Sunday, October 31, 2010

brisket braised in beer and onions a la carbonnade

Belgium is known for its beer, so it only makes sense that one of its national dishes, Boeuf a la Carbonnade, makes use of beer as a braising medium; after all, what could be better than a combination of beef, beer and onions?

Admittedly, this beef goes into the oven a pretty uninspired hunk of meat, but - trust me - it emerges 3 hours later a melt-in-your-mouth wonder, enrobed in an almost miraculous, deeply-flavored, caramelized onion gravy.

Ready for the oven
After 2 hours of braising
While it may seem dubious to proselytize about such a humble dish, I'm in good company. Ruth Reichl herself, asked in an interview to name her favorite recipes among the 1000+ compiled in "The Gourmet Cookbook," immediately called this one to mind.

If that doesn't convince you, consider this: I gave the recipe to a friend, who then gave it to an 80 year-old friend of hers, who reported back that ever since preparing it for his family they have viewed him with "new respect." It's that good!

Since I have yet to find mushroom bouillon cubes here in rural Vermont, I crumble a few dried porcini mushrooms into the mix. (This only works if you have very clean dried mushrooms! If not, soak them in a bowl of water, allow the grit to sink to the bottom, lift them off the top and coarsely chop them.)

This dish is great with mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles and a green vegetable on the side - a truly old-fashioned, old world "square meal."

Brisket a la Carbonnade (from The Gourmet Cookbook; edited by Ruth Reichl; copyright 2004) 

1 (3 1/2 to 4 lb.) beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 T olive oil
2 lbs. onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced lengthwise (6 cups)
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 (12-oz) bottle beer (not dark)
1 dried porcini bouillon cube (less than 1/2 oz) or beef bouillon cube, crumbled
1 T balsamic vinegar

Put a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Pat brisket dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 6- to 8- quart wide heavy ovenproof pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Brown meat well on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to a platter.

Add onions and bay leaf to fat remaining in pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until onions are golden, 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove from heat and transfer half of onions to a bowl. Set brisket over onions in pot, then top with remaining onions.

Add beer, bouillon cube and vinegar (liquid should come about halfway up sides of meat; add water if necessary) and bring to a boil.

Cover pot, transfer to oven, and braise until meat is very tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Let meat cool in sauce, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Transfer brisket to a cutting board. Skim off any fat from sauce, discard bay leaf, and season sauce with salt and pepper. Slice meat across the grain and serve with sauce.

Serves 8

Editor's note:

The brisket actually improves in flavor if braised 2 days ahead. Cool the meat in the sauce, uncovered. Cover it with parchment paper or wax paper, then the lid, and refrigerate. Remove any solidified fat before reheating. To reheat, slice the cold meat across the grain and arrange in a shallow baking pan. Spoon the sauce over the meat and reheat in a 325 degree F oven for 45 minutes.

Slice meat against the grain
Smother with sauce and reheat before serving

  • The folks at Cooks Illustrated have written about experimenting with different beers for their own version of Carbonnade, and if my notes are accurate some of their favorites were Chimay Peres Trappists Ale (Belgium); Newcastle Brown Ale (England) and, for a non-alcoholic beer, O'Douls Amber (US). Since Newcastle Brown Ale is readily available, I have stuck to using that with great results. Keep in mind that the beer you use will have much to do with the final flavor!
  • I find that browning the meat well and achieving uniformly golden onions takes more time than the recipe allows. Don't rush these steps!
  • When braising anything, it's a good idea to cover the pot tightly with tin foil before topping with a lid to ensure a tight seal.


  1. I can attest to the deliciousness of this recipe. I think I'll make it for my Christmas Eve feast this year. Bound to knock the socks off my bro's. Lovin your blog Tina. Keep those recipes comin'
    Susan S.

  2. Hey Susan - Thanks for backing me up! So glad you're reading!

  3. didn't you make this for us last year? It was soooo good. I can't remember much of how you did it, but these steps do ring a bell. And I remember that it was delicious the next day as well.

    It was like meeting an "old friend" when I saw that this was your choice for the dish of the week. Really, somehow it was like having a close connection to this one...because we had been privileged to have you prepare it for us. yum yum

  4. Hi Judy -
    I did make this for you and it was my pleasure! It's one of my favorite do-ahead dishes for visitors. Glad you have fond memories of it. XOXO

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