Coq au vin translates to English as rooster in wine. This traditional French dish is prepared with chicken legs braised in wine with button mushrooms, onions, carrots, and lardons — slivers of fatty slab bacon that are a staple of French cuisine, especially in the South.
Although the colorful lore surrounding coq au vin suggests that it dates back to the time of the Romans and Gauls, it’s more likely a dish that evolved naturally and simultaneously in several parts of 17th century France as well as the rest of Europe and the UK under different names. The thinking behind this is that roosters are generally a tough fowl and fairly ubiquitous across rural France. Using wine as a marinade is an effective way to create tenderness where there is very little naturally.
The first cookbook mentions of coq au vin don’t appear until the 20th century, although the regional variation coq au vin blanc is included in the cookbook Cookery for English Households, by a French Lady, published in 1864.
During the 50s and 60s, North America’s love affair with French cuisine was fuelled by the rise of celebrity chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Julia Child. Coq au vin became synonymous with romantic fine dining. But the truth is that this is a rustic and hearty dish, beloved by those who work outdoors, and easily pulled together in country kitchens from ingredients on hand once the family rooster had outlived its usefulness.
How to make Coq au vin
American chef Julia Child helped popularize coq au vin and French cuisine in general in North America. Her 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking contains a classic, though not entirely traditional, version of the dish. Hers is a further adaptation. You can also check out the Coq au Vin episode of her 1963 TV series, The French Chef, on PBS to get a handle on her technique. For comparison, the great French chef Paul Bocuse’s version can be found here — unlike Child, he recommends marinating the chicken for up to 24 hours.
- 4 chicken thighs
- 4 chicken drumsticks
- 1 1/2 cups red wine (Burgundy works best)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 3 strips of bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces to replace lardons, which are more difficult to source in North America. Use lardons, if you can find them. If not, use unsmoked bacon.
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 4 medium carrots, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 2 1/2 cups mushrooms, thickly sliced
- 2 1/2 cups pearl onions, peeled
- Beurre manié dough made from butter and flour and used for thickening stews and soups. Detailed instructions are included in this excellent article in the gastronomic Saveur magazine.
- 1/4 cup brandy (optional)
- Place the chicken in a bowl with wine, chicken stock and brandy if using.
- In a large lidded skillet, casserole or dutch oven, cook the bacon until crispy.
- Remove chicken parts from the wine mixture and dry with paper towel. Reserve the liquid for later.
- Sear the chicken in the same cooking pot used for the bacon until golden brown on all sides. Reserve the bacon / chicken fat to use later. Still using the same pot, add the onion and carrots, and let them cook until the onion is golden brown, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, and let it cook for about one minute.
- Push the vegetables to the side of the pot and add the tomato paste, cooking it until fragrant and beginning to darken. Pour the reserved wine mixture into the skillet, scraping the bottom to remove bits. Add seared chicken, sprinkle with thyme, cover and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes.
- Add pearl onions to the pot with the chicken and cook a further 10 minutes. In the meantime, in a separate large skillet, sauté mushrooms in olive oil. Set aside.
- Finally, after removing the chicken pieces from the pot, mix up a beurre manié and add it, stirring and allowing the sauce to thicken, then season with salt and pepper.
- Add back the chicken, sprinkle with the sautéd mushrooms, bacon and fresh thyme.
Coq au vin is a great dish to serve up family style from a rustic skillet or casserole. It doesn’t need a lot of dressing up – mashed potatoes are perfect for sopping up the juice as is a crusty baguette. Many cooks add simple greens – green beans or asparagus in season, or a green salad. Serve with a red wine similar to the one you used as a marinade.
There are several notable regional variations to the most traditional red wine version of coq au vin, that most of us are familiar with.
Coq au vin blanc originated in the Alsace region of France, and uses sweet white riesling rather than red wine. Most modern chefs prefer a drier wine for this variation, a sauvignon blanc or pinot gris. Coq au vin is one of those incredibly flexible dishes that lends itself to experimentation. When the dish is made with beaujolais nouveau, it is referred to as coq au violet.
Regional variations can also include different kinds of mushrooms and vegetables, depending on what can be harvested locally.
Finally, in keeping with contemporary cooking styles, adjustments are constantly being made for modern palates and dietary preferences. Take the important component of the beurre manié, for example. A traditional beurre manie demands 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons softened butter. The Paleo and gluten-free versions requires 2 tablespoons tapioca starch and 1 tablespoon softened butter. The lactose intolerant can use a dairy free beurre manié with 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons dairy-free margarine.