Flemish Beef & Beer Stew
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The classic Belgian/Flemish beer-and-beef stew Carbonnade Flamande (also spelled Carbonade) is sure to become a classic in your household - especially since you can easily adapt it to your kitchen, and to many dietary restrictions. Once you've finished the initial skillet-based flavour-building steps, the stew itself can be finished with an electric pressure cooker (e.g. Instant Pot), slow cooker, or on the stovetop. It's easily made dairy-free, and with a bit of effort, it can be made gluten-free as well.
There are plenty of wonderful perks to becoming a more talented and confident cook. Better tasting food is, obviously, the biggest plus. Kind of a necessary perquisite, when you really think about it. But there are a lot of other, subtle bonuses that pop up as you become better in the kitchen. One of my favourites is something I like to call 'mental-taste-testing.' Alright fine, I've never called it that before now, but that's only because I've never had to put it into words. What I'm talking about is the ability to read a set of ingredients (plus or minus the instructions) and instantly get an idea of what the dish will taste like. Everyone has this skill at some level of course - nobody starts making a chocolate cake while thinking 'gee, I hope this doesn't end up tasting like chicken pot pie.' But the more you cook, the more refined this skill becomes. Over time, you start honing in on individual ingredients and their quantities, instantly shifting your perception of what a recipe will (or at least should) taste like. Developing this skill helps you decide on the recipes you want to try, figure out substitutions, and adjust quantities based on your own preferences, all without having even picked up a kitchen knife.
Why do I lead in with this, dear reader? Because the phenomenal Flemish/Belgian beef dish known as carbonnade flamande shouldn't be glossed over or dismissed as just another stew. If you've got a good sense for mental-taste-testing, take a look at the ingredients, and I think you'll see what I mean. Sure, it's got all of the standard beef stew pluses, but a handful of ingredients really set it apart:
- Onions. LOTS of onions. Most importantly, they're cooked slowly to provide deep, caramelized sweetness.
- Beer. Sure, there's beer in lots of beef stews - but this isn't just any beer. My carbonnade flamande prominently features the bold, strong, sour, and pleasantly bitter flavour of a Belgian-style tripel ale.
- Sugar & Vinegar. These ingredients offset the savoury richness of the stew, imparting a sweet-and-sour flavour that plays off the onions (sweet) and ale (sour). These flavours compliment the pleasant bitterness of the beer and the browned meat. It's the combination that's really special - too much of one or the other ingredient wouldn't be the same.
The combined flavours are big, bold, and unforgettable. I love a good stew in virtually any form, but carbonnade flamande is something that I well and truly crave. It occupies that culinary space that makes it feel like it's both comfort food and a decadent treat. When it comes time to serve it, French fries are considered a classic accompaniment, and they're certainly one I advocate for. Potatoes or a good, crusty loaf of bread also make an excellent partners.
Carbonnade Flamande is a fairly easy to make, and can be adapted to a few different cooking methods. The biggest key is making sure that you focus on building the flavours at the beginning and balancing them at the end. When it comes to the first part, you want to ensure that you focus on properly and thoroughly browning the beef, cooking the bacon, caramelizing the onions, and using a good beer (more on this last one in below). Failure to sufficiently brown the beef or completely caramelize the onions will cause you to skip out on a lot of really amazing flavour chemistry, resulting in a blander and more disappointing end product. As for balancing the flavours, you want to taste-test your finished stew and adjust it to your own personal preferences. You can balance and refine the finished stew by adding more brown sugar (sweetness), cider (sourness/acidity), or salt. Do make sure to let the stew sit for a while before adjusting the flavours too much, and to be judicious with your quantities.
This recipe owes a lot to Chef Charlie Palmer's recipe for Carbonnade Flamande, as published on Saveur back in 2012. I've tweaked it over the years to my family's tastes, and to work with a variety of cooking methods (see below). The actual ingredients aren't all that different (I omit tarragon, as I personally don't really think it does much here), but the differences in quantities can actually make a pretty substantial variation. For example, this recipe leans more heavily on a good beef stock, and a bit less on the beer. And while we're on that subject, I really prefer the way that a tripel beer works in Carbonnade over the darker brown ales, but you can read more about this in the notes below.
This recipe can be adapted for an electric pressure cooker (e.g. Instant Pot), slow cooker, or stovetop quite easily. The initial browning and caramelizing steps are still required for each variation, so it's by no means a set-it-and-forget-it kind of dish, but this does have the added advantage of making the results very similar between the different methods. Check below for specific notes.
Carbonnade Flamande can easily be made dairy-free without any real impact on the overall character or quality. It can also be made gluten-free, though the importance of the beer makes this a little trickier. See below for details.
What Kind of Beer Do You Use?
Given the Belgian roots of this dish, it shouldn't be too surprising to find out that the beer is a big deal.
There's debate out there about what beer is best to use in Carbonnade Flamande, but I'm not going to get into too much detail (or trouble, hopefully). I personally think that Belgian tripels are ideally suited to this kind of cooking, as they nicely balance sweet, sour, and bitter flavours. They're bold and distinctive without being overwhelming. Classic Belgian tripels include Chimay Triple, Westmalle, and Karameliet. There are also a number of wonderful tripels produced on a very small scale (e.g. in the monastery-operated Trappist style), but cooking with these is somewhat akin to using a $500 bottle of Bordeaux to make bourguignon. There are some who prefer to make carbonnade with Belgian golden or red ales. I really like the tripels myself, but I'm sure these would be lovely too. I do think it best to avoid the very dark dubbel and brown ales, as I find their rich, heavy body a bit much with the browned beef and bacon.
I do love a good Belgian beer, they can be tricky to find where I live, and they can break the bank a bit (especially if you're pouring them into a stew). Fortunately there are some lovely tripel beers made outside of Belgium too. When making this batch for Diversivore, I turned to a Canadian beer I've enjoyed for many years now: Fin du Monde. It's an excellent top-fermented tripel-style strong ale, and it's quite easy to find in Canada. Unibroue, the Quebec-based brewery that makes Fin du Monde (and many other lovely beers), has been owned by beer giant Sapporo since 2006, so you may find that it's a bit easier to find in many markets than some other tripels.
Pressure Cooker vs. Slow Cooker vs. Stovetop
I want to be very clear about one thing right at the outset: there isn't a 'quick' version of Carbonnade Flamande. The pressure cooker method is definitely the fastest method, but it still involves browning all the beef, cooking the bacon, and caramelizing the onions ahead of time. And, while I'm normally a big fan of the Instant Pot's ability to saute foods before pressure-cooking, the series of steps and quantity of ingredients used in this recipe make it easier to start everything out in a large, heavy skillet on the stove-top. Even with this in mind, I still like the electric pressure cooker method best, as it's relatively foolproof and still a considerable time savings over the other methods.
Once again (for those of you recipe skimmers out there), be sure to do all of the browning/caramelizing BEFORE you continue with these cooking methods!
Pressure Cooker - Transfer all of the ingredients to an electric pressure cooker (e.g. an Instant Pot). Seal and cook on high pressure (manual setting) for 45 minutes. I prefer to let the pressure release naturally when the stew is finished, but if you're a bit pressed for time, you can release the valve after 15 minutes.
Slow Cooker - Transfer all of the ingredients to a slow cooker. Cover and cook on the low setting for 6-7 hours, or until the beef is tender.
Stovetop - While this version has the advantage of being done in the same pot as the browning and caramelizing steps, it's a little more hands-on. Bring all of the ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover and reduce to a low simmer for 2-3 hours, or until the beef is tender. If you know your stovetop well you shouldn't have much trouble with this, but it can be tricky to keep the heat low enough to avoid burning, yet high enough to simmer the meat. In general it's better to err on the side of a lower temperature for a longer time. Give it a stir every once in a while (not too often or you'll always be letting the heat and moisture out), and consider topping up the liquid levels with a bit of water or beer if you're losing too much moisture from the pot.
NOTE: the pressure cooker method tends to break the onions up into very small pieces, creating a rich and unctuous sauce or gravy. However, the onions tend to stay more-or-less intact with the other two methods, leaving the sauce much thinner (but still delicious). You can do one of two things to adjust for this:
- Blend some of the onions and sauce together (an immersion blender makes this particularly easy, but a regular blender or food processor would work fine too).
- Add about 1.5-2 tablespoons of cornstarch, stir into a little bit of water, and mix into the gravy before serving.
This is the easiest variation to manage, as it requires only a straight swap of butter for bacon fat or vegetable oil. Given that you're already using bacon, I'd personally be inclined to use bacon fat, but vegetable oil will work quite well if that's what you've got handy. You can substitute an equal quantity of bacon fat (3 tbsp) or about 2.5 tbsp of vegetable oil.
There are two steps necessary to convert Carbonnade Flamande into a gluten-free dish. The first step is the easiest - simply swap the flour used in the beef browning step for your favourite gluten-free blend, or for arrowroot powder. The second step is to figure out what to do with the beer.
Yes, beer contains gluten. The actual amount of gluten can vary quite a bit depending on the brand and beer type, but there's generally going to be at least a little. Fortunately, there are gluten-free beers on the market. Unfortunately, there aren't many gluten-free beers that approximate the distinctive strong/sour/bitter flavour that you find in a Tripel ale. The UK gluten-free beer brand Green's does make a Tripel ale, but (as with any specialty beer) you may or may not be able to find it in your market. If you can't find a Tripel, a gluten-free Belgian red or brown beer would also make a good choice, as would any ale with a nice bitter/sour flavour profile. I wouldn't personally use a very light beer like a pilsner or lager, as these are too light and mild tasting.
If you can't find a suitable gluten-free beer, or you're concerned about any remaining gluten, you can substitute a good quality dry apple cider. It's by no means a perfect match in terms of flavour, but it will still make for a great stew.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single serving (1/6th portion of the total recipe), and does NOT include fries or any other sides.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Note: the basic recipe is neither dairy- nor gluten-free as-is, but simple substitutes are given in the recipe and notes.
Carbonnade Flamande (Flemish Stew)
- 2.5 lbs chuck or stewing beef cut into 2 inch (4 cm) cubes
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour (see note)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 3 large yellow onions thinly sliced
- 1 cup Tripel beer (see note)
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter (see note)
- 4 slices thick bacon finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 2 cups beef stock
- 2 tbsp brown sugar packed
- 3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 tsp thyme leaves
- 3 stems parsley plus minced parsley to garnish
- 1 bay leaf
- Place the beef into a large bowl and cover with the flour, salt, and pepper. Toss/combine until the beef is well-covered on all sides.
- Place a large cast iron frying pan or Dutch oven on the stove top over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of butter. Brown the beef in the pan, taking care not to crowd the pieces together (you'll most likely want to work in batches). Once the beef has been well-browned (~3-4 minutes per batch), remove it from the pan and set it aside.
- Add the bacon to the now-empty pan and cook until the fat is fully rendered and the bacon is a little bit crisp.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the onions, garlic, and remaining butter to the pan. Cook slowly, until the onions are well-caramelized – on average 35-45 minutes. Ensure that your heat is truly low enough; a large coil on a gas stove may still be too hot when set on low, especially as the caramelization stage nears.
- Add the beer to the pan and scrape it gently to deglaze any stuck-on bits. Bring the heat back up to medium-high and simmer until the liquid is reduced by about ¼.
- Transfer the contents of the frying pan and the beef to an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, or large Dutch Oven (see next step for cooking variations). Add the beef stock, sugar, vinegar, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. You may wish to lightly salt the dish at this point, but adjust the final taste closer to the completion point.
- Pressure Cooker: Seal and cook at high pressure (manual) for 45 minutes. Allow the pressure to reduce naturally for at least 15 minutes before venting.Slow Cooker: Cover and slow cook on low for 6-7 hours, or until the beef is very tender.Stovetop: Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 2-3 hours, or until the meat is very tender.
- Remove finished stew from heat and adjust the final taste with salt and, if necessary, a little brown sugar and/or vinegar. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with bread, potatoes, or (my favourite) fries.
You know, I don’t like drinking beer, but I DO like to cook with it. I like to cook with wine too. This looks like a great dinner for date night. I love the fact that I have so many options on how to cook it as well. I know hubby would be thrilled with this. We love stew, this would be a nice alternative for sure.
Thanks Gloria! I agree re: date night. Hope you (both!) enjoy it!
I made this pretty much note for note, including using Fin Du Monde as the beer, and I have to say it is the best beef stew I’ve ever eaten. That sweet and sour balance just nails it. Thanks for pointing me down the right path!
I love the observation you’ve made on being a more confident cook and being able to identify the flavor of an overall dish just by a list of ingredients. That speaks to your experience and ability and I’d like to think that I’ve got that Obi-Wan gene as well. I’ve made carbonnades before, but I don’t think I actively sought out a real Belgian beer, but I’m going to make a point to search out one of the brands your recommend without breaking the bank. Sean, this is one spectacular Carbonnade and I love the serving of French Fries on the side. That’s inspired.
Thank you Lisa! It’s one of those cool skills I never really thought about developing, and then it just… happened! I think cooking is full of little things like that. I have no doubt that you can do it too. I think it’s a very egalitarian sort of skill – sure some people are more naturally gifted with it, but anyone who practices and builds their confidence tends to develop it, and that’s amazing. Glad you like the recipe, and I’m glad you like the fries – though I really can’t take any credit. Belgians figured out the magic of fries with carbonnade a long time ago… and frankly, fries with all kinds of things. Fries in general. Thanks Belgium!
I am always down for recipes that call for deeply caramelized onions! And beer. The flavor of these two with beef is just awesome. The perfect dead-of-winter meal that sticks to your bones. Thanks for the great recipe!
ME TOO. Glad you like the recipe! Thanks for commenting.
Hi, Sean! My partner and I just got back from Belgium, where I fell in love with Flemish Stew. Been looking for a recipe ever since and came across yours. I like it, but I am torn. We love Belgian beers (hence the reason for our trip). I have read that Rodenbach is the classic beer for these stews (which I have). I have read, however, that if you use the more sour Belgians like Rodenbach (as opposed to a more malty St. Bernardus 12) that you should NOT use the brown sugar and vinegar — as the Rodenbach supplies that profile. Do you have any thoughts, as I can see you use both? I personally don’t believe Tripels are as sour as Flemish Reds, but that’s just my humble opinion. Thanks for your help!
Hi Monte! Great question – and a somewhat complex one! A sour ale like Rodenbach may indeed negate the need for any vinegar. I think the best thing to do in this situation is remove some or all of the vinegar and brown sugar from the initial stages, and instead add them to taste at the end. The final step does mention adding those ingredients if you feel they’re needed, so you’d simply being taking a more extreme approach to that.
The downside of adding ingredients at the end is that it can be harder to bring all the flavours together to mellow. To combat this, I would try stirring the ingredients in as thoroughly as you can and waiting a while before taste-testing. Repeat as needed. I hope that helps!
I’m all for no substitutions when it comes to a celebratory meal like this. The flavours really develop into such a rich luxurious sauce and we found it was a great project on a rainy Sunday. Thanks for this delicious and spectacular recipe!
I totally am too. That being said, I do know that some people HAVE to make substitutions, and I hope they’re glad to know that they don’t have to be left out on recipes like this. I’m really glad you enjoyed it! Cheers!
First of all, look at you all fancy pants. This looks like it’s out of a 5-star restaurant. EVEN with the fries piled on the side. (Gimme!) That beef looks melt-in-your-mouth delicious. And I love that you’ve paired it with Fin du Monde. Haha. Claaaaassic! I think this is totally worth the bacon and butter. I mean, in moderation, right? Perfect for a special occasion. Bookmarking and pinning, because I think the could be a hit for Nick’s birthday 🙂
I firmly believe that fries are a 5-star restaurant food. You can call the frites or even pomme frites if you want to act super fancy-schmancy, but I love me some fries. And as for the beer, I’ve loved Fin du Monde for aaaaaages, so I was really pleased to work with it in a recipe. Glad you like it, and I hope it makes for a great B-day treat!
I love how rich and delicious this looks, and I can totally imagine the depth of flavor, especially that the beer gives to the dish. I’m going to give this a try…I can always use another slow cooker meal!
Thanks Lisa! Hope you have fun with it.
The sauce looks so buttery and rich, absolutely perfect. I try to eat fairly healthy most meals, but I can definitely indulge every now and then, especially for something that looks as good as this!!
Thanks Katherine! The way the onions kind of melt in the Instant Pot makes for a particularly rich dish, but (thankfully) without the added fat and calories you’d get from a ton of butter. It’s certainly still an indulgent meal, but it’s not over-the-top. Cheers!
I love the combo of deeply caramelized onions and beer. This stew looks just as you describe it, true comfort food and also deliciously rich and decadent. I also love that you served it with french fries. Thanks for sharing!
French fries FTW. They just work so darned well with carbonnade! Glad you like the recipe, thanks for commenting!
Help! This recipe sounds delicious, and I want to cook it tomorrow, but I can’t figure out where you use the last 2 tbsp of butter. I see 1tbsp used to brown the meat. Do you call for 3 tbsp because it’s likely that you’ll need to do 3 batches?
Hi Margie! Thanks for catching that! The remaining butter should actually be added with the onions when it comes time to caramelize them. I’ve adjusted the instructions to correct this. That being said, you might want to use a little more of the butter to brown the beef (totally a judgment call as you’re going along). Thank so much for commenting, and I hope you love the recipe!
I love this recipe but prefer to use a quadruple.
Awesome! Thanks Mark! Out of curiosity, what is it about the quadruple that you like better? They’re admittedly a bit tough to find in my neck of the woods.
I’m from Belgium, I used Chouffe dark brown beer – followed the recipe to end. Cooked on stove top at number 2 then the last hr I lowered to very low cooked 3 hrs I used thick sirloin which I cut in large cubes. I must report that it was so good better than in a 4 star restaurant – I also served with Flemish Red Cabbage and Frites double fried.
Thanks for taking the time to comment Eva! I’m so glad it worked well – and so glad that it stands up to Belgian scrutiny!
Perfect! Carbonnade flamande was one of my favorite dishes when we lived in Belgium and I’ve tried a few recipes with underwhelming results. Love this one – used Chimay blue for the beer and did a double fry of homemade fries to mimic belgium as much as possible! Definitely going in our rotation – thanks for this one!
Thanks Jodi! So glad it worked well for you!
Flavor is amazing! Nicely put together recipe. For the pressure cooker, it only needs 1 cup of beef stock to keep it from getting too thin. Will make again
RIP Savuer! You can never go wrong starting with one of their recipes. I am super excited to try this out, thanks so much for posting along with instantpot instructions. Before I dive in–is the salt measurement correct? I know the broth will bring a lot of salt but 1/4 still just seems scant for 2.5 lbs of meat.
Hi Robin! I prefer to start on the low side with salt, then add it to taste as I finish (especially if I’m going to be able to let it sit and mellow for a bit before serving). And you are right about the broth – some are quite salty, but it’s quite variable. Realistically, you could probably go up from 1/4 to 1/2 tsp (or even more) – but of course you can’t remove salt all that easily!
Delicious, family are from the Dutch/Belgian border so love the food naturally, but haven’t had this one since my oma passed. Only things I did different was add 4 tbs of red wine vinegar, no beef stock, marinade the beef in rekorderlig berry cider instead of beer and it was sweet so didn’t really need much brown sugar and I add a few tablespoons of our homemade tomato sauce (it is made with apples and spices) and it was 10/10 brilliant!
I served with boiled potatoes with skin on and then fried in a ton of butter and salt flakes with generous mayo 🙂
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I followed the recipe to the letter, but felt it was pretty bland. I tried to punch it up with, more pepper, sugar and vinegar, but still wasn’t just very flavorful. It turned out really soupy, even after adding cornstarch. I’m a big believer in trying a recipe twice, if I feel it’s worth a second effort. So, if I make this again, I will definitely reduce the amount of broth to one cup, if not 1/2 cup.
Thanks for the feedback Janice, and sorry it didn’t work out well for you. I am surprised at it being so soupy… not something I’ve seen before. The only thing I can think of immediately is to make sure that you coat the beef in flour thoroughly and make sure it’s well-browned. That’s a big factor in terms of both flavour and in terms of thickening the sauce. But if you have any questions on your second go around, just ask and I’ll do my best to help.
Hi, I just wanted to share that I’ve tried your recipe with an electric pressure cooker and it turned out a little bland and soupy too.
I guess because it doesn’t release as much water as a slow cooker?
But I added about another 3-4 tablespoons of brown sugar and let it simmer for another 45min or so and it turned out perfect!
Thank you so much!
Hi Lena! Thanks for the feedback! Because it’s totally sealed, pressure cooking can sometimes lead to a more watery product – not just for this, but for basically any soup/stew/whatever. You’ve done exactly what I would do – simmer it a bit longer and let the flavours concentrate. Cheers, and thanks for taking the time to comment!