The Secret to Great Coq au Vin? Lose the Coq

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Don't make the mistake of cooking your coq au vin too long. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

There's a problem with coq au vin, the classic Burgundian dish of chicken braised in red wine, and the problem is that it's supposed to me made with a coq. That'd be cock in English, though it probably sounds a little less crude if we call it a rooster, and as most of you reading this know, finding a rooster for dinner is pretty difficult these days.

Traditionally made by slowly cooking a rooster in red Burgundy wine with mushrooms, lardons (little sticks of salted pork belly, though you can use bacon), and pearl onions, it's one of the great braises of the world. Layered with the rich aroma of the wine, earthy mushrooms, and sweet onions, it's a perfect cold-weather dish, both nourishing and deeply comforting. Scratch that, it's a perfect dish year-round.

I once had the good fortune to cook and eat a proper coq au vin, and it shed some light on how this dish can so easily go wrong when translated to the roasting hens most of us have far more access to. I was working on a farm in the Southwest of France several years ago, and went to feed the chickens one day with one of the farmers. As soon as we entered their enclosure, I spotted a rooster hopping on just one foot, the other one tucked up awkwardly under it.

I pointed it out to Claudette, the farmer, and she picked him up to inspect his foot. It was broken. She clucked her tongue in disappointment, then concluded, in the matter-of-fact way farmers who deal regularly with the lives and deaths of their animals do, that it looked like we'd be having rooster for dinner soon. A few minutes later, both the injured rooster and one of his unfortunate buddies were hanging upside down with their throats slit, draining blood into a pail below.

As I saw them dangling there, I realized I had two things that would get me closer to a true coq au vin than I'd ever been before—the dead roosters, and the farm's wood-fired oven, which was used throughout the week to bake bread. Actually, make that three things: There was also the farm's impressive wine cellar, hidden under a trap door in one of the barns and filled with some of the best Bordeaux and Burgundy I've ever been lucky enough to try.

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Claudette taught me how to dress the birds, and then, after a day or two resting them beyond the stiffness of rigor mortis, I loaded a Dutch oven with all the ingredients and slid it into the masonry oven, where it slowly cooked in the residual heat all through the night.

The next day, when we sat down to dinner, those damn birds were still tough as rubber.

And that gets us to the challenge of coq au vin. The dish was designed as a long, slow braise, necessary to transform inedibly chewy rooster meat into something you had at least a shot at masticating. But the hens most of us get today—and use in those roosters steads—are already so tender that the last thing they need is several hours of cooking. The white meat in particular becomes horribly dry and mealy after not much more than 30 minutes.

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Just look at this photo above: To the left is chicken breast that cooked for about 20 minutes; to the right, chicken breast that cooked for about 45 minutes. Now, consider that some coq au vin recipes tell you to braise the chicken for four hours!

That gets us to the first question: How do we get the flavor of a long-cooked braise without ruining the chicken?

Cookin' Round the Cluck

One solution to this long-braising versus quick-cooking conundrum would just be to tell you to only buy dark meat and braise that. There's no question that chicken legs do very well with long cooking, and on some level I suppose it's a legitimate option. But I can't shake the feeling that using only dark meat goes against the very spirit of this dish—it's supposed to be a whole bird. This is rustic, farmhouse cooking, and as much as I would love to have a tree that bears chicken legs as fruit, that's just not how it works.

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The first part of the answer is simple: Don't cook the breast any more than is necessary. In my version, that means I start by browning all the chicken in a Dutch oven. Then I braise the legs for about 45 minutes to an hour, which is more than enough time to give them a long-cooked texture. I add the breasts back to the pot only for the last 20 minutes or so, just long enough to cook them through while keeping them juicy.

But that only partially answers the question. So far, we have nicely cooked chicken breast that's still juicy, and we have legs that taste truly braised. The missing part is how to make the breast taste like it's spent some time mingling with all those tasty red-wine braising juices.

Marination Marathon

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A lot of coq au vin recipes say to marinate the rooster or chicken in wine before braising. In the case of the rooster, this makes sense on a tenderizing level, since acids in the wine can help denature proteins, effectively tenderizing the meat without using heat.

That tenderizing effect is less important with already-tender roasting hens, but there's still a benefit to marination: It lets all the meat, including the breast, exchange flavors with the red wine, so that even a quick-cooking cut like the breast will seem like it's actually part of the braise and not a pan-roasted interloper.

What I wanted to find out was what the minimum marinating time was. I ran several test batches, marinating some chicken in red wine overnight, some of several hours, some just as long as it took me to prep all the other ingredients (about 25 minutes), and some not at all.

The chicken that wasn't marinated at all was the most disappointing; even after braising for over an hour, it ended up tasting like plain chicken in a red wine sauce, not nearly enough integration of flavors. The good news, though, was that even the shortest marinating time had great effect, the chicken turning irreversibly purple from the red wine, and absorbing some great flavor.

If you have the time to go for a full overnight marinade, that's fine, but what's important is that you don't have to. Instead, just pack those chicken parts into a zipper-lock bag, add the wine, and let it stand, turning occasionally, while you cut lardons, quarter mushrooms, dice carrots, and prep pearl onions. Once you've done all that, the chicken will be ready to rock.

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Wine Time

The next big decision is which wine to use. Or at least, a lot of people would like to make you feel like it should be a big decision. They insist that true coq au vin, the Burgundian version that is most famous, must be made with red Burgundy wine, which is Pinot Noir with a really big price tag.

I'm here to tell you that it doesn't matter nearly as much as those people say. Sure, different wines will produce slightly different sauces, but the differences are subtle—in the course of my life, I've made this dish with everything from actual Burgundy to fancy Bordeaux, crappy kitchen wine*, boxed wine, big-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, and light Beaujolais.

* Crappy, but still real wine, not "cooking" wine or wine "product", which you should never use).

Once you factor in the chicken juices and stock, the mushrooms and pork, the onions and thyme, all of them simmering together, then finished with butter, I guarantee you, you won't taste the sauce and say, "Hm, this Romanée-Conti doesn't smell quite as much like violets as the one I drank last night."

If you want to stay true to the dish, sure you can use a less expensive Burgundy, or, better yet, a Beaujolais, which comes from the same region but is made with Gamay, a different grape. But really, any red wine will work (in fact, whites will too—there's a well-known version of this dish made with Riesling). For more on cooking with wines, read about some of my other tests and observations here.

Considering the Garnish

Coq au vin is traditionally served with mushrooms, lardons, and pearl onions. There are a couple ways to approach this. There's the more precious restaurant version, where you braise the chicken in the wine with aromatics like onion and garlic, then strain those aromatics out and garnish the dish with beautiful little versions of each garnish that have been cooked separately.

Cooking the garnishes separately makes for a prettier presentation, which is important in a restaurant setting, but it's just a little too fussy for the kind of simple, gutsy home cooking this dish is supposed to capture.

I tried a couple different approaches to see if I could win any presentation points without adding lots of steps to the dish.

In one batch, I browned everything, from the chicken through to the mushrooms, in batches in the Dutch oven, then added the wine and stock and braised it (minus the breasts, of course, which waited until the end) all together.

In another batch, I browned the chicken, then braised the legs in the wine and stock with some thyme and bay leaves. While the legs were in the oven, I pan-roasted the mushrooms, pearl onions, and carrots* until nicely browned and just shy of being fully cooked. Then, when the chicken was done, I added the garnishes and simmered them for about 10 minutes while the liquids reduced.

* A note on carrots: I looked at a lot of coq au vin recipes. Some include carrots, some don't. Julia Child doesn't, but legendary French chef Paul Bocuse does. I'm throwing my hat in Bocuse's ring; how can carrots possibly hurt this dish?

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Cooking the garnishes separately makes them more attractive, but is it best for flavor?

Tasting them side-by-side, there was no contest: The batch that was braised with everything together was vastly more flavorful and rich than the one where I held the garnishes until the end.

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Cooking everything together leads to the most flavorful, delicious braising liquid, even if it is a little less pretty.

Simple enough, I say—screw presentation if it means better flavor!

Getting Saucy

Okay, so we've got our tender and juicy braised chicken, we have the most flavorful braising liquid. There's just one big question left: How do we thicken the sauce?

Classically, we'd do it by whisking beurre manié (a mixture of butter and flour) into the braising juices. But flour can dull flavor and give the sauce a slight gravy quality.

I used to work in a French restaurant where we'd use a high-powered blender to pulverize aromatics like onion in the braising liquids into the sauce: The blender was so powerful, it would rupture the cell walls of the aromatics, the cellulose thickening the silky sauce. This won't work with regular home blenders, which will create a chunky, gritty sauce using that method.

The best bet for a clean, flavorful sauce at home, I concluded, was reduction, combined with plenty of gelatin in the chicken stock. There are two ways to make a gelatin-rich stock. One is to make a really good homemade version, adding chicken feet to the pot along with other collagen-rich chicken parts. The other is to supplement either thin homemade stock or store-bought broth with powdered gelatin.

Either way, as you reduce it down, the sauce will take on a slightly sticky, viscous quality. Whisk in some butter to finish it, and you'll wonder why anyone bothers with the flour at all.

One warning though: You have to be very careful with salt when reducing as heavily as required here. Even very reasonable-seeming amounts of salt added earlier on can concentrate into an unbearably salty final sauce once it's been reduced. For this reason, aside from salting the chicken, I'd recommend not adding any other salt to the dish until it has finished reducing.

The Steps

Here's a quick overview of the process:

While the chicken marinates, prep all the other ingredients. Then cook the lardons (either salt pork or slab bacon) in a Dutch oven until browned and their fat has rendered.

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Remove the lardons with a slotted spoon and brown the chicken in the rendered pork fat, then set the browned chicken aside.

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Pour off all but a few tablespoons of the fat in the pot and add the mushrooms, cooking until browned. This takes longer than most recipes say—they have to dump their water first before they begin to brown. Expect it to take at least 10 minutes.

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Right when the water dumped by the mushrooms has cooked off, add the pearl onions and let them brown lightly, too.

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Get those carrots in there and give them a good little cook. You don't have to brown everything heavily here; the mushrooms should brown the most, and then the onions and carrots can just be lightly browned.

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Then add the wine and stock and bring to a simmer, stirring up all the browned bits. Nestle the chicken legs into the pot, leaving them exposed on top so that the skin can crisp more as they braise. Add the chicken breasts for the last 20 minutes or so, until just cooked through.

Remove the chicken from the pot once more, and simmer until liquid is lightly viscous, then whisk in unsalted butter. The gelatin will help the butter emulsify into the sauce without breaking.

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Then add the chicken back to the pot, spooning the juices all over and serve.

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Like most braises, this dish tastes even better the next day. In that case, you should let the whole Dutch oven stand for 1 hour at room temperature after it comes out of the oven and before whisking in the butter. Transfer it to the fridge for up to 4 days, then reheat gently and continue with the recipe.

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Coq au vin is great with buttered potatoes, pasta, or rice.

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You know, earlier on, I said I had sacrificed presentation in the name of flavor. Looking at this, I'm not sure I sacrificed presentation at all.

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Tell me that doesn't look good. Yeah, I'm being a little cocky, and I'm proud of it.

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