When I started cooking in earnest, at around 12 or 13 years old, there was hardly a recipe I wasn't willing to attempt. I reduced a demi-glace for hours and hours to serve with beef for my high school friends; I made mousses and terrines for my mother's parties; I sautéed squid every Saturday...for breakfast. When Thomas Keller published The French Laundry Cookbook, I'd spend days making a single dish from it. I was willing to cook anything. Anything, that is, except pot-au-feu.
My reasons for fearing it were downright ridiculous. Part of my discomfort was from the vague sense that this was a really important dish in French cuisine—so important, I thought, that it must be impossibly hard to make. Clearly, I hadn't spent much time reading up on what it actually was, because boiling beef and vegetables in a pot shouldn't be very daunting at all.
But even after learning what the pot-au-feu was, I was still deeply uneasy with the name itself, an intimidatingly French mishmash of vowels that I had no idea how to coax through my mouth. Foh? Feh? Fah? If I ever decided to cook pot-au-feu, I'd have to say "pot-au-feu" to whoever I served it to, and that was a thought too humiliating to bear. There was just one word this native Brooklynite had for it: FUHgettaboutit. (As it turns out, that Brooklynese slang is pretty close to getting the pronunciation right.)
I eventually got over my hangup after spending several weeks working on farms in France, where I butchered just about every word I tried to say until I didn't have a fleck of shame left. Freed from my French-language hangups, I finally came around to pot-au-feu, a dish as easy as it is warming and comforting.
What is Pot-au-Feu?
At its heart, pot-au-feu isn't particularly French at all. Simmering meats and vegetables until tender is as old as human history itself. Look anywhere in the world and you'll find some iteration of this dish, varying according to the local bounty of vegetables, livestock, and condiments.
I've written before about bollito misto, the Northern Italian uber-feast of boiled meats, and pot-au-feu has much in common with it. But where bollito misto is an orgy of meats, with no fewer than 14 cuts presented in the most elaborate renditions, pot-au-feu is simpler—truly intended for the home table.
Sure, pot-au-feu can be made à la bollito misto, with a multitude of beef cuts, plus other meats like chicken, duck, pork, and veal—there's no real rule about it. But it doesn't have to be, and I think it's safe to say that in most French homes, the pot-au-feu you're likely to be served is more modest in its offerings. Two to four cuts of beef, maybe some marrow bones, and an assortment of vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and cabbage.
As with any dish that features long-cooked beef, some cuts are more appropriate than others. What you want are ones from the harder working muscles of the cow, which are loaded with collagen-rich connective tissue. Those cuts start out tough, but with enough time and heat, the collagen melts into succulent gelatin that, along with fat, gives the impression of juiciness in the well-done meat. Since the basic cooking method of pot-au-feu is akin to a stew, the ideal cuts are the same as for a beef stew: short ribs, shanks, chuck, oxtail, and fatty brisket.
Because of how simple pot-au-feu is, I decided to write up two recipes, one more classic, the other taking advantage of the quick-cooking power of a pressure cooker to make pot-au-feu a realistic weeknight meal.
How to Make Pot-au-Feu on the Stovetop
For the more classic version, I start by simmering the beef in water along with some basic aromatics like onion, celery, and garlic; herbs like bay leaf and fresh thyme; and spices like cloves and black peppercorns. The beef simmers gently until it's fork-tender; the time it takes to get to that state can vary from cut to cut and animal to animal, which means that doneness times are rough approximations, at best. Some cuts may be ready in two hours, others may require an additional hour or two.
What's important is that you don't overcook any of them, because yes, you can overcook stewing meat. Each piece of beef has to be cooked long enough for the tough collagen to transform into gelatin, but while that's happening, the beef muscle fibers are contracting tighter and tighter, slowly pushing out the water inside. Once the collagen has become tender, you want to stop cooking the meat, otherwise you'll just continue to dry it out. The best thing to do is transfer each cut of meat to the side as soon as it's done, keeping it moistened with enough broth that it won't air-dry while it waits for the other cuts to catch up.
When all the meat is done, I strain the aromatics, herbs, and spices from the broth—they're so thoroughly pulped and sapped of flavor by the long cooking that there's not much reason to keep them. Then, I introduce the vegetables I'll actually be serving—carrots, potatoes, turnip, parsnip, leeks, and cabbage—to the broth. All of them get cooked until buttery-tender—there's no al dente here. The beef shanks already have marrow bones in them, but if you want to add additional ones, now's the time, simmering them just until the marrow is hot and jiggly, perfect for spreading on toasts.
Some may wonder why I don't just add the vegetables to the pot along with the meats to speed up the cooking process. You could. In fact, that's what most people do. But I prefer to wait—there's an art to getting the serving vegetables to that perfect point of doneness where they're completely soft and silky but still retain some of their own flavor, and that can be difficult to gauge when they're scattered among hulking pieces of beef that each requires an uncertain cooking time. Plus, unless you have a huge pot, it's frequently too crowded to jam it all in there at once.
How to Make Pot-au-Feu in a Pressure Cooker
For my pressure cooker version, I load up the cooker with the beef and starter aromatics just like in the first recipe, then set it to cook for 30 minutes at high pressure. Thanks to the higher temperatures that a pressure cooker is able to reach, that's all you need to almost fully tenderize the beef.
After that, I depressurize the cooker, strain out the spent aromatics, return the beef to the pot and add the serving vegetables and marrow bones. You can then return the cooker to high pressure for five minutes, which will be enough to finish off the beef and fully cook the vegetables. Just make sure to puncture the potatoes all over with a fork, or they're likely to burst.
Pot-au-feu is traditionally served in separate parts. First comes the broth, which can be sipped by itself or padded out with rice or pasta. That's followed by a platter of the meats and vegetables, bathed in more of the broth to keep it all moist. A little mustard, some grated horseradish, and perhaps a small bowl of cornichons are all welcome counterpoints to the deep and meaty flavors of the beef.