Le Pot-Au-Feu

The Stock-Pot

The “pot-au-feu” is as much of a national institution in France as tea-drinking is in England. It is made at least once a week in every bourgeois household. The French peasant’s principal meat dish consists of the meat from the stock-pot, and the chef gives us a supreme version of it, which goes to the making of the most perfect of all clear soups—the consommé. But to obtain a really good pot-au-feu, both time and patience are required—hours of slow and steady boiling will alone extract all the substance from the bones, and at least three-quarters of an hour’s careful and continuous skimming will alone give us stock free from grease. Those are the two fundamentals, and however fresh and good the bones or meat, we shall get a poor pot-au-feu unless these rules be observed. The French peasant deliberately refrains from skimming the soup, in the belief that it is more nourishing and satisfying, but all good French cooks or chefs recognise the importance of both processes, and do not shirk the task of careful skimming. In the kitchens of large restaurants, the bones intended for making stock, chopped in small pieces, are put in cold water, which is brought to the boil, and then simmered for 12 to 15 hours. And the next day, this bone stock is used for cooking the soup meat. If this meat is to be served at table—as it is in most French households—it is left whole, and only cooked for 2½ to 4 hours, according to the weight. If, however, its sole purpose is the actual making of a strong stock, it is then chopped up and cooked for the maximum length of time, when all its substance has been extracted, and it is no longer good for eating purposes. The best cuts to use are the skin of beef, the thin flank, the brisket—and a choice piece, if the meat is to be served at table as “bouilli”, is either the topside or fresh silverside. The stock is greatly improved by the addition of the neck, liver, gizzard, heart of a fowl, or by chicken bones, but neither game, mutton, pork or ham should ever be added to the pot-au-feu.

The proportions given in the following recipe will make about 2 quarts of excellent stock, and I give the “family” recipe, in which the meat can be served separately as the “bouilli”—a somewhat glorified version of plain “boiled beef.”

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  • lbs. of topside of beef
  • 1 lb. of bones
  • 3 ozs. of carrots
  • 2 ozs. of turnips
  • 3 ozs. of leeks
  • 3 onions
  • 1 of which should be stuck with 2 cloves
  • 1 oz. of parsnips
  • 1 small stick of celery, a bouquet of mixed herbs, salt
  • 3 quarts of water


Put the bones in a large saucepan with the cold water, bring to the boil gradually and, when the scum begins to rise, skim carefully. Simmer gently for as many hours as possible—the longer the better. In cases where economy of fuel has to be studied, the time has to be curtailed, and not more than 3 to 4 hours can be spared for this process of boiling the bones alone. When done, strain the bone stock into a basin through a cloth wrung out in cold water. Keep the stock in a cold place, and the next day remove carefully any fat that has set on the surface. Put the meat in a saucepan, add the warm bone stock, bring slowly to the boil, and skim until the stock is free from all scum. During the process of skimming, a few tablespoons of cold water may be added occasionally, as this makes the scum rise to the surface. The sliced vegetables are then added, and the salt and herbs. Cover the saucepan, but tilt the lid, so that there will be an opening of about inches to let the steam escape. This helps to keep the stock clear. Simmer very gently for 3½ hours, till the meat is quite tender. When the meat is removed from the saucepan, again strain the stock through a wet cloth into a basin. The stock is then ready for use, but it is preferable to wait until it is cold, when a little grease may still rise to the surface and can be removed.

The alternate and quicker method is to cook both bones and meat at the same time, but the above method undoubtedly gives the best results.