Chicken Champions

I Finally Tried Julia Child’s Coq au Vin. Here’s What Will Happen When You Do Too.

updated Dec 11, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Julia Child’s coq au vin (chicken in red wine) is a master class that stands as a one-recipe introduction to Julia’s brand of historic French recipes energized by brisk, lucid American writing and explanation. It demonstrates how flavor is built, and it teaches you to trust Julia’s still-unique voice. It has stood in as a symbol of a cook’s broader illumination in many places — I think of Julie and Julia, the blogger-meets-cookbook film where Julie cooks rapturously through this first taste of Julia’s French expertise.

But guys, that weight of history and lore held me back from cooking this for years. It was an ICON, not a food to eat, right? Wrong. Be not so stupid. Julia Child’s coq au vin is all it is cracked up be: a cracking-good recipe. Don’t let its backstory hold you back. If you’re ready to eat this, let me walk you through what you should know.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

What Is Julia Child’s Coq au Vin?

Coq au vin is a classic French stew of chicken parts braised in wine that Julia explains can be made with white or with red, which is “more characteristic.” It’s a rich, slow dish, built in layers of flavor.

You start with bacon, parboiled to get rid of its smoke. (That’s right; you actually go through a whole step to get rid of bacon flavor, your first clue that this recipe might require a little extra.)

(Image credit: Faith Durand)
(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Then you sauté the bacon in butter (woohoo!) and note that Julia Child gives directions not only for romantic stovetop cooking over a flame, but also alternate instructions for an electric skillet, a nod to practicality that should not go overlooked in really understanding the Julia touch.

After this, you brown the chicken (about 3 pounds of various chicken parts; I used bone-in thighs and drumsticks). Then you get to do the VERY EXCITING PART — the part that will make you Feel Like a Cook. And that is, you pour in cognac and light it on fire. This is the most chef-y most of us ever get, I wager, and I regret to tell you that it is surprisingly low-key; don’t expect a sheet of flame licking your face. It’s more like a very casual brush burn-off in the rainy season, transparent flames wandering over the chicken. But still; you lit chicken on fire. Go you.

After this comes the yeoman’s work of braising, adding wine, stock (store-bought is fine!), and simmering the chicken until tender.

At this point the chicken will turn a rather alarming shade of rosy purple; it looks fleshy and off-putting, if I’m being honest. (Fortunately this color fades and mellows — especially if you let the dish rest overnight.)

But then we return to this being a Fancy Recipe. One line will indicate that you actually have much time left: “While the chicken is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms.”

This is your cue to flip deep into the book to find two separate recipes for brown-braised onions and sautéed mushrooms. (Julia is 100% class-A; she of course provides page numbers for these.) These two things take some time; you need to peel pearl onions, cook them and mushrooms separately in yet more butter, and then, having dirtied excessive skillets, return to your chicken.

Once the chicken is done, you reduce the sauce (so French) and learn the art of the beurre manie — a flour and butter thickener, whisked into the sauce. Once the sauce is thickened, ta-da, you arrange the chicken, onions, and mushrooms in your pot and read the following lovely words: “It can now wait indefinitely.”

This is perhaps the most delightful part of this recipe, which is all this labor can be done the day before and then you can reheat this chicken just before someone you love very much sits down at your table.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

My Honest Review of Julia’s Coq au Vin

It seems a little hubristic to venture an actual critical review of something with as much cultural freight around it as Julia Child’s coq au vin. But let’s put all that aside and just deal with this as I said above, as something good to eat. I mean, it is wildly good. But it’s quite time-consuming.

It isn’t an all-day recipe, to be fair; it doesn’t call for homemade stock or truffles or anything too wild. To Julia and her coauthors, this probably felt like a rather snappy, shortened version of a rustic French classic.

But to us, accustomed to Instant Pots and minute meals, it does take time, and this of course is part of its pleasure. I took the time to make this while my husband and kids were out of the house, and I sipped wine and listened to NPR and sashayed while sautéing and generally made a cliché out of myself. It was wonderful.

The time and expense, though, are also its challenge. I think it’s not the hands-on time that puts it over the top for me; it’s really the extra recipes that felt a little overwhelming in the middle. Those mushrooms and onions, while totally worth it, felt like a project that dragged on a bit long.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

But how does it taste, you ask? Like rich, saucy, wine-soaked chicken in a pot, with flavors multiplying to the point where you’re not quite sure what you’re tasting anymore. The sauce has that dark tang that comes from red wine, with all those chicken juices lending savor. The chicken is tender, slipping off the bone under the fork in sweet shreds, stained with that burgundy sauce; the mushrooms are little joys; the onions are crisp pops to freshen the richness.

Is it worth it to make coq au vin, at least once? Absolutely. It will show you how wonderful Julia is as a teacher and cook, and set the bar for your winter chicken endeavors henceforth. But most of all, it will be comforting and delicious, and before winter entirely slips away, we could all do with more of that.

If you have the time, and a bottle of cognac, and a few hours to yourself, that is.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

If You’re Making Julia’s Coq au Vin, a Few Tips

On that day when you finally attempt this classic, here are a few tips for full enjoyment.

1. Find the full, actual recipe: There are plenty of versions floating around the internet, some slightly shorter or adapted. Don’t use those. They’re fine, but part of the fun of this recipe is hearing Julia’s voice and walking through it in the great Mastering format. Check the book out from the library or use your own copy.

2. Don’t splurge on pricey wine or cognac (unless you want to drink it anyway!): My liquor store was low on cognac and we ended up with a really nice Armagnac that I’ve been sipping appreciatively ever since. But don’t feel like you need something special; a cheap bottle of cognac will do. Same on the wine. You don’t need some high-end thing; a young Beaujolais as Julia recommends, should do you.

3. Use any combination of chicken parts you prefer, but they should be bone-in and skin-on: Julia calls for a cut-up chicken, but I just went by the weight she calls for (about 3 pounds) and bought a mix of thighs and drumsticks.

4. Read the mushroom and onion recipes before you begin: They are tucked into the instructions and I almost missed them on my first read. You do need to flip back and forth and really make sure you have all you need.

5. Do make this ahead of time: I tried this chicken fresh off the stove, but like all good braises, it was much better on the second day. All the parts had a chance to mingle and get comfy. To reheat on the second (or third) day, warm in the pot it was cooked in, gently on low heat for 30 minutes, or in a low oven.

Have you ever made Julia Child’s coq au vin? Tell us what you thought, and how much you love it.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

This recipe was a contender in our March Chicken Champions recipe showdown, in the fancy dinner party bracket. Check out that showdown and its competitors below.

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