If several of my cookbooks are to be believed, boeuf Bourguignon is not exactly a Burgundian dish. Sure, cooks have been making boeuf Bourguignon—or boeuf à la Bourguignonne, or even beef Burgundy, as it's sometimes called—in Burgundy for generations now, but so have cooks all over France and around the world.
What's this all about?
It has to do with the French way of naming certain foods. In the case of boeuf Bourguignon, what the name communicates is not that it's a classic Burgundian dish, but that the beef is prepared with classic Burgundian flavors, namely, a red wine sauce with mushrooms and small onions. I could serve tofu with the same sauce and accompaniments and call it tofu Bourguignon, and it'd be just as accurate as the name of the beef stew, even if I was the first person to ever make it. Maybe the great cooks of Burgundy were the first ones to whip up this beloved stew, or maybe someone else did it in the style of those great cooks and attached their adjective appropriately.
All of this is ultimately just a technicality, one that doesn't matter much in the scope of things. Some technicalities, though, do matter. In particular, the technicalities of how we make what is arguably the world's greatest beef stew.
Let's start with the beef.
Choosing the Right Cut and Handling the Cut Right
Before you start cooking your stew, you want an appropriate cut of beef. More specifically, you want one that's rich in connective tissue made of collagen (some good marbled fat in the mix doesn't hurt none either). Meat that has lots of collagen in it starts off tough as heck—it tends to come from the strongest parts of an animal's body—but, as it cooks, it very slowly transforms into meltingly soft and moist gelatin. It's that gelatin that makes the meat still seem moist even after the muscle fibers have inevitably dried out from long cooking. Try stewing a lean, tender cut of beef, like filet mignon, for a couple of hours and you'll end up with scraps of meat that would compete with jerky in toughness and dryness.
A boneless chuck roll, which comes from the cow's incredibly strong shoulder, is perfect for stewing, and it tends to be pretty cheap, so it's what I call for here. You have other options, though, so feel free to peruse my list of top stewing beef cuts for more ideas.
To prep the beef, most recipes tell you to dice it into small pieces first, then brown them on all sides. That browning helps develop flavor, but it also dries out the surface of the beef cubes. Even after they've spent a couple of hours submerged in stewing liquids, you can still detect the toughness of their browned exteriors.
To mitigate this, we take a slightly different approach with our stews on Serious Eats. We start by slicing the beef into about three large steaks or slabs, and then we brown only the two largest sides of each.
Only after the beef is browned do we cut it up into stew-size cubes. How big is stew size? Well, for some folks, it's about an inch. Problem there is that, while one-inch cubes will give you spoon-size bites, they'll also dry out a lot faster than larger pieces. We want moist and tender meat, so we size our cubes up to somewhere between one and a half and two inches. The final stew will have meat that may require being cut with a knife (or, more likely, the side of your fork, if your stew is cooked right), but we're okay with that.
Should You Marinate the Beef?
A lot of beef stew recipes, including ones for boeuf Bourguignon, say that for the best flavor, you should marinate the beef first. I've been running marination tests with beef stews for the past couple of weeks, and I haven't found this advice to be true.
Marinades don't actually penetrate deeply into meat, getting not much further than the first couple of millimeters in from the surface, even after many hours. That shallow penetration is enough to make a marinade worthwhile in quicker-cooking applications, like when grilling meats. It even helps the chicken in my coq au vin recipe, in which the breast meat is braised quickly, just long enough to cook it through.
But with stew, the meat spends enough time in the pot with the stewing liquid that it ends up taking on as much flavor as meat that was marinated first. In none of my tests could I tell a difference between beef that had been marinated in red wine for as much as 24 hours and beef that first encountered the wine in the Dutch oven.
Once the beef is browned, the next step is to brown the aromatics. A lot of stews simplify this by having you brown the diced vegetables you'll be serving, then cook them in the stew. This is, to be sure, the easiest way to do it, but the price you pay is overcooked vegetables with little flavor left to them (because it's all come out into the stewing liquid).
A better way: Brown large pieces of aromatic vegetables, like halved carrots, onions, and crushed cloves of garlic, and cook those in the stew along with an herb bundle tied together with cooking twine.
Later, when those vegetables are verging on mush, just pluck them out and replace them with a fresh set of diced ones that you'll actually be serving, which I'll explain below.
In my recipe, once the large aromatics are browned, I deglaze the pot with a splash of brandy. That's an optional ingredient—use it if you have it, but don't skip the recipe if you don't. The flavor gain is subtle, not nearly reaching deal-breaker status.
For the other liquids, I use a small amount of chicken stock with unflavored gelatin bloomed in it, and plenty of dry red wine. A small dose each of both fish sauce and soy sauce adds some complexity and deeper savoriness, but rest assured, you won't taste them.
The gelatin helps give body to the stew's sauce, and a little thickness. Also helping to thicken the stewing liquid ever so slightly is a modest amount of flour, which I toss with the beef chunks right before adding them back to the pot. Combine that with the reduction that occurs when the dish is in the oven at 275°F with the lid partly open, and we get a finished stew with a viscosity and body that's pleasing but not thick.
A lot of stews, including many that come out of a can, are loaded with starches like flour to thicken them up to the point of being like gravy. I see the appeal in that, but the problem is that flour dulls the flavor of a stew, and the more you add, the duller it gets. Exactly where the perfect balance point is between thickness and flavor is a personal decision, but I'm happy with a more liquid stew that also has a more pronounced, complex taste.
How Good Does the Wine Need to Be?
Side note on the wine: Last year I did a series of tests on cooking with wine, red and white, to find out how important the quality of it is. What I found was that it matters very little. In fact, even the oft-repeated instruction to "only cook with wine that you'd be willing to drink" isn't entirely true: A lot of flaws in a wine, along with pretty much all of the nuance that makes a good wine good, are erased with cooking.
There are really only two important rules. First, don't cook with a "cooking wine" (typically very inexpensive wine with salt and preservatives added to it), or, worse, a wine product that is not actually wine. They're vile, and your food—especially a dish like this that has so much wine in it—will taste vile, too.
Second, use a dry wine unless the recipe specifically calls for an off-dry one. Dryness in wine refers to its sweetness, i.e., the actual amount of sugar in it, not how "fruity" the wine tastes. In most recipes, boeuf Bourguignon being one of them, a dry wine is essential. Any sugar in it will do very strange things to the flavor of the stew.
Beyond that, you have a ton of latitude. Of course, you could choose a lighter red in a recipe like this, to emulate the lightness of a Burgundian Pinot Noir, but you honestly don't have to. Any dry red wine will work; the differences will be noticeable, but none of them will be bad. Whatever you do, do not waste your coin on a pricey bottle of Burgundy unless it's to drink alongside this stew, okay?
While the stew is in the oven, I get my garnishes ready. I use the classic boeuf Bourguignon combination of lardons, mushrooms, and pearl onions, plus carrot for color and flavor.
In France, the lardons are made from salted pork, but in the States, bacon is more common. I happen to love the smoky flavor of bacon in this stew, though it's important to keep it from overpowering everything else. The best way to tame the smoke of your bacon is to blanch it for a couple of minutes first. It's an optional step, but useful if you don't want a very bacon-centric stew. Of course, to cut lardons into proper sticks, you'll need a slab of bacon—thick-sliced bacon can work in a pinch, but the results will have a very different texture from the meatier lardon pieces.
I fry them over moderate heat to render their fat and crisp and brown them slightly, then remove the lardons with a slotted spoon. I then add the mushrooms and cook them in the rendered pork fat. It'll take at least 10 minutes, if not more, to properly brown the mushrooms. When they're browned, I add the carrots and pearl onions, sautéing them just long enough to lightly brown them as well.
After the stew has been cooking for about an hour and a half, I take it out of the oven, discard the stewing aromatics, and then add these instead, allowing them to finish cooking in the stew, which takes about a half hour longer.
The finished stew is filled with tender chunks of meat and mushroom, along with plump onions and carrots and a deeply rich red-wine base. It's what Burgundy might taste like...if Burgundy had a land made of mushroom, pork, and onion, and rivers flowing with vin rouge.