12 March 2012

Pot au feu — boiled beef dinner

The other day I cooked a pot au feu — a boiled beef dinner. It was so good that now I wonder why I don't do it more often. It has all the advantages you could ask for: inexpensive beef that comes out tender and succulent; healthy, flavorful vegetables; and a hot, clear, nourishing broth.

Pot au feu is a very old French classic dish. The expression of course means "a pot on the fire" and must date back to the days of old when every household kept a pot of broth bubbling on the fire that people cooked on back before they had stoves, cooktops, burners, ovens, microwaves — or electricity or gas, for that matter. You could keep the stockpot going for weeks, adding and cooking more liquid, vegetables, or meat as the days passed.

Beef shank cooked in broth with onions and carrots

You can make a pot-au-feu using whatever meat you want. Usually it's beef. Old recipes include adding some chicken necks, gizzards, or hearts to the pot; if you use some chicken broth in the cooking liquid you've accomplished pretty much the same thing. But you can also make pot au feu with chicken, duck, or even lean pork.

Broth with aromatics, boiling

Actually, the chicken version of pot au feu is called poule au pot. However you do it, and whatever meat you use, you end up with several nice servings of meat and vegetables, as well as a clear broth you can have as soup, with the addition of vermicelli, other pasta, rice, and/or diced vegetables.

Start the cooking by putting a big pot of liquid — water, chicken or vegetable broth, or a combination — on to boil. You need enough liquid so that any meat you add is completely submerged. Add a peeled onion or two, or shallots; three or four garlic cloves; some celery stalks or leaves; a few allspice berries and black peppercorns; some leek leaves; salt of course; and a few bay leaves. This part is free-form; flavor the liquid to your own taste, with what you have on hand.

Here's the beef I got: shank with the bone removed,
from an old milk cow, according to the label.

When the liquid in the pot starts to boil, put in the meat. Don't use expensive meat, and stick to fairly large pieces. Short ribs, beef shank — that kind of thing —cuts of beef that need long, slow cooking. What I had was a boned, rolled and tied piece of jarret de bœuf, which is shank, and it weighed about two pounds (900 grams). It was sold with the bone included, because you want a marrow bone in the pot for flavor.

Beef shank, boned, rolled and tied, sold with the marrow bone

Cook the meat in the flavored broth for two hours at a slow boil or simmer. At that point, add a couple of big carrots, peeled and cut into two-inch pieces. They'll cook in the broth for two hours as well. If you want to add other vegetables — turnips, rutabega, cabbage, celery root, parsnips — add them to the pot about an hour from the end of the total cooking time, which is 4 to 4½ hours.

Cook potatoes in the broth, or serve the meat and
vegetables with a gratin dauphinois.

Serve the cooked meat and vegetables with a little of the broth. Put some butter on the vegetables if you want, or olive oil. In France, we eat the meat with Dijon mustard, or with cornichons, which are little sour gherkins. Also with some fleur de sel — coarse, crunchy sea salt. And good bread.

You can serve a bowl of the consommé (clear broth) as a starter course for the meal. And you'll have plenty left to make soup with. I think I'm going to make soupe à l'oignon gratinée this week. Another possibility is the Vietnamese soup called pho.


  1. We've had a few pot au feu this winter. The leftovers have gone on for almost a whole week, always ending with onion soup. Just love it!

  2. Ken, we do this very often... our butcher does regular 'promos' on the rib and it is a very good way of using potager winter veg! I sling in a few hunks of dried sausage from time to time as a flavour changer.

    The rib also makes an excellent pot roast... cooked like this and then into the hot oven for about 30mins... the rib lifted out of the water&veg on hunks of pumpkin.

  3. Nothing beats Bouillon. Back in Canada I always had some on hand, a quick meal for cold days.

    I usually start with the marrow on a piece of toasted bread, not to everyone's liking, but very tasty.

  4. I've got an exceptionally meaty pair of beef ribs to cook for tonight's dinner. They are such good value and stretch amazingly far.

  5. This is a great dish and one we love. Diane

  6. All of us here in France love pot au feu, and it's one of the easiest things to make. But in the U.S., I don't know... Good ideas, Tim.

    The jarret was so good because it has a lot of collagen (connective tissue) in it that just turns meltingly soft and gelatinous.

  7. In the old days, whenever we had pot au feu, we used the broth as a soup and poured some red wine into it. That was delicious.

    Whatever meat was left from the pot au feu was turned into Bœuf Mironton, and that was a completely different ball game.

    And, if any mironton was left, it was turned into a Parmentier. Three different meals, three different tastes!

  8. We Brits call it "boiled beef and carrots"..........no we don't, only joking !!

  9. Thank you for yet another recipe for autumn here in westralian Australia when it cools down. 40.6 degrees today...bizarre! But I also love this style of simple, fresh cooking. And the prices in France, on the supU packet seem very reasonable.

  10. Well, there certainly was a music-hall song called Boiled Beef and Carrots, and a staple of my childhood was salted beef boiled with dumplings and flavouring vegetables in much the same way. Nowadays, I think you have to make a special arrangement with a butcher to get a piece of beef salted in the same way - I haven't seen it for years, but perhaps I should try a kosher butcher.

  11. He he he, Jean. Bœuf cuit à l'anglaise. C'est ça. Avec des carottes.

    CHM, il y a du vrai dans ce que tu dis ! Miam miam.

    Patrick, a staple in parts of the U.S., especially Boston but also other big urban areas, is corned beef and cabbage. Same thing.

  12. I love the idea of onion soup at the end. Thanks also for the comments which are fun to read.

  13. Evelyn, we've changed our plan and decided to make a Vietnamese pho soup our of the beef broth. Ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce, hot chili peppers, noodles, etc. That's for tomorrow. Should be good.

  14. I love how you are assisting me in menu selection and best of all, how to continue the meal the following days! Looks delicious.

    Merci, Ken.

    Mary in Oregon


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