One thing about me: I am a total sucker for any dish that is stewed in wine. It doesn’t matter if it’s beef, pork, chicken or even a big pot of stewed carrots and onions. These dishes are so comforting, so rich, and so delicious. I also love that they take a few hours to make, with a good blend of stove-work and a few long oven sessions. They’re perfect for days where you just want to linger, fill the house with an amazing aroma, and open a bottle of wine. Many recipes encourage you to cook with good wine, but I’ve found I’d rather splurge on other good ingredients and keep the wine as cheap as possible. I’ll serve it with something good, but I’m fine with a Charles Shaw as my braising liquid.
Coq au vin has always been one of my favorites and I’ve tried out a bunch of different classic recipes (Joy of Cooking, Julia Child, Cooks Illustrated, Serious Eats). I took my favorite parts from each one, and am lining it up here for your delight. First let’s go over some of what I believe are the primary considerations cooks fuss over with regards to this dish.
It’s 2018 and even the fancy Berkeley grocery store I shop at does not carry roosters (or coqs as our amie might say). Furthermore, those who know the history of the dish know that it was usually prepared with a very old rooster who had pecked and strutted his stuff for too many years. Normally these birds would be too tough to eat in a conventional manner, but by slow cooking them in wine their connective tissues broke down and finally made them edible.
Well, nowadays not even the most traditional recipe will call for a coq. Instead, the choice is usually whether to go with a whole chicken or parts of a chicken. Although a whole chicken is more along the lines of the spirit of the dish, I prefer to use chicken thighs or a combination of thighs and legs. Breasts get very dry when stewed in wine. If you do go with a full bird, break it down first and cook the breast for about half the time you cook the darker parts.
Some recipes call for the chicken to marinate in wine at least a few hours before cooking. This is because, unlike beef and pork, chicken doesn’t really benefit from a long braising time. There’s not as much fat, collagen and connective tissue to break down in the braising process, so the dish can be made in a lot less time than, say, a beef bourguignon. However, with the shorter cooking time comes less time to infuse the meat with the flavors of the wine sauce. This is why it’s recommended to give it a pre-soak.
Personally, though, I don’t marinate. And this is why:
When you sear the chicken, you want to have as little moisture as possible to get that beautiful golden crisp skin. A crisp skin doesn’t just look good, it tastes much better and means you’ve rendered most of the fat out. I find this hard to achieve if I’ve marinated the chicken. Instead of marinating the chicken, I like to leave the chicken in the fridge for about 1 day, uncovered, to let it dry. Refrigerators are great environments for drying things out, just make sure you keep it away from touching other things in there, it’s raw chicken after all.
All coq au vin recipes call for vegetables - usually onion, carrot, and mushroom. In addition to being tasty, and y’know, healthy, this trio adds some great aromatics to the dish and will bring more depth into your sauce. Once your dish is infused with them, the recipes tend to diverge. In one camp, let’s call this the fancy camp, vegetables are discarded at the end to make the dish look more elegant. You’ll probably see this if you order it at a nice French restaurant. The other camp is more rustic and says leave the vegetables in there. I am firmly in camp rustic on this one. For one, I love cooked carrots. I also like the rustic look of the dish, and don’t think that throwing away good vegetables is a very cool thing to do. So I say leave em’ in!
Sauce is important in this dish - this is French cooking after all. A good coq au vin will have a rich, luxurious sauce that coats your spoon. There are a lot of “tricks” you can do to achieve this. One is to make a roux, where you add a little flour with your fat when you fry up the chicken. This helps the sauce thicken and is usually done in the beginning. The other tricks are usually performed at the end. One is to add butter. Everyone loves butter. It helps emulsify and thicken the sauce, and tastes great. The last trick is to add gelatin. Gelatin is the cooked form of collagen, something found in the connective tissues of animals and all the rage these days for health. If you were cooking an old rooster, especially a whole one, you’d get a lot of collagen out of it in your long stewing session. Since we’re cooking a much younger bird, and only cooking it for a few hours, we don’t get to take advantage of this natural process. Many recipes will recommend adding a packet of dried gelatin at the end to achieve this effect instead.
My trick, however, is to forget all three of these tricks. Roux seems like cheating, and there’s plenty of fat in this dish such that adding butter at the end feels a little too indulgent. And who wants to take their beautiful finished pot of stewed chicken and vegetables and toss in a pack of gelatin, something you bought in the jell-o section of the store? Not me.
Instead, I make my own gelatinous chicken stock. To do so, I save up all my discarded chicken scraps in a bag in my freezer. When it gets full, I make it into a stock with about a pound of chicken feet (which are available in the grocery store and are very inexpensive). The chicken feet have tons of collagen, so the stock ends up very thick. There’s no way to say this is a flattering way, so I’ll just go ahead and say the stock looks like chicken jell-o. But you get all that gelatin naturally, and you don’t need to mess with any of these thickening tricks.
Various takes on coq au vin are as rich as the dish itself, but above is my personal preference based on a dozen or so tries at the dish. Now let’s get to the recipe.
Dry chicken thighs. I leave them in the fridge for 1 day to get very dry, but you can also just pat them down. Add salt and pepper.
On medium to low heat, fry the bacon until all fat is rendered out - about 12 minutes. Reserve fried bacon in a separate bowl using a slotted spoon.
Working in batches on medium-high heat, fry the chicken thighs skin side down in the rendered bacon fat. Fry for about 8 minutes, or until chicken skin is nicely browned (see above photo). Fry the skinless side for just a minute or two and move chicken to a wired rack, or just a plate.
Reduce heat to medium and cook mushrooms until all their liquid is released and mushrooms turn a deep brown color. Towards the end, add your carrots. A light saute for the carrots will do.
Next, add pearl onions and cook until lightly brown. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Pour in the red wine and, using a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the dutch oven releasing all the browned bits. Bring to a simmer. Stir in stock, a few sprigs of thyme, and 1-2 bay leaves.
Add back chicken thighs, placing them on top of the liquids, skin side up. Ensure the skins stay above the liquid.
Place in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours uncovered.
After 1.5 hours in the oven, move dutch oven back to the stove top. Set aside chicken thighs. They should be a beautiful reddish golden color. Remove the thyme sprig stems and bay leaves.
Turn heat up to medium high and reduce sauce by about half. Pro-tip: Scrape side-frond (browned bits on the sides of the dutch oven) back into the sauce for the best flavor and an easier cleanup. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed, although it may be seasoned enough at this point. When sauce is reduced to a thickness you like, turn off stove.
If eating right away, plate chicken and pour sauce over. If making ahead of time, add chicken back to the dutch oven and allow to cool. Coq au vin is one of those dishes that gets more flavorful with time, so making it a day in advance is not a bad idea.