Boeuf Bourguignon Showdown: Dutch Oven vs Instant Pot vs Slow Cooker
There is no quick and easy way to make boeuf bourguignon. In the dark months, it's not infrequent that I have a sudden pang of Dang, y'know what would really turn this dank, grueling day around? A big bowl of beef and bacon cooked down forrrrevvvverrrrrr in red wine, with butter-steeped mushrooms and sloppy, brown onions. That's when I start planning a long, luxurious Sunday where I've got nothing on my plate but some quality time with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Time is as essential an ingredient to the recipe as mushrooms or one billion little onions, and patience is rewarded with sumptuous, melted meat, a measure of well-earned exhaustion, and leftovers that only improve overnight in the fridge.
But we live in impatient times, so obviously someone is going to ask the question: Can you make boeuf bourguignon in an Instant Pot and get that magical meld of flavors and textures in, like, an hour?
No. Especially not if you're using Julia Child's tried-and-true recipe for boeuf bourguignon, with ten million steps and several sub-recipes. You can taste the labor in the finished product, and I know this because I spent a long, long Friday making three batches of Julia's boeuf bourguignon—in a Dutch oven, an Instant Pot, and a slow cooker. None of them were bad! Enjoying any of them would be preferable to not having a big bowl of boofy b (many hours in, I started calling it boofy b to myself in a Julia voice and now cannot stop), but one was clearly best.
I set a few rules in place. Anything that Julia's recipe calls for to be cooked on a stovetop was, and any other steps were done in the three cooking devices. That way, the initial bacon blanching, beef and vegetable browning, as well as the sauteed mushrooms and brown-braised onions (which BTW, you have to blanch, peel, and cook down for one million years), and final sauce reduction are equal across the board.
First up, the worst method (and, again, "worst" is relative). After the initial browning, Julia's recipe calls for the beef to be floured and set in a hot oven, uncovered. Since the oven was off-limits, I coated the beef and added it to the slow cooker with the browned vegetables, bacon, bacon rind, wine, beef stock, herbs, tomato paste, garlic, and assorted seasonings. Then I let go with love. That's the point of a slow cooker, after all—you may walk about the world with impunity, knowing that you will be met with the heady scent of a righteous supper when you return.
But there is a price to be paid for such freedom. The meat, while at the prescribed fork-tender stage after five hours in the braising liquid, wasn't especially luscious. The bacon rind was more or less intact, rather than collapsing into gelatinous joy and thickening the dish the way it would at a higher, all-around heat. The wine, too, retained its sharp edge and felt more like a broth in which the beef was swimming, rather than a deeply integrated part of the dish—even after I reduced it on the stovetop for what felt like forever, and then reintroduced it to the meat and vegetables. The carrots also retained their physical integrity, rather than disintegrating into sweetness and adding to the heft of the dish. Still, if someone served me this, I would thank them. It took a heck of a lot of work.
Next up, my beloved Instant Pot. As with the slow cooker, I floured the meat and added it directly to the pot without the oven-browning, along with the rest of the ingredients. High pressure for one hour, which I used to prep the mushrooms and onions. (It took that freaking long. Longer, in fact.) Upon release, the bacon rind and carrots were considerably more cooked down, and the beef more tender than in the slow cooker, but again, the liquid—even after a long reduction on the stove top—lacked the silken weight I associate with a lovingly prepared boeuf bourguignon. It was also hella delicious.
Best and finally—the Dutch oven. Julia calls for a lidded casserole, and this is the closest analogue. Freed to follow the recipe to the letter, I browned the floured beef for five minutes in a 400°F oven, stirred it, and sent it in for five minutes more to form a crust on the meat that would eventually thicken the sauce. Lowered the heat to 325°F, and tended to other matters for about three hours.
I opened the lid and saw heaven. Beefy, wine-drenched heaven. In the all-surrounding heat, the bacon rind had melted into a gelatin that gave the whole glorious mass a sluck sluck sound when I stirred it.Without a gasket to seal in all the moisture, slow evaporation allowed for a natural reduction. Julia calls for the liquid to be cooked down and adjusted for consistency before returning to the pot, but this barely needed that—it was a deep, silken, glorious gravy that melded almost seamlessly with the slump-soft beef. I think I let out a small groan at the first bite. It was even better the next day. It was a pain in the butt and I'll make it again and again and again the next time I have empty hours on hand. It's worth every one of them.