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How to Make a Great Carbonnade

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A basic beef stew can be altered in dozens of ways, usually by adding more ingredients to the pot.  But you can also go to the other way and  strip beef stew down to its bare bones (to its beef).  If you also trade in the carrots and potatoes for a plethora of onions and add a good dose of beer, you’ve created a Belgian beef stew called carbonnade a la flamande.

Beef, beer, and onions have an affinity  – they’re an ensemble with great appeal (think burger, onion rings, and a beer).  In a carbonnade, the heartiness of beef melds with the soft sweetness of sliced onions in a broth that is deep and rich with the malty flavor of dark beer.

I made several versions of carbonnade and found that despite the simple and few ingredients, making a poor one is quite easy to do.  I wound up with several batches of tough, tasteless beef and onions in a pale, insipid broth.  Not quite what I had in mind.

I used the framework of my recipe for hearty beef stew to arrive at an improved carbonnade.  The operations were as follows:  The beef is browned in batches and set aside, the onions are sautéed in the empty pot, the flour is sprinkled over the onions, the liquid is added, the beef is returned to the pot, and the covered pot goes into the oven, where it simmers until the beef is fork-tender.

In developing a recipe for carbonnade, the first departure from my beef stew recipe came with the selection of beef.  For a basic beef stew, I prefer a chuck roast cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks.  A chunk roast is composed of a number of different muscles interwoven with intramuscular fat and connective tissue.  This fat and tissue make for good texture and flavor, and the different muscles make for pieces of meat with uneven or different textures, even when cooked.

The substance of carbonnade is purely beef and onion – there are no chunks of potatoes or carrots with which the beef competes.  Consequently, I wanted smaller pieces of beef of a uniform texture that would be a better match for the soft, thinly sliced onions.  Enter 1-inch-thick blade steaks (also called top-blade or flatiron steaks – small, long, narrow steaks cut from the shoulder (or chunk) area of the animal.  Most blade steaks have a decent amount of fat marbling, which gives them good flavor as well as a tender texture.  My husband described the blade steak in carbonnade as “buttery”, a quality that is well suited to this stew.  The trade-off is that these smaller steaks are a bit more time-consuming to trim off silver skin and gristle, but they are well worth it.

Onions – and a good deal of them – go into a carbonnade.  Two pounds was the right amount in relation to the amount of beef.  I tried both white and red onions, but both were cloyingly sweet.  Yellow onions tasted the best.  After browning the beef, the floor of the pot was crusty with fond (browned bits).  Do not underestimate the importance of the fond – it furnishes the stew with color and flavor. As I had done with goulash, I added 1/4 teaspoon salt along with the thinly sliced onions to help release their moisture.  This assist in keeping the fond from burning and in loosening it from the pot when deglazing.  Garlic is not and ingredient in all carbonnade recipes, but I liked its heady essence; a small amount is added to the onion only after they are cooked so that the garlic does not burn.

The right beer is the key to achieving a full, robust carbonnade.  Beers of the light, lager persuasion, those commonly flavored in America, lack guts – they result in light-colored, watery-tasting stews.  I tried a number of different beers and found that reasonably dark ales, very dark ales, and stouts made the richest and best-tasting carbonnade.  A few of my favorites were Chimay (a Trappost ale from Belgium), Newcastle Brown Ale, Anchor Steam (this beer cannot technically be classified as an ale), Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, and Guinness Extra Stout.

I tried making carbonnade with beer as the only liquid, but they lacked backbone and sometimes had an overwhelming bitterness, depending on the type of beer used.  Equal parts chicken stock or canned broth and beer made a deeper, more solid-tasting stew.  The addition of dried thyme and a bay leaf added herbal notes that complemented the other flavors.  Just a bit of cider vinegar perked everything up, and a bit of dark brown sugar rounded out the flavors.

For my Carbonnade a la Flamande recipe, please click HERE


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