Bigos a.k.a the Hunter Stew

My own version of the Polish traditional dish

in just twenty easy steps
requiring absolutely no cooking or algebra skills

If you ask a Pole to name the most traditional Polish dish, most of the time you will get one of two answers: bigos (a kind of stew based on cabbage and various meats; sounds unappetizing but tastes delicious) or schabowy (a thinly-beaten, breaded, and fry-seared pork chop).

My wife is a pork chop virtuoso, hers are better than any others I've tried, but they take some skills I never had. Generally, my cooking stinks; sometimes in the literal sense of the word. Except for two things. One is a real beef fillet steak, done on a charcoal grill; the other — the bigos. Modesty aside, I like my bigos more than any other.

Bigos ia a heavy, filling dish, eaten mostly in winter. For most of the last 25 years I've been cooking it twice a year. Once is for the Thanksgiving dinner, usualy brought to some friend's house to be eaten after we're done with the turkey (and to show that we Poles also follow some traditions). The other time is in Poland, right after Christmas (to prove that we Americans also know how to do some things).

Almost every year I'm giving the recipe to a few people. Since 1996 I've been planning to put it on this Web site. I never did.

Until now. This time, cooking for the Thanksgiving, I wrote down every step right after doing it, as the process involves many small breaks when you have nothing to do. Now, with the turkey flavor still lingering on my taste buds, and bigos still lining the bottom half of my stomach, I'm cleaning up these notes, for the world to see (the world does not really care, but this sounds good).

Ingredients

Bigos takes a lot of those, a full grocery shopping trip. Here is a list.

  1. Beef for stew, ½ kg (1 lb) or slightly more. Does not have to be lean, but avoid larger chunks of fat.
  2. Pork, a similar amount; cut as for stew. Chops will do, you can cut them yourself into smaller pieces.
  3. Chicken, the same amount. Breast tenderloins or boneless thigh fillets. Turkey is fine, too.
  4. Sliced cooked bacon (optional). In the U.S. it is sold in 70 g (2½ oz) boxes containing about 12 slices. One box is enough.

    If you cannot get that, use the regular (uncooked) kind, 100-150 g (3-5 oz), and cook it crisp; discard the melted fat.

  5. Sauerkraut, 1 kg (2 lb) or slightly more, up to 1.5 kg (3 lb). Some stores sell it off the barrel, which should be better.
  6. Fresh cabbage, the same amount; just get the smallest head you find.
  7. Onions: two large or three medium. Yellow ones are traditional, but you may experiment with other kind.
  8. Prunes, pitted: 9-12 medium or large ones.
  9. Dried porcini mushrooms, 15 g (½ oz) or so. If you know of a Polish, Ukrainian or Russian food store, get just one ounce (or half-ounce) of wild mushrooms, which are even better.

    The species called Boletus is, deservedly, considered the best. In Polish it is called "the real mushroom", in Russian — "the white mushroom". But really, any kind will do, except of the oriental varieties like shiitake, or those just called "mushrooms", most common in supermarkets.

    Some people prefer this dish without mushrooms, some with. Actually, this affects the aroma rather than the flavor.

  10. Sour apples — two large ones. Granny Smith works best for me.
  11. Garlic: 2-3 cloves (optional)
  12. Butter, 70 g (2½ oz), or similar amount of olive oil
  13. Flour, any kind: 90 g (3 oz).
  14. Beef or chicken broth, half a carton: ½ liter, or 16 fl. oz.
  15. Canned tomatoes, diced, sliced, or crushed. Try to find a kind with as little as possible of flavoring (herbs, spices). They usually come in 400 g (14 oz) cans. You will need two of those, or just one and a small can of tomato concentrate; just in case, get two of these, too.
  16. Dry red wine (I'd say, an inexpensive Australian Merlot for the first experiment). The dish calls for a cup or less, so you've got to find someone to drink the rest.

    Don't use cooking wine. Most of the cheap reds from your local wine store will be much better.

  17. A flask of Jack Daniels' and some ice. While, strictly speaking, this is not a physical ingredient of the dish, it is necessary to provide some comfort to the Principal Investigator of the project. Without it, all these expensive ingredients could be wasted.

You will also need a few things you always have in your kitchen (don't you?): salt (and/or bouillon cubes), ground black pepper, mild paprika powder.

The Gear

The equipment you need is also quite simple:

  • A stove top (gas or electric) with at least two burners;
  • An electric kettle (or some other vessel for boiling water);
  • A large (7 liters, or 2 gal.) pot, preferably with a thick, heat-conductive bottom to avoid food burn. A transparent lid looks great but does not make that much difference.
  • A large frying pan: 25 cm or 10 inches across;
  • One or two wooden spoons;
  • A chopping knife, fruit peeler, etc.

Out of these, only the pot may be a problem, especially if you are single and living alone. Just buy one; it is always a good thing to have.

Cooking the Bigos

The process takes a long time, but requires no cooking skills whatsoever, so it is quite relaxing. There are, basically, only two things which can go wrong: (a) burning the food and (b) running out of Ingredient #17.

To avoid burning, bigos should be not boiling on the oven, just simmering: one or two bubbles of steam popping to the surface every second. Also, remember to stir the pot every few minutes; if the food starts sticking to the bottom, reduce the temperature and add some hot water from the kettle.

And, of course, after the first hour keep tasting and tweaking.

I apologize for being so explicit, but I'm assuming you know as much about cooking as I do, which is close to nothing.

Here is the full procedure, described step by step. I would rather recommend following the sequence given because some ingredients may require longer cooking time or a pre-requisite.

  1. Start the water kettle.
  2. Squeeze most of the juice off the sauerkraut; this should yield about two cups. Store in a jar, refrigerate. Form a sauerkraut brick on a cutting board, cut across that a dozen or so times so that the strands are shorter. Throw all into the pot, cover (barely) with hot water from the kettle, set to low boil or simmer, cover.
  3. Cut the cabbage in half along the axis, remove the white, conical core, eat it. Or, better, make somebody eat it. Cut into quarters or not. Chop the cabbage into confetti strips not wider than 6 mm (¼ of an inch); into the pot it goes.

    As a child, I would sometimes, in the fall, see a man, wandering the neighborhood with a portable cabbage shredder on his back. For a small fee, he would shred your cabbage for the home-made, barrel sauerkraut. I'm not sure where people kept their barrels, as we were buying our sauerkraut in the local store. The homemade one was cheaper and better.

    That was before the advent of affordable shipping and trucking. For most of people in Europe, their main source of Vitamin C over the winter was sauerkraut, followed by apples and potatoes (even after cooking!).

    An urban legend possibly, but claimed to be a true story. In the early Sixties, people were complaining about lemons being in short supply in Poland. The Communist chief at that time, Gomulka, reacted saying that sauerkraut is also rich in Vitamin C and should be substituted. How the hell do I use sauerkraut with my tea? — was the follow-up question.

  4. Peel the onions, chop as finely as you can. I usually cut them in quarters, and then into 6 mm (¼ in) slices. Put the frying pan on medium-high, add 30 g (1 oz) of butter or olive oil, add the onions, cover the pan.

    Now you have a five-minute break. You really need it. That, and some of Ingredient #17.

    After the break, you have a choice how you want your onions:

    • Caramelized: reduce the frying pan heat as low as you dare, stir, cover again. This will take about 40 minutes, while you are doing other things. The onions will become soft and semi-transparent.
    • Browned: turn the burner down so that some frying action is still visible. After 15 minutes half of the onion strands will become brown: you are done.

    I like them both ways, perhaps the browned ones a bit more. And they are faster this way. Even if things go wrong and the onions get scorched, the effect will be just fine.

  5. Crush or finely chop the garlic; add to the onions; stir.
  6. While the onions are taking their sweet time, do the peppers. Wash them with a brush, cut in quarters, remove seed-pods, wash off the remaining seeds, slice into strands, see above. Into the pot.
  7. Check the water level; start gradually adding the beef or chicken stock, a little at a time, not to affect the simmer.
  8. Now, the apple (just one at the moment). Cut into 4 or 8 wedges, remove seeds, peel, thinly slice across, in you go.
  9. Break the dried mushroom into pieces, the smaller the better, stir into bigos.
  10. Open and add the tomatoes. Gradually, so that the simmer never really stops. If it does, let it resume under the lid.
  11. If the onions are done, throw them in (unless you already did that). and take a #17 break. If not, take a break until they are done. Keep adding the stock.
  12. Get ready for the meat: assure that all meats are cut into bite/sized pieces. Put two spoonfuls of flour (any kind) onto a medium-sized dinner plate; this will be for browning the meat. Remove any onion stuck to the frying pan, start heating the pan on medium high with 15 g (½) of butter or olive oil.
  13. Start from pork: add the pieces to the frying pan after quickly rolling them in the flour. Do not try to cover them completely; just make sure that some flour sticks to the meat. After all pork is in, it will take ten minutes or so to get browned at some surfaces. Pour yourself a shot, keep stirring. When partly browned, move the pork to the master pot. Scrap off any flour goo and throw it in too.
  14. Replenish the flour, if necessary. Add some butter or oil to the pan. Repeat the browning procedure with beef. It may take a few minutes longer this time, as the beef lets out plenty of juice. You have 15 minutes to sample a sip of #17. Keep stirring. When done, move all to the pot.
  15. Repeat that for the chicken or turkey. Stir the pot. Don't let it to get too thick; the ladle has to move freely. You are done with the frying pan.
  16. Cut the cooked bacon slices across into pieces 2 cm (up to 1") long. Stir into the pot.
  17. Add the prunes. cut into thirds. Keep stirring. Make sure you are done with the broth. If bigos is too thick (should be like a medium-thick stew now), add a little of sauerkraut juice.
  18. Now you a ready for the first tasting, with just one apple left. Cleanse your palate (#17 will do it), try a sip of the liquid. Add some salt and black pepper, about half of what you think you need. (A bouillon cube or two will work instead of salt.) Use some ground, mild paprika Make sure the heat is set to low simmer. If some more liquid is required, add half cup of wine, this will be fine for tonight.
  19. Add the second apple, the same way as the first one.
  20. Now, you are done with the actual kitchen work. What you need now, is to be there, stir the pot to avoid burning, sample the liquid adding salt, pepper, maybe some juice and wine as you see fit. If the taste is no fruity-sour enough, you may decide to add one more tiny can of tomato paste.

    An hour or two of this slow cooking and your hunter stew is ready. It takes four to six hours from the moment you put the kettle on.

What you got here is the "young bigos", usually you don't serve it the same day. It is, however, quite delicious and feel free to sample it right away with a nice slice of sourdough bread. My wife always sticks around late in the night to participate in that ritual.

More cooking

Now, after you've had some, store the pot in a cold place. Outdoors below freezing would be best. It is a winter dish, after all. If necessary, secure the lid with some string against any wildlife passing by (this is not a joke) or against your own dog (neither is this).

The next day bring it inside and simmer for another 3-4 hours. Replenish the liquid with sauerkraut juice, wine, or water. Sample some. See how different it is today.

Repeat the cycle for one more day and bigos is ready. Invite some friends to witness your culinary triumph. You may serve it with red dry wine, or with beer; in that case I would suggest some traditional ale (but not IPA). Some like it with dark, crusty bread, others — with plain boiled 'tatters.

Actually, some people recommend a whole week of reheat/refreeze cycles, but usually you will finish the pot by then. A common custom is to start cooking a bigos the next day after Christmas and eat it on the last day of the old year.

Congratulations. You are now up there with the select group of great chefs. Just don't ruin the effort by telling everybody how simple it was.


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Posted 2017/06/18, last updated 2017/10/20 Copyright © 2017 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak