This recipe is a warm hug in a bowl. Flemish beef stew is a classic Belgian stew recipe that is sure to put a smile on your face. It is hearty and full of flavor – a taste made unique by the sweet/sour tang created by a slightly unusual list of ingredients…
Often hailed as Belgium’s version of France’s boeuf bourguignon, but using beer (of course!) instead of wine. It’s a versatile dish of beef, onion, and herbs and can be served up with potatoes and veggies, or even with a pile of fresh tagliatelle.
However, for the most authentic experience, this Flemish beef and beer stew is at its best when served with a big pile of fries.
Belgians certainly have perfected the art of comfort food. Let’s have a closer look at what makes this stew so scrumptious and where the recipe comes from.
About the recipe
Walk up to any respectable Belgian fries shack and you’ll find “carbonnade flamande” (French) or “Vlaamse stoverij” (Dutch) on the menu. Equally, most upmarket Belgian restaurants serve a version of this national dish too.
Like any tradition, the Belgian beef stew recipe has its fair share of variations and secret “magic ingredients” so that recipes differ from household to household, restaurant to fries shack, and even town to town.
There’s one ingredient that binds people in agreement, however. Beer. Traditional dishes often arise from the produce that is at hand – for the French, in their grape-growing climate, it has long been wine (and thus the invention of dishes like boeuf bourguignon).
For the Belgians, beer has been an important part of the national culture since the 12th century (when it was favored above unsanitary drinking water) so it has inevitably crept into the national cuisine itself.
Beer-brewing in Belgium is now even acknowledged on UNESCO’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Over the course of the Middle Ages, abbeys would brew Belgian ale in order to raise funds for the Catholic Church. Back then, drinking beer was safer and less likely to make you ill than drinking water.
Many ales are still brewed by monks in monasteries in Belgium today, these Trappist and Abbey beers are recommended for this recipe. If you can’t get your hands on some authentic abbey beer, then your best bet is some good dark ale like an Oud Bruin, Flanders Red, or even a Newcastle Brown Ale.
The quality of beer really will make or break this dish – ideally you want something dark and bitter.
The unique charm of this Flemish beef stew recipe is the clashing of sweet and sour tastes. For the sweet element, it’s best to use Liège syrup, which is a kind of reduced jelly/ jam spread that you can find in Belgium. However, if you can’t get hold of this, you can swap in a bar of dark chocolate, or even some brown sugar or redcurrant jelly.
For the sour element of this magic combo, simply add a dash of vinegar or sharp-flavored mustard (or as in this case – a bit of both!). This combination of sweetness and sharpness, against the deliciously caramelized beef and onion and the bitterness of the dark beer, is what gives the beef stew its deep and rich flavor.
To make a proper beef and beer stew, you need the sauce to thicken up nicely so that it’s a hearty stew rather than a weak soup. There’s a number of ways to thicken up stews. In this recipe, a piece of good brown bread (preferably a wholegrain loaf that has been sitting around going a bit stale) is sliced up, spread with mustard and placed on top of the mixture and left to disintegrate.
This is an old-fashioned and winning method. The slice of bread eventually melts into the beef stock, making the sauce thick and creamy. It’s also a handy way to mix in the mustard too, which adds a subtle peppery kick.
If you don’t have any bread to hand, you can substitute a tablespoon or three of all-purpose flour. If you like, you can add some of this in early by coating the chunks of meat in a dusting of flour before sautéeing them. This will absorb all the yummy juices.
When it comes to the meat itself, you want some good stewing beef. If you ask your butcher for beef for making a stew, they’ll normally give you neck or shoulder meat and they might even chop it up into cubes for you if you remember to ask.
Braising is an all-important part of making Belgian beef carbonnade. Braising is the process of searing the meat first in the butter (you can use vegetable oil but butter gives a nicer flavor) and then stewing it. Sautéeing it makes sure all the flavors and juices are stored up in the chunks of meat and gives it a beautiful caramelized texture.
Sautéeing the beef chunks in batches is recommended to avoid overcrowding the meat. This means it will fry, rather than start to boil in its own juices if there is too much meat crammed into one pan. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do this though – but it’s great if you have a large enough pan to stop this from happening.
Don’t turn the pieces too frequently – give them a chance to really crisp up a bit. Don’t worry if bits of meat get stuck – this will eventually be deglazed by the beer and will contribute to the overall flavor.
So how come it’s often called “Flemish carbonnade” (or spelled in some cases “Flemish carbonades”) The word “carbonnade” derives from the word “charbon” meaning “coal” in French – the idea of grilling meat in a pot over the embers of hot coal.
Don’t worry though – today you can definitely make do with a stew pot on the hob. For extra tender beef, you can use a slow cooker. If you don’t have a slow cooker, you’ll find that cooking the beef for a few hours on the stove will still make the beef nice and succulent.
It does take some perseverance to get that melt-in-the-mouth tender beef, and to balance the sweet and sour of those ingredients… but luckily for you all of that is explained in the recipe below. Seasoning must not be overlooked when making this Belgian beef and beer stew – some salt and ground black pepper will make a world of difference. Good luck!
Flemish Stew Recipe
- 1 kg of beef, cut into large chunks
- 2 large onions
- 1 bottle of brown beer (abbey beer)
- 2 tablespoons of Liège apple/pear syrup OR a piece of dark chocolate OR some brown sugar
- 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 clove
- 1 slice of hearty brown bread (whole grain)
- 2 tablespoons of grainy mustard
- Salt and pepper
- Dash of cider vinegar
1. To a large casserole dish/ Dutch oven/ stew pot, add the butter and melt. Then add the chopped up bits of beef and fry them over moderate heat until each side is nicely browned.
It’s a good idea to separate the beef into three parts and sear it in batches using a bit more butter each time. This way, all the meat will get properly sautéed on all sides, which locks in the flavorful juices.
2. Roughly chop the onions into large pieces.
3. Tie the sprigs of fresh thyme and the bay leaves together with a piece of kitchen cord.
4. Take the slice of bread and spread with a thick coating of mustard.
5. By this point, the beef should be lightly browned and ready to remove from the stew pot. Place it on a plate to one side. Do not wash the pot – you want to keep as many of those delicious beef flavors as you can for the next stage.
6. Add the roughly chopped onion to the stew pot and cook until browned over low heat, stirring occasionally.
7. Scrape all the crusty brown bits from the bottom of the pan to loosen them. Add the beer slowly, stirring thoroughly to mix in all those yummy beef bits from the bottom into the beef stew. Bring to the boil, and as soon as the beer boils, add the meat back in along with any juices that might have pooled up under it. Ensure that the beef is properly submerged.
8. Add in your little pre-prepared bundle of herbs and the clove. Now it’s time to add the 2 tablespoons of Liège syrup. This is a regional Belgian product and it’s very likely that you won’t be able to get your hands on it! Never fear – you can make do with a bar of dark chocolate or a bit of brown sugar in its place.
9. Place the piece of bread that you’ve covered with mustard spread-side down in the pot. This will eventually fall apart and disappear, thickening up the sauce and adding a heap of flavor.
10. Leaving the lid off, simmer the pot roast for about 2 hours / 2.5 hours on low heat.
11. Once the sauce has thickened properly, put the lid on the pot.
12. Finish with a dash of cider vinegar and a sprinkle of salt and pepper (ideally freshly ground), and remove the bunch of herbs and bay leaves (if you can find them!). Serve your delicious Flemish beef stew with chips and mayonnaise.
The main thing to remember while making this traditional Flemish stew is that the beer is meant for COOKING with, not for drinking as you cook! Best buy two bottles – one for the pan and one for the chef…
Hungry for more? Check out these other Belgian dishes.
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