Carbonnade Flamande or Flemish beef stew is a hearty, satisfying and flavoursome dish. Originating from Belgium, this humble stew consists of tender beef cubes simmered in a rich flavoured sauce made with brown beer, onions, mustard and aromatic herbs. With the beef cubes slowly braised to perfection, resulting in a thick, savoury, aromatic yet slightly sweet beef stew, this dish is traditionally served with ‘Belgian’ fries or mashed potatoes and a crispy side salad.
A Belgian classic dish that is comforting, tasty and that won’t disappoint. It is perfect to either make ahead of time for your own personal use or for a larger group of guests.
What is carbonnade Flamande?
Carbonnade à la Flamande or Flemish carbonnade is also known under the names Belgian beef stew, Flemish beef stew, Belgian beef and beer stew or Flemish ‘stoverij’ (Vlaamse stoverij).
This beef stew or ‘stoofvlees’ is one of the most popular recipes in Belgian cuisine and along with Mussels Marinière is a strong contender to be the Belgian national dish. This may explain why both dishes are served in practically every type of eatery or restaurant throughout the country. They are usually served together with chips / French fries, or ‘frites’.
It is said that the origin of the word carbonnade comes from the french word ‘charbon’ or coal, where in the past workers used to stew their meat in a pot or grill it directly over hot coals. It is also said that this ‘stoofvlees’ dish is the Belgian answer to the French version ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ which is made with red wine, whereas the Belgians make it with rich flavoured dark beer for which Belgium is most famous.
As this recipe was developed over the centuries many people will have their own beef carbonnade family recipe. However, the cooking technique overall stays the same. At present, not everyone uses dark malty beer, but sometimes also a lighter blond beer, or they make it completely with beef stock, without adding any alcohol.
In this post, I will share the recipe that works best for me and will give some possible substitutions.
Which cut of beef to use for stew
Boneless pieces of beef with high marbling and medium fat are best for making this Belgian beef stew recipe. Look for tougher cuts of meat, and while meat on the bone is doable, it should preferably already be boneless. The slow simmering will gradually break down the connective tissue and will slowly melt away the marbling of fat resulting in tender, melt in your mouth pieces of meat. Look for stewing beef cuts like chuck roast, brisket, short rib, flat iron steak, bottom or top round.
Beef stew ingredients and substitutions
This carbonnade Flamande recipe is mostly made with simple every day pantry friendly ingredients. Unless you already have such at home, the only ‘challenge’ will be selecting the right cut of meat in the supermarket and finding a good quality brown beer or ale, ideally of Belgian origin.
- Beef: Select boneless stewing beef with additional fat still around it. Either buy it ready cut, or chop it into bite-size chunks of about 1.5 inches or 4 cm.
- Onion: Caramelised onion is what provides depth of flavour to this stew, so use at least 2 medium sized yellow onions.
- Flour: A bit of all-purpose flour to dust the meat will gradually thicken the sauce while cooking.
- Butter and cooking oil: I usually use only butter to brown the meat as it helps create a beautiful deep brown colour and eventually a better tasting sauce. A combination of oil and butter will also work as the cooking point will be higher without burning the butter. I then use regular sunflower cooking oil on its own to caramelise the onions, but feel free to use your cooking oil of choice or even just butter to fry the onions.
- Bread: Generously spread with Dijon mustard, a slice of brown bread is added to the stew as a natural thickening agent and for some extra flavour. Even though flour is already used for thickening, the addition of a slice of bread is a more traditional way to make Belgian carbonnade and adds to the nostalgia of this dish.
- Mustard: Add a good quality strong flavoured mustard such as Dijon to the stew for extra depth of flavour and to create a bit of acidity in order to better tenderise the meat. Traditionally the mustard is spread on the aforementioned slice of bread before adding it to the stew.
- Beer: Adding a bottle of Belgian beer to the stew is a crucial step that contributes to its signature flavour. Choose the right beer for this stew but also a beer that you are mostly likely to drink yourself. A brown Abbey ale or ‘trappist’ is always a good choice, such as Grimbergen dubbel or Chimay. Fear not, Belgian beer is quite widely found around the world. Not only for a deeper and complex flavour, the acidity in the beer also helps to break down the tough fibres and connective tissues in the meat resulting in softer, more tender pieces of beef.
- Stock: Beer should be the predominant liquid for the sauce, but in addition you can also use beef stock for some additional flavour and to create the desired thickness of the sauce. Alternatively, you can use bouillon powder or beef stock cubes dissolved in water.
- Syrup or Sugar: To balance the flavours, a touch of sweetness is added to the sauce. Traditionally a sweet thick fruit syrup known as ‘stroop’ is used. The most common brands are Luikse ‘stroop’, or Liège syrup. There is also Loonse ‘stroop’ or syrup from Loon, usually made from apple or pears. Unlike Belgian beer, these Belgian syrups may be difficult to find outside of Belgium, so good old brown sugar is a great alternative.
- Seasoning: To add even more flavour to this stew I have added bay leaves, cloves and thyme. Adjust the final seasoning with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with fresh parsley. Optionally, a sprig of rosemary can also be added for some extra flavour.
Which herbs and spices to use
A classic beef stew from Belgium calls for traditional flavours. Bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, cloves, salt and pepper is all it needs. Use either dried or fresh rosemary and thyme. However, if you use fresh sprigs of rosemary and thyme you will end up with the sprigs and leaves still in the sauce which might not be very presentable or palatable, unless you want to pick them out one by one before serving.
Another option is to make a bouquet garni, which is a bundle of fresh herbs tied together with a string so they can cook in the sauce and give off all their flavours but can easily be removed without disappearing into the sauce. Alternatively, add the herbs in a tea ball infuser. As for the clove, I recommend to pierce it through the bay leaves so it can easily be found and removed after cooking.
How to make beef stew
Making a good beef stew with buttery tender meat and a rich, thick, beer-based gravy isn’t difficult at all. What’s important is to follow the correct steps to make the best beef stew:
- Prepare the beef: Make sure the beef is cut in equal chunks to allow for equal cooking. There is no rule in how large the chunks should be but the general rule of thumb is have pieces of about 1.5 to 2 inches (or 4 to 5 cm). Pat the beef chunks dry and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Sear the beef chunks: Melt some butter (or a combination of butter and cooking oil) in a frying pan on medium to high heat. Place the first batch of beef in the pan, covering maximum 2/3 of the pan. Never overcrowd the pan as it will reduce the heat and the meat will cook instead of sear. Instead, it is important to work in several smaller batches. Sear all sides until golden brown. When all sides are seared, transfer the meat in a separate bowl and repeat with the next batch. It is possible the meat will stick to the pan when turning, which is fine. We will remove and use these sticky bits later.
- Deglaze the pan: When all the meat is cooked, deglaze the pan with the beer. Pour in the beer, which is preferably at room temperature, and with a wooden spoon loosen all the meat bits that are still stuck in the pan. It is these sticky bits that will provide lots of extra flavour to the sauce. Slowly simmer until the beer is warm and all the bits are loose and mixed in the liquid. Set the pan aside with the warm beer sauce still in it.
- Caramelise the onions: Finely chop the onions, then heat some oil in a heavy-bottomed stewing pot or Dutch oven on medium heat and sauté the onions until translucent. Meanwhile, generously spread the mustard on 1 side of the slice of bread.
- Make the stew: Add the seared beef cubes to the onions and mix well. Dust with flour and stir to combine. Cook for a minute to let the flour mix with the ingredients already in the pot. Now pour in the heated beer sauce from the pan, add the beef stock, the syrup (or sugar) and all the herbs then give it a good stir. The liquid should almost cover all the meat cubes, but not completely, so be careful not to add too much extra liquid otherwise the sauce will not thicken as desired. Finally, place the bread on top with the mustard side down.
- Simmer the stew: Bring the stew to a boil, then as soon as it does, reduce the heat to very low and leave to simmer for at least 2 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. But, don’t cover with a lid just yet as some liquid needs to first evaporate in order to create the desired thickness for the sauce. However, if you decide the sauce is thick enough before the end of the cooking time you can cover it with a lid to avoid further reducing of the sauce. The whole time the heat should be as low as possible so as to only see tiny bubbles coming from the liquid in the stew, the epitome of slow cooking.
- Garnish and serve: Remove the bay leaves with the clove and the other herbs if possible. Adjust seasoning to taste and garnish with fresh parsley before serving.
Carbonnade recipe cooking tips
Making carbonnades Flamandes isn’t difficult at all. After just a bit of prep, all that’s left to do is to grab a good book and curl up on the couch while the slow simmering pot does the rest of the work.
However, the most common issues with making this beef stew is that the meat gets tough, the sauce is too liquid, or the flavour isn’t properly balanced. In order to avoid these problems, here are some cooking tips that will result in the best Belgian beef stew, even better, the best traditional beef stew from Belgium:
- Use the right cooking pot: Use a heavy-bottomed pot, preferably made from a material that distributes the heat evenly and holds it well, such as cast iron, enamelled cast iron, or stainless steel.
- Use the correct meat: Using the right cut of meat is essential in order to achieve the buttery tenderness which results from having stewed it for 2 hours or more. The wrong meat and you may end up with car tyre stew.
- Brown the meat: Browning the meat first is an essential step in making this stew that should not be skipped. Searing the meat in butter enhances and develops its flavour while adding colour to the sauce.
- Don’t overcrowd the pan while browning: Make sure to work in batches when browning the meat. When adding too many pieces in the pan at once the heat will (temporarily) reduce and the meat will cook instead of searing, creating the opposite of the desired result.
- Don’t use cold liquid: Never pour cold beer or stock over the seared meat as this will result in the meat getting tough instead of tender while stewing. So first heat up any liquid before adding it to the stew. You should ideally be using the warm beer sauce you created while deglazing the pan in which the meat was seared.
- Simmer long and slow at low temperature: Making good stew takes time, so be sure to leave the stew to simmer at a very low temperature counting at least 2 hours, preferably even more to achieve the most tender results. Also, first cook without a lid so the excess liquid can evaporate thereby creating a thicker sauce without having to add additional thickener.
How to store
This recipe lends itself perfectly to make in larger batches and to store for later use. Since the cooking time is quite long it will save time when needing a quick tasty dinner after a long day at the office.
After the stew is cooked, allow to cool to room temperature, portion into smaller batches and freeze in sealed freezer friendly containers for up to 3 months.
You can also make this beef stew ahead of time and store it in the fridge which is even better as the flavours will further develop resulting in an even tastier dish. Allow to cool to room temperature after cooking and place covered in the pot in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Traditionally in Belgium this Flemish stew is served with ‘frites’ (French fries) and mayonnaise together with a side salad or some cooked veggies. As this stew has a lot of sauce you can also consider serving it with mashed potatoes, ‘kroketten’ (potato croquettes), boiled potatoes, rice, noodles or baguette which are great for mopping up all the sauce.
Here are some suggestions for side dishes to go with this beef stew recipe:
- Belgian endive salad with egg
- Sauteed green beans with tomatoes
- Mashed sweet potatoes
- Roasted Brussels sprouts and butternut squash
- Italian green beans with garlic and onion
- Oven roasted fennel and carrots
More stew recipes to try
Carbonnade Flamande – Belgian beef stew
- 2 pounds (or 1 kg) beef stew meat
- 2 medium onions peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1 slice brown bread
- 2 tablespoons Liege syrup or brown sugar
- 1½ cup (1 bottle or 330 ml) brown Belgian beer Grimbergen, Chimay etc (warm)
- ½ cup (or 120 ml) beef stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 1 clove
- salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the meat
- Cut the beef into 1½ to 2 inch pieces (or 4 to 5 cm). Pat the cubes dry and season with salt and pepper.
- Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium to high heat. Place the beef cubes in the pan without overcrowding or overlapping and sear until properly browned on all sides. Transfer the browned beef cubes to a seperate bowl. Work in batches until all pieces are browned. Add more butter at anytime, if needed. This step will make smoke, so use your extractor.
- Deglaze the frying pan with the brown beer and scrape all the extra bits of brown meat from the pan with a wooden spoon. Set the pan aside with the beer sauce still in it.
Make the beef stew
- Heat the cooking oil in a heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat and sauté the unions for 4 minutes until translucent. Add the browned beef cubes to the onions and stir to combine.
- Dust the flour over the meat in the pot and stir until all pieces are covered with a thin layer of flour. Fry for 2 minutes.
- Pour in the warm beer sauce from the frying pan. Add the syrup or brown sugar, beef stock, bay leaves, clove and thyme. Generously spread the mustard on 1 side of the slice of bread and place it with the mustard side down on top of the stew.
- Turn the heat right down and let the stew simmer for at least 2 hours or until the beef is fork tender. No need to cover with a lid (in the beginning) as the liquid needs to slowly evaporate in order to create a thick reduced sauce.
- Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve.
- Searing the meat: It is important to brown the meat on all sides in a hot pan. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan with the beef as it will immediately reduce the heat of the pan. This will cook the meat instead of searing it. So rather work in batches even if it takes some extra time.
- Deglazing: This means to pour liquid in to a hot pan to loosen or dissolve anything that is still stuck to the pan after searing. In this case, the meat. These bits provide a lot of extra flavour to the sauce of the stew so you will not want to waste them.
- Deglazing with beer: You should not pour any cold liquid over the warm meat, so we first use the beer to deglaze the pan after searing all the meat which in turn will heat the beer up.
- Oven: You can place the lid on the pot and leave to cook in a pre-heated oven on 150 degrees Celsius for minimum 2 hours. Make sure the pot is in fact oven safe.