How to Make Traditional French Cassoulet
Cassoulet, a hearty slow-simmered stew of sausage, confit (typically duck), pork, and white beans, is one of the great hallmarks of French country cuisine. The best versions are cooked for hours until the beans and meat meld into a dish of luxuriant, velvety richness. Prepared in advance, it’s an excellent option for entertaining — especially on cold winter nights when the weather calls for a stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal.
As a cassoulet fan, I’ve traveled around southwestern France talking to cassoulet chefs, bean farmers, and other experts in search of the best recipe. Here’s a little bit about the dish and how to make it.
A Brief History of Cassoulet
Cassoulet comes from a region of southwestern France historically known as the Languedoc, a cradle-shaped territory that’s also famous for its sunshine, grapevines, and medieval hill villages. The cuisine matches this rustic landscape, with specialties like duck confit, foie gras and, of course, cassoulet washed down with robust local wine.
The dish takes its name from its cooking vessel, the “cassole,” a wide-mouthed earthenware bowl that traditionally sat upon the hearth simmering constantly for hours or days. According to local legend, cassoulet was invented in the town of Castelnaudary – the self-proclaimed “capital of cassoulet” — during the Hundred Years’ War. Trapped by the English, the villagers pooled their last scraps of meat and beans, cooking everything together in a giant pot. Fueled by the hearty dish, the French soldiers regained their strength and chased the English all the way back to the Channel. Today, the town takes cassoulet so seriously it has a society — La Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, formed in 1972 — to protect the dish.
2 Tips for the Best Cassoulet
1. Take your time. According to local wisdom, a last-minute cassoulet is “catastrophic.” Cassoulet should be cooked, then cooled, preferably overnight, then cooked and cooled again — at least three times. Multiple slow simmerings allow the beans to absorb the rich flavors of the sausage and duck confit until they become velvety and plush while still maintaining their shape and integrity. This recipe is ideally made over the course of four days, so you’ll need to plan ahead.
2. Forget the breadcrumbs. Many cassoulet recipes call for a final topping of toasted breadcrumbs, but they are never found on the authentic version. Instead, embrace the thin layer of starch and natural juices that forms in the heat of the oven. A Languedoc old wives’ tale calls for this crust to be pierced and reformed seven times. That’s a myth — three times will suffice.
How to Serve Cassoulet
Cassoulet is best when it’s taken straight from the oven to the table, and served gently bubbling in its cooking vessel. A hearty one-pot meal, you don’t really need anything else — but if you’d like to offset the richness, consider a simple green salad dressed in a sharp vinaigrette, a loaf of crusty bread, and a full-bodied red wine. Because it’s prepared in advance, cassoulet is great for reheating on a busy night, or perfect for low-stress entertaining. The recipe easily doubles to feed a crowd.
How to Make Traditional French Cassoulet
Prep time 20 minutes
Cook time 6 hours
Serves4 to 5
- 1 pound
dried great northern beans
- 2 1/2 quarts
unsalted chicken broth (10 cups)
- 3 ounces
- 8 ounces
fresh French garlic sausage, such as saucisse de Toulouse or saucisse à l’ail
- 4 ounces
boneless pork shoulder or belly
- 4 ounces
fresh pork skin (optional)
- 3 cloves
- 1 teaspoon
- 1/4 teaspoon
kosher salt, plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
Measuring cups and spoons
Food processor (optional)
Large frying pan
3 1/2-quart Dutch oven, heavy bottomed ovensafe pot, or cassole
Soak the beans. Place 1 pound dried great northern beans in a large bowl. Add enough cold water to cover the beans by 2 to 3 inches. Soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight.
Boil the beans for 5 minutes. Drain the beans. Place the beans in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to a rapid boil over medium-high heat and boil for 5 minutes. Drain again.
Cook the beans. Bring 2 1/2 quarts unsalted chicken stock or broth to a boil over medium-high heat in the same pot. Add the beans, bring back to a boil, and skim off any scum. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook uncovered until the beans are just tender but still whole and unbroken, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare the meats.
Cut the meats. Dice 3 ounces salt pork. Halve 2 duck confit legs between the joint so that you have 2 drumsticks and 2 thighs. Cut 8 ounces garlic sausage into 2-inch pieces. Cut 4 ounces boneless pork shoulder or belly into 2-inch chunks. Cut 4 ounces fresh pork skin into 2-inch squares if using.
Make a salt pork and garlic paste. Place the salt pork and 3 garlic cloves in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process into a sticky paste, about 15 seconds. (Alternatively, chop by hand into a paste.) Refrigerate until ready to use.
Sear the duck and pork. Place the duck skin-side down in a large frying pan over medium-low heat and cook until golden-brown, 5 to 10 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Add the sausage to the pan and cook into browned, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to the plate. Add the pork belly or shoulder and cook until browned on a few sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to the plate. Refrigerate the meats until ready to use.
Cool the beans. When the beans are ready, remove from the heat and let cool until warm to the touch, about 1 hour.
Season the beans. Add the garlic-pork paste, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt to the beans and stir gently to combine, breaking up the paste so that is it evenly distributed.
Drain the beans. Pour the bean mixture through a strainer fitted over a large bowl.
Line the cooking vessel. Use a cassole if you have one. Otherwise you can use a 3 1/2-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed, oven safe pot. Line the bottom of the vessel with the cut pork skin if using.
Assemble the cassoulet. Layer half of the beans on top of the pork skin. Place the duck confit and pork shoulder or belly on the beans. Layer the remaining beans over the duck and pork. Top with the sausages, nestling them into the beans until just their tops are visible.
Top with cooking liquid. Pour enough of the bean cooking liquid into the cassoulet to barely cover the beans. Sprinkle a dusting of freshly ground black pepper across the surface. You can immediately move on to the next step and bake it for 3 hours, or the cassoulet can be covered and refrigerated overnight. Refrigerate the remaining bean cooking liquid.
Bake the cassoulet for 3 hours. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 325ºF. Bake the cassoulet uncovered for 3 hours. While it is cooking, it will develop a brown crust on top. Pierce the crust and moisten the surface by spooning some of the cooking liquid over it, taking care not to disturb the layers below. Allow the crust to re-form 2 or 3 times. If the beans start to look dry, moisten them with several spoonfuls of extra bean-cooking liquid or chicken broth. Let the cassoulet cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
Bake the cassoulet for 1 1/2 hours. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 325ºF. Uncover the cassoulet and bake for 1 1/2 hours, breaking the crust with a spoon and moistening the surface at least twice. If the beans look dry, add spoonfuls of extra bean-cooking liquid or chicken broth. You can serve the cassoulet now, or let it cool to room temperature and cover and refrigerate overnight.
Heat the cassoulet for 1 1/2 hours. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 325ºF. Heat the cassoulet for 1 1/2 hours, moistening with extra bean-cooking liquid or chicken broth as necessary. Serve immediately in its vessel, gently simmering and unstirred.
Garlic sausage substitution: Fresh pork sausage, such as a mild, sweet Italian sausage without fennel can be substituted for the garlic sausage.
Salt pork substitution: You can use bacon but it is not traditional and does add a distinct smokiness, which is not unpleasant but cassoulet purists would disapprove.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 5 days.
Reprinted with permission from “Mastering the Art of French Eating” by Ann Mah, Penguin Books, 2014.
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