Where's the Beef?! 100-year old French Theory of Pot-au-Feu

I've been working through J.B. Reboul's ‹‹La Cuisinière Provençale›› recently, and the family's finding that we can't get enough of it.  


I didn't expect that following a few simple changes to my habitual method of boiling bones for stock could effect such a difference.  Try it, and see!


1. Théorie du Pot-au-Feu

Before going into the ingredients, we believe it is imperative to explain in a few lines, a developed theory explaining the chemistry of the ‘fire pot.’

All meats are composed principally of fibers (de fibres), fat (degraisse), gelatin (gétaine), meaty goodness (d’osmazône) and albumin (d’albumine).

Fibers are insoluble:  constituting what remains of the meat after long cooking.


Fat is soluble during cooking, but since it is enveloped in cells formed by thin, insoluble membrane, some of the fat always sticks to the meat fibers; the rest floats on the broth—those are the fats escaped from broken cells.


Gelatin is soluble.  Depending on the quantity of gelatin in the meat contributes an amount of jelly to the broth.


A number of authors, both ancient and modern, attest to gelatin’s powerful nutritive value, but it is currently proven that this is questionable; recommending a bouillon composed almost entirely of veal, bone, marrow, or the nervous system and trimmings, is singularly refreshing.


Osmazone, which is also soluble in cold water, gives the broth both its scent and flavor.  [I found this, “The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was.  Osmazome is the purely sapid protion of flesh soluble in cold water, and separated from the extractive portion which is only soluble in boiling water.  [I found this, "Osmazome is the most meritorious ingredient in all good soups.  This portion of the animal forms the red portion of flesh, and the solid parts of roasts.  It gives game and venison its peculiar flavor.  Osmazome is most abundant in grown animals which have red or black hair; it is scarcely found at all in the lamb, sucking pig, chicken, and the white meat of the largest fowls.  For this reason trueconoisseurs always prefer the second joint; instinct with them was the precursor of science.” here http://umamimama.blogspot.com/2008/09/gastronomic-concepts-1-what-is-umami.html]


The albumin is similar to the egg white; it is soluble in cold or tepid water, and it coagulates to an inferior degree in boiling water.


That said, if you place the meat in the soup pot while the water is already boiling, the albumin will coagulate around the meat, impeding the dissolution of the flavors and nutrients, thereby resulting in an inferior broth.

It is therefore a gross error to believe that a rapid boil will save time:  the meat shrivels and becomes tough, and the bouillon will lack the intended quality.  This is proven in that a large piece of stewed meat will be relatively less utilized than a small one cooked for a relatively shorter period of time.  (So, cut the meat into cubes.)


It’s common for some people to add an excessive amount of bones in a pot-au-feu in the belief that it’s better for you; while others counsel that bones shouldn’t be added at all.


The answer is for reasonable balance:  a bouillon composed almost exclusively of bones will certainly taste insipid; the other extreme, obtained through purely meat, will be truly good in flavor and nutrients, but the addition of several bones is what gives an unctuosity that flatters the gastronomic sensibilities.


After several decidedly scientific offerings, it’s easy to follow the steps to prepare a good stock, and at the same time prepare an edible cut of beef that is decidedly more savory.


One final observation:  Do not wash the meat, as many people do, or soak the meat in tepid water to remove impurities.  Doing so results in loss of l’osmazône.

If the meat does need cleaning, run it briefly under fresh water, and do not pat it dry.


Perhaps one would add a chicken to the pot: some like a bit of beef, a morsel of sheep shank or shoulder.  One bouillon isn’t better than another; it’s purely an affaire de goût.


It’s possible to extend the cooking for an hour or two; the bouillon will be nothing but more charged with nutritious qualities.  When we say to simmer for 3 hours, we assume the beef will be ready for the table.  A longer concoction will not make the meat insipid.  If, in place of rump steak, you use a tougher cut, you must extend the cooking time.


2.  Consommé ou Bouillon Instantané

A word for those who have need of broth or good stock.  Here is the procedure to obtain it in several minutes.  For a liter of excellent bouillon, finely chop:


500 g lean beef

1 medium onion

The white of 1 leek

2 carrots

1 turnip

1 stalk savory

1 celery leaf

1 clove

½ clove garlic


Combine in a soup pot with 1 ¼ liter (5 C) cold water, and a pinch of salt.

Heat to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.


When it’s boiling, lower heat and simmer gently for at least 15 minutes.  This is sufficient for the ingredients to release their principle nutrients and flavors.  The composition will appear disconcerting and rather unappetizing, but strain it through a clean cloth, and you will obtain a very clear broth, with no hint of irreproachable insipidness.


If you desire a crystal-clear broth, it’s sufficient to add a stiffly-beaten egg white at the same time as the water and vegetables; but this clarification adds nothing to the succulence, it flatters only the eye.

3. POT-AU-FEU (Provençal ‹‹Bouta-cuire››)


Combine in a soup pot:

2 l (8 C) cold water

1 kg beef, preferably ‹‹la culotte››, rump steak


Heat over a moderate flame, not too hot; simmer until the scum rises to the surface; skim.  This will take about ½ hour.


When it reaches a steady boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, skimming the surface as necessary.


After the scum no longer continues to rise to the surface, add:


1 onion stuck with 2 whole cloves

2 leeks

1 stalk celery

1 stalk savory

2 carrots

1 turnip

2 cloves garlic

1 t salt


Cover; simmer for at least 3 hours.


This is a photo of 364. Bœuf en Daûbe Provençale.  I'm saving that recipe for my cookbook.  It was INCREDIBLE!


Bon appetite!

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