Coq Au Vin: History, Tips and Ultimate Recipe
Ah, Coq Au Vin… Chicken in wine… A classic French dish made of chicken, bacon/pork, aromatic vegetables and mushrooms cooked in red wine and served either on top of mashed potatoes or egg noodles. It hardly gets more French and more classic than this.
My version of the French classic Coq Au Vin that I am sharing with you today is a powerhouse of a dish, blending roasted chicken flavors with deep, aromatic, umami-filled notes from vegetables and mushrooms draped in a thick, deep, earthy, fruity and punget red wine sauce. It’s not the easiest dish to make, nor is it the quickest, but it is a true classic of the French kitchen and well worth your time and effort!
In this marathon of a post, we will cover the unlikely history of Coq Au Vin (and what we uncover may surprise you!), a guide to the best wines for Coq Au Vin, a few tips for a more flavorful Coq Au Vin and last but certainly not least my perfect recipe for Coq Au Vin. So grab yourself a nice glass of wine, sit back, relax and let’s discover the history, principles and recipe behind one of the most iconic dishes in French Cuisine: Coq Au Vin.
Coq Au Vin History: A Classic Dish… Or not?
Many people will tell you that the story of Coq Au Vin dates back several centuries. Some sources go as far as to hint that the dish was enjoyed by mighty despot of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar himself. Others suggest that French King Henry IV’s promise of “a chicken in every pot” helped make the dish a household classic as French prosperity grew. These claims are rare and vague though, and not backed by credible sources.
What quite a few sources seem to agree on, though, is the Coq Au Vin is a very old dish; a peasant’s dish, created to do away with those tough old
cocks roosters that had outstayed their welcome on the farm, were transformed to human food and needed prolonged simmering in flavorful liquids to become even remotely edible. These sources go on to claim that the original recipe for Coq Au Vin called for one or more roosters – cartilage, feet, combs and all – to be simmered in wine for up to a day along with aromatic vegetables until the meat was tender, after which the sauce was strained and thickened with, get this, the cock’s own blood!
While maybe not entirely appetizing by today’s standards, this theory is far more feasible than ones involving Julius Caesar and Henry VI, it even aligns pretty well with what I, myself, used to believe. Well, at least until I started researching the history of Coq Au Vin for this particular post! You see, while certainly a very popular theory, this version, too, has no real sources to confirm its validity. As a matter of fact, it turns out that this age-old classic peasant dish may be a lot more recent than we think – and a lot less humble and peasant-like in character.
It would appear, actually, that the first documented written recipe for a Coq Au Vin-like dish surfaced in a 1864 English cookbook of all places and that the original recipe looks nothing like the one in the legend outlined above. As a matter of fact, the “original” recipe, featured in the book “Cookery for English Households, by a French Lady” (found here on page 93), was called Poulet Au Vin Blanc and calls not for rooster but for chicken. Furthermore it calls for the chicken to be boiled with various herbs, not in red wine but in water laced with a tumbler of white Burgundy wine. Oh, and then there is, of course, the small matter of the three or four truffles added to the pot. Not very humble and peasant-like now, is it?
This, of course, sounds nothing like the dish we know and love as Coq Au Vin and does little to explain how the myths surrounding the dish came to be. So, how, then, did the dish come to be? And what of its supposed history? Well, the plot thickens…
From Ali-Bab to Julia Child: Coq Au Vin in the 20th Century
The earliest record I, and other people of the internet, have managed to find of roosters being prepared in wine under the name Coq Au Vin comes from the famous tome on French cooking Gastronomie Pratique written by Henri Babinski under the pen name Ali-Bab in or around 1907. In his beautiful work on French Cuisine, Ali-Bab not only refers to the dish by the name Coq Au Vin, but offers a recipe very similar to the modern version. He also states that the dish dates back to the sixteenth century and was traditionally prepared using a rooster. However, Ali-Bab goes on to state that the dish was traditionally prepared very quickly on a hot fire using a young, tender rooster. He continues to state that since the dish may as well be prepared with a young chicken and is technically a ragoût (stew), it would be preferable to call it “ragoût de poulet au vin” (chicken stew with wine). So, in a sense, we’re coming closer to a name and a proper preparation here, but like his 19th century counterpart, Ali-bab, too, uses chicken and white wine for his version… And flour over rooster blood when it comes thickening.
So, if we are to believe Ali-Bab – who may be a culinary genius but in the very same book states about the Indians of Terra del Fuego that they are at the lowest level of human intelligence not far above the monkeys – there was a time when Coq Au Vin actually once meant rooster cooked in wine but somehow across the centuries, rooster turned to chicken. It seems, too, that somehow sometime in the 20th century, white wine turned to red wine.
When and how exactly this happened and how the dish came on to be hailed as a famed farmhouse classic is anybody’s guess, but I do have a theory on the matter and it’s got a little to do with the rise to fame of celebrity chefs in the the 20th century. As modern chefs rose to superstar fame, publishing first books, then TV-shows and what have you, the classic dishes they prepared gained popularity and became standardized as more and more professionals and home cooks alike started recreating them. A prime example of one such iconic modern recipe for Coq Au Vin comes from the hands of world-famous 3 Michelin-starred living legend Paul Bocuse, and it reads today like the standard recipe for Coq Au Vin. Now, granted, we don’t know exactly when Paul Bocuse coined his iconic recipe for Coq Au Vin nor whether he was being particularly original or playing off an existing recipe at the time. We do know, though, that his recipe is now the stuff of legend and that he and his kin certainly helped popularise the dish across France and mainland Europe through books, magazines and TV. I speculate that in doing so they probably helped weave a curtain of stories and myths around the dish, too. After all, if the object of the game is to sell cookbooks, TV-shows or restaurant seatings, what good is a dish without a fitting history and a slur of anecdotes?
This, too, seemed to be the opinion of another driving force in the modern history of Coq Au Vin: A lovely American lady and culinary pioneer who published her own iconic version of the recipe, introduced (and popularized) the dish in America and, eventually, helped secure its vast international appeal. I’m talking, of course, about the loveable Julia Child.
Julia, an internationally renowned cookbook author and early TV personality, moved to France as a young woman and spent quite some time examining and mastering the art of French cooking. Upon returning to America, she became a notable cookbook author, culinary influencer and TV personality. Julia not only mentioned the dish and its history in her landmark book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” she also cooked it on the spin-off TV show “The French Chef”, thus singlehandedly catapulting the dish and its supposed rich history into the hearts of the American population, securing it an even larger international appeal throughout the last part of the 20th century.
In essence, we may never know exactly how old of a dish Coq Au Vin is nor exactly how or when it was first made. We can, however, venture the guess that the dish we know and love as Coq Au Vin is largely created by 20th century culinary masterminds who helped shape a uniform version of the dish throughout the century, painting its illustrious history and making up a few myths as they went along. With very little actual proof to back claims about the dish’s history, it’s hard, if not impossible, to separate fact from fiction, but I think we can safely award the culinary superstars of the 20th century including such people as Ali-Bab, Paul Bocuse and Julia Child credit for shaping Coq Au Vin into what it is today: a worldwide phenomena in comfort food!
With a bit history and speculation out of the way, let’s have a look at the main components of Coq Au Vin. They are, of course, first and foremost “Coq” and “Au Vin”. And once again, things are not as simple as they seem. There is always room for wine, so let’s first look at the Coq-part of the equation.
Cooking Flavorful Coq Au Vin: The trouble with Modern Chickens
Whether or not Coq Au Vin was traditionally a peasants’ dish made with the meat, bones and blood of tough, old roosters, we may never know. But for what it’s worth, it probably doesn’t really matter. Tough, old roosters, you see, are not the easiest critters to come in today’s busy society.
The solution? It’s quite simple! Simply remove the Coq from the Coq Au Vin equation and replace it with chicken. Not that tough, old chickens are that easy to come by either. Old and tough is simply not the way today’s consumers want their chickens, they want them young, tender and moist. But that’s okay, we don’t particularly want a tough, old bird, either. Most commercially available soup or stewing hens today are of questionable quality, take forever to cook and yield very little meat for our efforts. And hey, if a young specimen was good enough for Ali-Bab and others, it’s good enough for us. So, to hell with old chickens, we’ll make do with a younger one – and adjust our plan accordingly!
But we don’t want any
old young chicken here, we must chose wisely. You see, my friends, the chickens of today are generally in a much sadder state than they were in Ali-Bab’s time at the turn of the century or in the heyday of Bocuse and Child in the 60’s. When they were then bred for flavor, the chickens of today are mainly bred for speed and profit. As a result, supermarket chickens of today are unusually young, unusually large and unusually inexpensive and where’s the point in that? It probably doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that something bred to record size for no money in little to no time will probably not have a lot of flavor. And that’s a problem, my friends, we don’t simply want Coq Au Vin, we want the most flavorful Coq Au Vin we can get!
So, first things first. If we want great chicken-y flavor from or Coq Au Vin (and we do), we must start by finding a proper chicken for our project. Nothing more and nothing less. For this job, I beg you to consider a free range variety, preferably of the organic kind. Something that has had a relatively long, happy life with plenty of feed and access to the outdoors. It’s better for the chicken and better for you. Not sure it’s worth the price tag? Well, let me tell you this: An organic chicken is not only at least twice as flavorful as a conventional chicken, it’s also more wholesome and filling. The meat is simply denser than it’s conventional counterparts. I’ve seen six people dine on an organic chicken, with leftovers to spare. And I was one of said people. I eat a lot. It’s worth it. I rest my case. Worried about getting ripped off because of the high price tag? Don’t be. People who are willing to pay double for an organic alternative are usually pretty quality conscious as well. We demand good stuff, producers and resellers know that. And they usually give us what we want. So, please. Try a flavorful organic alternative? For me?
Now, with our chicken properly sourced, one way or another, we now need to make the best of it! And to do so, we must exercise a bit of violence (yay)! Coq Au Vin is usually made from chicken on the bone, but it’s made from chicken cut into individual serving size pieces, then braised in wine. With larger chickens, this is usually done by cutting off the legs and separating them into thighs and drumsticks, then separating the breasts from the back bone then cutting the breasts into halves, making for a total of eight pieces of chicken.
Now, this method of cutting up chicken obviously leaves behind the wings, the back and sometimes a few other pieces of cartilage. These pieces are generally not used for serving. Some people throw these away, others (the more reasonable) save them for stock making. I reckon in our case, we can do even better and incorporate them into the braise, that is simmering them in the wine sauce with the other – more edible bits and pieces – thus adding a burst of extra flavor. Granted, this is an unorthodox step and a bit of a mess, but don’t you worry. We will remove the less than visually appealing pieces before serving. Adding these bits of pieces to the pool only to remove them may seem like a lot of extra work, but dont worry, there’s method behind my madness: Not only will the cartilage, bone, skin and connective tissue of these pieces offer extra flavor to the dish. Once removed and cooled, you can actually peel quite a lot of flavorful meat off the back and wings using your fingers and a bit of patience. It’s like getting an extra left-over serving for free. Only, you actually paid good money for this chicken, why not make the best of it? Huh?
Of course, before we can even get so far as to braise, serve and procure extra leftover goodies from our chicken, we will need to round up our other ingredients. Most of these are actually pretty simple and straightforward: some aromatic vegetables, pearl onions, button mushrooms, a whiff of garlic, some tomato product and then an ingredient most unfamiliar outside of French kitchens, a little something known simply as lardon! That’s right, friends, we’ve got another special ingredient this week, and it’s from our most favorite of critters, the pig!
Coq Au Vin ingredient highlight: Lardon (Or Salt Pork by any other name!)
It’s a pretty well-known fact that Coq Au Vin contains bacon, right? We’ve stated that at the beginning of this recipe. Well, wrong! If you flip through more than a few recipes for Coq Au Vin, you may see some of them call instead for lardon. What is lardon, you ask? I’m so very glad you asked, dear reader. Lardons are basically pork fat cut into relatively large cubes. Lardons are usually made by cutting up pieces of cured, salted yet unsmoked pork belly, often sold as salt pork. If salt pork is not available in your area, you can look for pancetta which, too, is basically seasoned unsmoked bacon – or you can go ahead and buy a nice, fatty, dry-cured slab of bacon and cut the lardons from there.
What is the purpose of these lardons? It’s pretty simple, really, just think bacon! As with bacon, lardons are generally started in a cold pan and then slowly fried to golden perfection, giving up a lot of their fat and flavor in the process. They are then temporarily removed and their flavorful fat is used to brown the other ingredients and add flavor to the dish. The process is the same regardless of the type of product you pick for the job but since salt pork, pancetta and bacon are entirely different spins on the same critter, the type used obviously matters as far as flavor is concerned. The flavor of salt pork is pretty much comparable to that of fried ham while bacon obviously adds a degree of spice and smokiness to the party. Pancetta is, needless to say, somewhere in-between with some level of spice going on but no distinct smokiness. The French generally favor salt pork in their traditional dishes, but you should not let that keep you from experimenting with what you have at hand.
For my version of Coq Au Vin, I had a bit of everything laying around so I used half bacon, half salt pork and threw in a bit of rendered pork fat from another project for good measure. The result was a deep, porky goodness with just a hint of spice and smoke from the bacon. A perfect mix for me, but as with so many other parts of this recipe, you can (and should!) experiment and adjust things to your liking. And speaking of adjusting to liking, with formalities and secret ingredients out of the way, let’s have a look the second(?) most important ingredient of Coq Au Vin: Le Vin! What? You really thought I’d forgotten the wine?
Red Burgundy: The perfect wine for Coq Au Vin?
What is Coq Au Vin without wine? Well, nothing really, except maybe James May’s favorite expression. For Coq Au Vin, we need wine, and we need a lot of it! We need it not only to marinade and cook our chicken but also to create a flavorful sauce that is fingerlicking good. As such, the general rule of cooking with alcohol applies here: Do NOT cook with something you wouldn’t drink.
That being said, though… What is the perfect wine for Coq Au Vin? That is a topic of much debate and controversy. Many have firm beliefs on the matter, others are of the firm belief that it doesn’t really matter. The general consensus amongst many modern sources is that Coq Au Vin is a Burgundian dish and that the correct (and reasonably expensive) answer to the question must then be: Red Burgundy!
My wine guy, joking presumably, used to say that to make Coq Au Vin you needed two bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin Grand Cru, one in which to marinate the chicken, one to drink with the dish. Less than this will probably do, but many recipes – mine included – actually calls for an entire bottle of wine to be added during cooking. Preferably another bottle to drink with the dish as well. You could use a nice, red Burgundy for the purpose – it is, many agree, traditional and it does make for one hell of a tasty dish. I actually would recommend you try it the day you win the lottery or feel like really spoiling yourself and your loved ones. Red Burgundy, you see, is a somewhat expensive option. Burgundy is a wine growing area that people have loved and respected for hundreds of years, causing prices to sky rocket, especially in later years. While affordable options from Burgundy do exist, they’re seldom worth their price tag – and that goes for cooking and consumption alike. Red Burgundies worth drinking generally start in the DKK 120 ($20) price range and escalate extremely quickly so go there at your own risk.
If that all seems a little steep for a humble albeit tasteful weekend stew, consider moving to the neighbouring area of Beaujolais that produces perfectly drinkable yet less complex wines at around half the price. Alternatively, look for a new world Pinot Noir, a young, fruity Chianti or a Cotes du Rhône blend all of which are superb cooking alternatives. Whether going traditional or not, I do recommend using a young, fruity red wine for Coq Au Vin; one that is fresh and vibrant but without too much of a tannic profile to mess things up. It will add layers of flavor, depth and intensity to the finished dish without seeming too overpowering or stringent.
My Perfect Coq Au Vin Recipe
Alright, finally. Now that we have both our chicken, our mystery ingredients and our wine, it’s about time we get cooking. And it is here that things once again take a turn for the difficult. Opinions on how to cook Coq Au Vin vary, you see. A lot. And one thing they certainly can’t agree on is the topic of whether or not to marinade your chicken before cooking.
Should I marinate chicken for Coq Au Vin?
On the subject of marinades, some old school recipes skip it all-together and merely add wine to the braising liquid during cooking. Many newer recipes call for marinating the chicken for up to 24 hours in red wine. What should you do? Well, I’ve done some research on the matter (though not as much as this guy!) and my findings seem to suggest that even a short marinade (four hours to overnight depending on how busy you are) yields much deeper and more integrated flavors.
As a result, the way I do things is I brown my lardons and all my aromatic vegetables, dump in my herbs and a bottle of wine, let it cool and then pour over the chicken and let it marinade for no less than four hours. Over the course of 4-8 hours in the refrigerator, the marinate seeps into the chicken, flavoring it inside and out. Cooking the aromatics first not only creates more flavor, it also breaks down the cell walls, allowing the flavors to mix more readily, essentially creating a much more flavorful marinade.
Come cooking time, I pat dry the chicken, brown it for even more flavor, then pour the marinade and vegetables back over, cover and let it braise until tender and juicy. If you’re in a hurry or lazy – and working with a really good, flavorful chicken – you can skip the marinade step and you will still have a pretty flavorful and succulent dish. It will, however, be more akin to roasted chicken in a flavorful sauce. Sacrifice the extra couple of hours and the sauce will saturate the chicken, flavoring its insides as well, creating a much more uniform and flavorful dish. The choice is yours, but your patience will be rewarded.
Coq Au Vin: Serving and presentation
Speaking of rewards, people have argued that Coq Au Vin will never win any rewards for presentation, being a dark red mix of chickeny bits, vegetables, lumps of fat and a clingy sauce. I beg to disagree, of course: Coq Au Vin can be a hot, beautiful mess when served up family style in a large pot at the centre of the table, but others may prefer a more stylish, restaurant-like plated serving option.
I’m not really one to tell you how to plate your food, but I can tell you that I much prefer the rustic version of the dish served with bits and pieces and all. Not so much because of the appearance but rather because of the extra flavor and texture the “chunkies” lend to the dish. The cooked vegetables not only add texture but are also saturated with the flavors of chicken, wine, pork and herbs making for a much more intensely flavorful dish.
If you want a prettier presentation for say date night or a fancy dinner, you can keep the pearl onions and mushrooms out of the pool until the very end of the cooking process, strain the sauce to remove the aromatic vegetales and lardons, then return the sauce to the pot with the mushrooms and pearl onions and heat through to serve. This will probably make for an even more presentable and pretty dish. In my mind, though, flavor trumps presentation and I tend to keep things together and serve it up in a heaping, steaming mess of texture and deep, bold flavors. The choice is yours. Coq Au Vin first and foremost has to be flavorful. It does not have to be pretty. It can be, but it doesn’t have to and know that in going for pretty, you may well end up losing some flavor.
Got that? Awesome, let’s cook!
- One large organic, free-range chicken
- 100 grams salt pork, cut into large dices
- 100 grams bacon, cut into large dices
- Two tablespoons rendered pork fat
- One bottle red wine (Pinot Noir or Rhône Blend)
- 100 ml Cognac or brandy
- 500 ml flavorful chicken stock
- One tablespoon tomato paste
- 500 grams button mushrooms, cut into quarters
- 20 pearl onions, peeled (optional)
- One large onion, roughly diced
- Two large carrots, roughly diced
- Two stalks of celery, roughly diced
- Salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- A couple of leek greens (optional)
- A couple of sprigs of thyme
- Three bay leaves
- Cut the wings off the chicken, then the thighs/legs, separate the thighs from the legs.
- Cut off the back pieces (and reserve), then split the breast section into two, then each breast into two.
- You should be left with eight portion sized pieces of chicken as well as some cartilage for flavor.
- Season chicken pieces generously with salt.
- Put a tablespoon of rendered pork fat into a large cast iron pot along with the lardons and bacon.
- Turn heat to medium and cook for about 5-10 minutes until your lardons and bacon are golden brown and delicious.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove lardons and bacon and set aside.
- Add pearl onions and sauté for a few minutes until slightly soft and golden, remove using slotted spoon and set aside.
- Add onion, carrots and celery and sauté for a few minutes until soft and translucent, remove using slotted spoon and set aside.
- Add mushrooms to pot and fry until they have given up their liquid and have turned golden brown.
- Kill the heat under the pan and deglaze with the cognac or brandy, the mushrooms should greedily suck up most of the remaining liquid.
- Put chicken pieces in bowl or pot along with the bouquet garni, salt pork, bacon and, onions, carrots, celery, then pour over the bottle of red wine.
- Make sure chicken is covered and allow to marinade in the fridge for at least 4-8 hours.
- Remove chicken pieces from marinade and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
- Heat a cast iron pot over high heat and add remaining tablespoon of pork fat.
- Add chicken pieces a couple at a time and brown on all sides, then remove and set aside
- When the pieces are all browned, add a tablespoon of tomato paste to the bottom of the pan and fry for about a minute.
- Add chicken thighs, leg pieces, back and wings back into the pot and add all of the marinade and veggies, then add the chicken stock.
- Cover pot tightly and put in a 150C oven for about 45 minutes.
- After 45 minutes, remove pot from the oven, and add the breast pieces.
- Return pot to the oven for another 30 minutes of cooking.
- Turn oven down to 50C.
- Return pot to the stovetop, evacuate breast, thigh and leg pieces from the pot and return them to the oven to keep warm. Keep wings and back piece in the pot.
- Turn the heat to high under the pot and bring the sauce to a boil, keep boiling until it has reduced by about half, approximately 20-30 minutes.
- As the sauce comes to a boil, feel free to skim off some of the fat that rises to the top.
- Fish out the wings and back of the chicken and save them for leftovers, plenty of good meat on there!
- Remove Bouquet Garni from pot, give it at taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.
- Return chicken breasts, thighs and legs to the pot, heat through for a few minutes and serve piping hot.
Coq Au Vin is Peasant food? I think not!
Did the dish we know as Coq Au Vin today originate as peasant food? Probably not. We can probably deduce that as long as fire, chickens and pots have been around, man has found some way of turning tough birds edible by cooking them for extended periods of time. But still, for Coq Au Vin to have originated as a way to turn tough birds into succulent eats? The proof just isn’t there. Not to my knowledge anyway. And it doesn’t make sense, really, however long you cook a year-old rooster, it’s going to remain pretty tough, gritty and primarily useful for stock, soup or as a base for another stew… So why go through the trouble and the complicated layers of extra ingredients and flavors? Seriously? Oh, and let’s just be honest, here… Cooking a rooster or hen in one or more bottles of wine? I’m pretty sure our poor peasant friends of centuries ago could think of better uses for said wine.
I’m inclined to agree with my old friend and mentor Ali-Bab, here. Coq Au Vin may well be a very old dish, but it’s not an every day fuel for peasants kind of dish. It’s probably a dish made for guests, relatively quickly, using a nice quality young rooster or hen. But that doesn’t make it less of a classic dish! Coq Au Vin is not expensive food by any stretch of the imagination (unless of course, you heed my wine man’s advice and cork a few bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin Grand Cru for the purpose), but it’s not peasant food either. It falls somewhere between the two in that wonderful sweet spot we call comfort food; not too simple, not too fancy, but just right.