Eric Akis: French-style beef stew, even when you have to hold the wine

Eric Akis

A reader recently asked me if there was a substitute for red wine in recipes such as beef bourguignon or coq au vin. That’s because an acquaintance of his who enjoys his cooking and those classic French dishes can no longer have alcohol.

Before I share some possible substitutes for red wine, let me explain how cooking affects its alcohol content, because it does not all simmer away, as some might think.

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In a past story on cooking with alcohol, I noted that a U.S. Department of Agriculture study had disproved the theory that alcohol evaporates completely when heated. The fact is that cooked food can retain from five to 85 per cent of the original alcohol.

How much remains depends on such factors as how and at what temperature the food was heated, the cooking time and the type of alcohol used. For alcoholics and those with alcohol-related health issues, even a small trace of alcohol left in a dish could be a problem.

As with anything made with a substitute for the real thing, a dish made without wine will, of course, not taste exactly the same. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still taste fantastic.

In recipes that call for a modest amount of red wine — say 1/4 to 1/2 cup — I normally suggest you simply replace it with more of the main liquid added to the dish, whether it’s stock or tomato sauce.

In recipes where wine plays a more substantive role, because wine is made from grapes and grapes are a fruit, fruit juice is a logical replacement and I have had success going that route.

In today’s recipe for a French-style beef stew that I adapted from one I had for beef bourguignon, I substituted unsweetened concord grape juice for some of the two cups of wine used in the original recipe.

I only used one cup of the grape juice, since it has a pretty intense flavour and natural sweetness. If I had used the full two cups, the stew would be overwhelmed with the taste of grape juice, which further concentrates as it cooks.

I replaced the other cup of wine with an extra cup of the beef stock used in the original recipe. I also added some vinegar, which returned some acidity to the dish lost by not using wine.

Other juices, such as unsweetened tart cherry, cranberry or pomegranate juice, are possible substitutes for red wine. But I would take the same approach as I did with my stew recipe and not substitute all the wine with the juice.

The tartness of the juice might also require you to add a touch of sweetness — perhaps honey or brown sugar — to the dish.

These types of juice would be best suited to foods that would complement their flavour. For example, I can see tart cherry juice replacing some of the red wine in a recipe for duck, venison or cornish hen, but not I’m sure how well it would it work with the beef and mushrooms in my stew.

I reached out to Cedars at Cobble Hill Addiction Treatment Facility and found I was on the right track with my suggestions.

“Generally speaking, I recommend replacing [wine] with either fruit juices or vinegar, rice vinegar generally, sometimes apple cider vinegar, depending on the recipe,” said Bill Caldwell, director of community care.

Caldwell did say there are very, very rarely minute amounts of residual alcohol in vinegar, but it evaporates when cooking because the quantity is microscopic.

“Alternately, I encourage cooking with dishes that don’t involve the use of wine and wine substitutes, the same way that I recommend not consuming ‘virgin’ versions of their favourite drinks,” he said.

Today’s wine-free stew recipe is rich and flavourful and could be served with a baguette and boiled miniature potatoes, egg noodles, rice pilaf or mashed potatoes.

French Country-style Beef Stew

Richly flavoured stew in the style of beef bourguignon, but without the wine.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About two hours 30 minutes

Makes: Four to six servings

1 cup unsweetened organic concord grape juice (see Note 1)

2 1/2 cups low sodium beef stock or broth, plus more as needed

2 Tbsp rice vinegar

4 thick slices bacon, cut widthwise, into 1/2-inch wide strips

1 1/2 lbs. (about 700 grams) boneless beef blade or chuck steak, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes and patted dry

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 1/2 Tbsp olive oil (divided)

1 cup frozen pearl onions (see Note 2)

1 large, or 2 small to medium, carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and sliced into 1/2-inch thick pieces

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 tsp herbes de Provence (see Note 3)

1 bay leaf

1 (7 oz./200 gram) tub pearl white button mushrooms (see Note 4)

1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Combine the juice, stock (or broth) and vinegar in a bowl and set aside.

Place a Dutch oven or other large ovenproof pot over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until lightly browned and most of the fat is rendered out. Remove pot from the heat. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a large plate.

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Add 1 Tbsp of the oil to the bacon fat in the pot and set over medium-high heat. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Sear the beef, cooking a few cubes at a time, until richly browned. Remove seared beef from the pot and set on the plate with bacon as you go along.

When beef is seared, add the pearl onions and carrots to the pot and cook until lightly browned, about two to three minutes. Now mix in the garlic, flour, tomato paste and herbes de Provence and cook two minutes more.

While stirring, slowly pour in 1/2 cup of the juice/stock mixture. Bring to a simmer, and when the mixture is thick, slowly stir in the rest of juice/stock mixture, then add the bay leaf.

Bring the mixture to a simmer, then mix the seared beef and bacon into pot.

Cover and cook the beef in the oven 90 minutes.

About 15 minutes from that 90-minute mark, heat the remaining 1 1/2 Tbsp oil in a skillet set over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, and cook and stir until just tender, about six to eight minutes. Remove skillet from the heat.

When the beef has cooked 90 minutes, stir in the mushrooms. Thin the stew with a bit more stock, if you find it too thick. Cover and cook in the oven 15 minutes more, or until the beef is very tender. Sprinkle servings of the stew with chopped parsley.

Note 1: I used R.W. Knudsen brand organic concord grape juice when testing this recipe. Other brands of unsweetened concord grape juice should also work in this recipe.

Note 2: Frozen pearl onions are harder to find these days, but they are available at some grocery stores. I found them at Peppers Foods (peppers-foods.com). If you can’t find them, replace them with a small to medium onion, diced.

Note 3: Herbes de Provence is a French-style blend of dried herbs sold in the bottled herb and spice aisle of most supermarkets.

Note 4: Pearl white button mushrooms are extra-small mushrooms sold in tubs at most supermarkets. If you can’t find them, buy an equal weight of the smallest whitebutton mushrooms you can get and cut each one in half.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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