelle.

Olneys is the only recipe to marinate the meat before use; Roux cautions against it, warning that I find this induces for a gamey flavour thats not entirely true to the original. Some testers concur, but my problem with it is that, far from tenderising the meat, it seems curiously to have dried it out somewhat. Whether or not the wine is actually to blame, the meat should have plenty of time to assimilate its flavor in the oven, rendering such a step pointless.

Hopkinson and Bareham also add a gelatine-rich animals trotter to the stew, presumably in order to give it body and richness. This certainly runs, but trotters are not always easy for everyone to get hold of. One tester suggests that the more commonly available oxtail might do the same chore even better is a good one. You can leave it on the bone if you like, although I prefer to strip it off after cooking so the meat is more evenly distributed.

Marinaded meat in Richard Olneys beef bourguignon. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The pork

Boeuf bourguignon almost always contains cured pork, too after all, this is a French recipe, and two meat are better than one. Certainly my testers are not happy with its omission in Bourdains dish. Olney, who I am rapidly learning to fear, alerts me that if good lean salt pork was not possible, omit it; do not substitute bacon, the smoky flavor of which distorts and muddles the otherwise clean, distinct flavor of the sauce. Proving that one humen muddle is anothers masterpiece, Eastwoods smoked lardons and Rouxs smoked streaky dont seem to go down too badly with the members of the commission, but the simpler savoury flavor of green bacon seems least likely to distract from the wine, which is, after all, the whole phase of the dish.( If you have access to salt pork, you may want to poach it briefly before use to tame its aggressive salinity, as Olney does. Theres no need with bacon or pancetta youll merely spoil it .)

The vegetables

The traditional Burgundian garnish of button mushrooms and miniature onions ought to be non-negotiable, preferably sauteed until golden in the fat from the bacon, as Eastwood, Olney, Hopkinson and Bareham suggest. In this style, they assimilate some of its savoury richness. The Prawn Cocktail Years recipe adds the vegetables to the stew for the entire cooking hour, while Roux and Olney cook them through separately, which is a bit of a faff, especially when the former demands theyre done in three separate pans. All very well with a kitchen brigade at your disposal, but I favor Eastwoods method, which adds the the sauteed vegetables to the beef for the final half hour of cooking instead. Much easier.

Instead of the tiny pearl onions most recipes recommend, Bourdain uses the ordinary kind, thinly sliced and caramelised. Some testers like the sweetness they add to the dish, but we all agree their assertive flavor does devote his version something of the soupe loignon. If you cant find pearl onions or the other diminutive range, small shallots are better than nothing.

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham add a pigs trotter. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Carrots are also common; the baby range favoured by Eastwood and Roux make the most pleasing garnish aesthetically, but ordinary sized ones, cut into big chunks, run just as well in the flavor department.( The same goes for ordinary mushrooms as opposed to the button kind .)

The liquids

The principal flavor here ought to be dry, fruity red wine of the kind produced in Burgundy, although for those of us buying wine in the UK, Im not remain convinced that sticking an actual Burgundian pinot noir into the oven for 3 hours isnt war criminals waste of both wine and fund( Olney demands a good red burgundy no less ). I make one with the authentic product( the cheapest I can find over here is nearly 9) and the rest with an inoffensive but instead cheaper red from the south-west, and no one remarks on the difference, even when its pointed out. So, unless you have an extremely discerning palate, Id recommend saving your money for a good burgundy to drink with it instead.

Puzzlingly, Bourdain uses merely a cup of wine in his version, which might explain why everyone describes it as more like beef stew than a bourguignon, with one observing that, If you added some dumplings it would make a lovely hotpot. A whole bottle is required for maximum impact, preferably reduced to concentrate its flavor: Olney does so after cooking, but this involves lifting out the meat and vegetables and then warming everything back up together so it seems far easier to do all the simmering first, as Roux and the Prawn Cocktail Years recommend, so the dish can be served straight from the oven. While youre at it, add a few aromatics, as the latter recipe indicates, for a more rounded gravy.

A splash of brandy, although not absolutely necessary, does add a little more complexity to the dish. If you dont have it, however, its not a disaster.

None of that cheek … Harry Eastwoods beef bourguignon. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Other liquids

Most recipes also use stock of some kind, generally beef, veal or even, for a lighter gravy, Eastwoods chicken or vegetable alternative. Bourdain tops up the wine with water instead, and even with his optional couple of spoonfuls of demi glace, or concentrated veal stock, testers find his gravy thin and a little insipid. Its just very ordinary. And ordinary is definitely not what were after here.

Flouring the meat will both help it brown more quickly, and thicken the sauce more quickly, though its surely not essential if you would prefer to keep the dish gluten-free.


Like any respectable French classic worth its salt, boeuf bourguignon benefits from a bouquet garni of bay, thyme and parsley, and a little garlic. If, after all that hard work, you feel it needs a little help in the flavor department for some reason( and sometimes it happens ), add a dash of Worcestershire sauce before serving, as Eastwood does, although it ought not to require any tomato puree, dijon mustard or indeed Hopkinson and Barehams redcurrant jelly. Add a dash of lemon juice if you think the dish needed most, but I like mine unapologetically rich and sticky.

Cooking and serving

You can cook boeuf bourguignon on the hob its without doubt the original method but I find it much easier to keep the heat constant in a moderate oven.( Plus its easier to clean up after yourself with the pot safely bubbling away out of sight .)

Bourguignon is traditionally served with steamed or simmered potatoes, but Roux proves hes a true Brit by preferring his with mash. Gordon Ramsays celeriac puree would also work, as would Julia Childs buttered noodles or rice. Delia Smith, meanwhile, goes for full-on flavor with pommes boulangre or ratatouille. I agree with Roux, but each to their own just as long as theres wine.

The perfect boeuf bourguignon. Photo: Felicity Cloake
( Serves 6 )
1 bottle of fruity, relatively light dry red wine
1 onion, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
1 big carrot, scrubbed and cut into 2cm chunks
2 garlic cloves, peeled and squashed with the back of a knife
1 bay foliage,
Small bunch of parsley, plus a handful for garnish
2 sprigs of thyme
2 tbsp olive oil
35 g butter
200 g unsmoked bacon lardons or a thick piece of unsmoked bacon cut into 2cm cubes
24 pearl onions, or 12 small shallots
18 baby carrots
200 g button mushrooms
2 tbsp flour
1kg beef cheeks, cut into 3cm chunks
400 g oxtail
60 ml brandy
250 ml good beef stock

Put the wine in a pan with the onion, carrot, garlic and herbs and bring to the simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes until reduced by about half. Heat the oven to 150 C.

Heat the petroleum and butter in a large casserole dish over a medium-high heat, and when the foam has died down, add the bacon. Fry until golden, then scoop out with a slotted spoonful and put aside.

Add the bay carrots and mushrooms to the pan and saute until gently golden, then scoop into a fresh bowl. Add the onions, turn down the heat somewhat, and fry until just beginning to brown. Meanwhile, put the flour on a plate, season, then roll the beef in it. Add the onions to the other vegetables and turn up the heat somewhat in the pan.

Fry the beef in batches until crusted and deeply browned, being careful not to overcrowd the pan or it will simmer in its own juices( add a bit more petroleum if it feels like its burning rather than browning ). Scoop out and set aside in a bowl. Turn up the heat.

Add the brandy to the pan and rub to dislodge any caramelised bits on the bottom. Strain in the reduced wine( discarding the vegetables ), followed by the stock. Return the cheeks and oxtail to the pan and bring to a simmer.

Cover and bake for two and a half hours, then tip in the pearl onions, mushrooms and carrots and bake for another half an hour.

Scoop out the oxtail and strip the meat from the bones. Stir back into the pan with the lardons and season to savor. Add the remaining parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.

Is it a false economy to make boeuf bourguignon with any other wine than red burgundy? What other wines would you suggest serving it with? Which classic Gallic recipes would you like to see ?

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