Pot-au-feu is the iconic dish representing and symbolizing both family cooking and bistro cuisine in France, more than the veal blanquette, more than the boeuf bourguignon, more than the bouillabaisse in the South, the choucroute in the East… I remember, when I was working on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, there was a restaurant named… le Pot-au-feu serving exclusively pot-au-feu and its “derivatives” such as hachis parmentier, beef and potato salad… Always full in Winter!
Story of the word and of the dish
Pot-au-feu is a very old dish and, actually, in the middle-age, it was indifferently named pot-au-feu or pot-pourri. As pot-pourri means literally rotten pot, one can understand why pot-au-feu has remained while pot-pourri was used for other application, botanic, music or even in other languages like in English. In fact, the word pot-pourri was itself borrowed from the Spanish cuisine where it referred to a pork and bean stew, the olla podrida, which means… rotten pot too!!! Those names are not very appealing indeed. In fact, it seems that podrida was originally poderida, referring to the fact that only powerful (poder = power) and rich people could afford it. Nothing to do with rotten!
Coming back to pot-au-feu, this dish designated in the past a pot constantly on the fire (literally “pot on the fire”) in which people used to throw anything, all types of available vegetables and meats, of low quality in general, picking up what they needed, replacing those by new ingredients, and so on…
The modern pot-au-feu
The pot-au-feu, its ingredients, its mode of cooking, and even its serving, are now much more codified even if, depending on the regions and the families, there are quite a number of variations or options. First of all, if the word is used alone, it is a beef pot-au-feu. That said, you can have chicken pot-au-feu, duck pot-au-feu or even fish pot-au-feu. A pork pot-au-feu is generally called a potée.
Traditionally, the ingredients consist in an assortment of different types of meat cuts, at least three in order to combine a lean piece (for the taste and the texture), a gelatinous piece (for the collagen) and a fat piece (for the unctuosity and taste enhancement). As the names and the cuts are generally different in French and in English (and in English, between the US and UK), the comparison is sometimes difficult, all the more so as French cuts are generally more detailed (6 cuts covering the round, for instance). However, you won’t be wrong, providing once again you associate lean, gelatinous and fat pieces, with cuts from the round, the chuck, the brisket, the shank, the cheek (a treat, unfortunately, I didn’t find any), the ox tail, on top of the compulsory marrow bones, of course! My mom also used to add a veal foot. For the vegetables, the compulsory vegetables are potatoes, carrots, leeks and turnips. Beyond that almost any other winter vegetables are possible…
The debate: cold or boiling water?
As it happens many times in cooking, discussing methods of cooking may open a can of worms. Here, the debate is whether the meat should be plunged in cold water or in boiling water. The pro-cold argue that the broth (well, we will come to that, but the broth is an important component of the pot-au-feu) is better when starting in cold water, while the pro-hot argue that the meat is better when plunged boiling water. I should admit that I had tried the two options and I haven’t really seen any perceptible difference… Furthermore, as cooking has now become a branch of the chemical science… so to say, scientific research was made, proving that there is no real difference. So…
The third route
So, I tried a third route. In fact, this is something I have been intending to test for a while, but who am I? A modest amateur home cook… till I saw a program with the Paris two-star chef, Thierry Marx, using this third route, on top of other tips that I also borrowed here, at least some of them… or, being honest, those I was able to replicate. It is now a fact, a scientifically proved (see above) fact that searing the meat at the beginning of a cooking process contributes to enhance taste (Maillard reaction). Then, like Thierry Marx, I did neither start in cold water nor in hot water, but in foamy butter.
And last improvement: I used sparkling water as it is said to accelerate and to improve the cooking. And effectively, I found that the meat was even more “melting” than usual…
With the leftover, you can make, for instance:
A hachis parmentier, alternating layers of mashed potatoes and shredded meats,
A beef and potato salad, with an old-fashioned mustard vinaigrette and sliced onions,
And of course, drink hot the remaining broth, the indispensable ingredient of your winterizing kit.
Level of difficulty
~3 hours (day1) + 1.5 hours (day2)
Plus possible leftover to make a hachis Parmentier
§ Beef chuck short ribs (~1.5 lb)
§ Beef chuck roast (~1.5 lb)
§ Ox tails (~1.5 lb)
§ 3 big marrow bones
§ 2 egg whites to clarify the broth
For the broth:
§ 1 big carrot cut lengthwise in thin sticks
§ 2 stems of celery cut in sticks, same length as carrots
§ 1 pig trotter
§ 1 red onion, cut in 2 halves
§ Cloves, bay leaves, thyme, salt, pepper
§ 3 bottles of sparkling water
For the dish:
§ 12 small potatoes, non-peeled
§ 3 big carrots (here, 2 orange and 1 purple), peeled, non-cut
§ 2 medium size turnips, peeled and cut in 2 halves
§ 2 leeks, cleaned and cut in segments
§ 1 watermelon radish
§ 1 small celeriac root
§ 1/2 big parsnip
§ A few green onions
But you can also add,
(or substitute those optional vegetables by:
§ 1 golden beet
§ 1 rutabaga
Condiments and other:
§ Cornichons (small savory pickled cucumbers)
§ Pickled pearl onions
§ Old style mustard
§ Coarse sea salt
§ Half a baguette for the marrow toasts
To obtain better results, it is preferable to prepare it in two days:
1 The first day:
§ Sauté the beef meat cuts in hot butter, on each side and in different batches
§ Cut the onion in two, stud each half with a dozen of cloves, and sear them till quasi-burned in the same pan as the meat
§ Deglaze the pan with a glass of white wine and heat it up to evaporate the alcohol, while scratching the bottom to get all the caramelized flavors
§ Pour this juice in a big pot, add the meat (but not the 3 big marrow bones) and the juice rendered by the meat, the onion halves, the bouquet garni (i.e. the carrot sticks, the celery sticks and 3 or 4 bay leaves bound together with a cooking twine), cover with the sparkling water, add some pepper and thyme, lightly salt (it will reduce, so it’s better to add salt at the end).
§ Cover the pot and let simmer the whole for 3 hours, skimming regularly the foam formed on the surface (in fact, if you sear initially the meat, you will realize that there much less foam than with the more traditional methods).
§ Let cool down and keep in the fridge, or outside in Winter if your fridge is too small or too full.
2 The second day:
§ You will see a layer of coagulated fat on the surface. Scratch it off with a spoon or a fork, your broth will be less oily.
§ Two hours before serving, put back on the stove and simmer it for a couple of hours.
§ One hour before serving, take the long-to-cook vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, celeriac radishes…) and place them in a basket above the broth. In case of purple carrots, red beets or other “dying” vegetables, steam them separately, e.g. above a broth made with the vegetable peels and trims. Check regularly each group of vegetable cooking with a knife. If some steamed vegetables do not cook quick enough, plunge them for the necessary time in the broth. The goal is to obtain perfectly cooked vegetables that do not disintegrate.
§ Around 30 minutes before serving, place the marrow bones in the broth. A little tip, I put salt on the marrow to help staying inside the bone when cooking.
§ Withdraw the equivalent of 1 liter (1/4 gallon) from the broth, strain it and clarify it: To do so, I used the technique employed by the winemakers in Bordeaux to clarify their wine with egg whites. Add the egg whites progressively to the broth and heat it up (medium maximum, the whites should not burn) while gently stirring it up. You will see the cooked whites progressively rise up at the surface of the broth… with the unwished particles embedded into it. When all the whites are cooked, forming like a solid foam on the surface, strain several times the broth. First in a normal strainer, then in a strainer with a coffee filter (better) or a paper towel, so that you obtain a clear and flavor-concentrated broth.
§ Just before serving, grill the baguette toasts… for instance, in the beef fat skimmed out of the broth.
§ The pot-au-feu is ready to serve. You can serve separately, on a small plate, a small cup of the clarified broth, a toast on which to spread the bone marrow (plus salt and pepper), and a couple of cornichons and pickled onions, a tsp. of mustard and 1 or 2 pickles of coarse salt (fleur de sel) in which you will dip the meat as you eat it.
§ Dispose a piece of each meat in a plate, with a sample of each vegetable, and add a ladle of the hot clarified broth.
4 The wine:
This dish pairs well with a medium body red wine, such as a Loire valley red (Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon…) or a Beaujolais.