Some of my first food memories are of stews and particularly of my grandmother’s famous Goulash which she would make for lucky, visiting family members on October days like these, when the days were getting shorter, colder and much wetter. My grandma, in her younger years and even well into her 70’s and 80’s was a great cook, capable of producing elaborate and extravagant meals at the stove of her country house. Still, of her entire repertoire, it was the seemingly humble but always delicious Goulash I loved the most as a kid.
These were the days before I’d even heard of comfort food and before slow food was really even a thing. Heck, it was probably before Folco Portinari coined his now famous Slow Food Manifesto. Still, it was comforting food to me in large parts, actually, because the process was slow, and it gathered the family around the stove for the early phases while filling the house with the wonderful scent of warming spices and stewing meats in later phases. It was an all-involving, all consuming experience that eventually, nay finally, culminated after hours of waiting in a rewarding feast of fork tender beef stewed in a rich, creamy, fragrant sauce.
Unbeknownst to her, and probably to me too at the time, it was my grandmother who first showed me that cooking can and should take time and that meticulously preparing and patiently browning each individual ingredient makes a world of difference. When making Goulash, one of the first things she would do was to heat up a combination of oil and butter, then slowly and painstakingly brown every bit of cubed meat on all six sides, using a couple of forks to carefully turn each little cube of meat one by one.
You wouldn’t think that a process such as this would have any lasting impact on a kid aged ten or younger, other than perhaps to instil a feeling of impatience and utter annoyance, but even to this day, twenty-some years on, the memory stays with me – not as a bad one, but as a delightful memory of wonderful smells and great anticipation. Even back then in my culinary infancy, I somehow understood the importance of this time consuming ritual and the great flavors it would eventually bring to those patient enough to wait.
A lot of years have passed since those early food memories and I have since gained a much greater understanding for cooking and even the chemical processes behind what in the days of my childhood seemed like culinary magic tricks at the hands of my grandmother. I have, however, not yet managed to produce a batch of Goulash as good as hers… And it’s not from lack of trying!
I have, however, come about as close as humanly possible, and that’s pretty much good enough for me. Because, really, would I even want to best that favourite dish of my childhood? And by doing so make it seem less important or any less amazing? And even if I technically could, would it really, truly taste better than hers? Without the addition of love and care that only a grandmother can provide? I don’t know. All I know is that this post is about Goulash. This post is about that final attempt at nailing my grandmother’s Goulash, about almost getting it right and then still not really. It’s about the Goulash I cooked for my grandmother a couple of weeks ago as a simple but fitting tribute to the many elaborate feasts and great dishes she’s cooked for me over the years.
A woman most extraordinary
As you may be able to deduct from my mentioning of my grandmother cooking family dinners well into her 70’s and 80’s, my grandmother is now what most would refer to as an elderly lady. 91 years young to be exact! And while somewhat hindered by poor eyesight and a little hard at hearing, she still lives in her own home, still walks around on her own, still looks after the neighborhood kittens, still enjoys a good glass of wine and is still 100% on top of her game mentally. In short, she’s an amazing woman and an inspiration to the entire family. She does not, however, really cook much herself anymore.
Which is why I, on my last trip to Copenhagen, where my grandma and most of her family live, found myself in the rather odd and absolutely terrifying position of having to cook for the woman who has not only inspired me in numerous ways over the past 33 years, but has also, by and large, taught me to appreciate good, honest slow food by cooking meals that even twenty years down the road are firmly chiseled in my mind as some of the best, most memorable meals I have EVER had.
Apparently somewhere along the trip someone got the strange idea that I’m a great cook and that it would be really awesome if I cooked for the entire family, my grandma included. The same someone then went on to conclude that since my grandma loved Goulash, maybe I should go ahead and make a large pot of Goulash since it would also make for great left-overs. Uh, yeah, cooking Goulash for the family Matriarch who taught me to love Goulash through her decades of perfecting the dish. Thank you very much, family dear!
Ahem, anyway, yes so… Indeed, the pressure was on a couple of weekends ago in my aunt’s kitchen when I set out to cook for one of my major culinary influences and heroes, my dear grandma Ellen. Luckily, to help me combat the pressure and tension, I’d enlisted the help of my two uncles, Ole and Niels. Uncle Ole, of course, mainly provided moral backup in the shape of at bottle of red wine and countless stories about the travels of John Steinbeck coupled with anecdotes from his own travels around the world – an important part of any cooking session, by the way. But Uncle Niels, on the other hand, provided quite a helping hand in doing all those little things that helps complicate the cooking process: Washing, pealing, cutting, preparing, you name it.
With Uncle Niels in charge of basic mis en place and cutting of jokes, I in turn had both hands and my entire mind freed to take care of the cooking process. And just like that, on a bright, but cold Saturday afternoon in mid October, I set out to try to make my grandma proud. And in doing so, remembering who I cooked for, I made sure I strictly adhered to the basic rules and regulations of stew-cookery… Which is a word that I’ve just made up!
Tips for a better Goulash
Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my grandmother, it is that cooking Goulash is not exactly rocket surgery. In fact, it’s probably one of the easier meals you’ll find within the pages of this blog. It’s getting the dish just right that can be a bit of a trick! However, the process of creating a wonderful flavorful Goulash becomes a lot easier once you realise that the perfect Goulash is really just a mix of equal parts of three basic ingredients: time, dedication and patience.
To make a perfect pot of Goulash, you must first and foremost sacrifice a few hours of your precious time. You must also show some dedication in procuring your ingredients and spending some time properly cutting and chopping them up. And last but not least, you’ll need to show incredible amounts of patience in carefully browning your ingredients, bringing them together and then laying low for a few hours while the stewing process does its thing.
Goulash Tip #1: never buy pre-diced beef!
Alright, this isn’t a flavor issue as such, but it is one of the best saving tips you’ll ever receive when it comes to making goulash or any other type of stew. Most supermarkets and even specialty butchers will have ready-diced stew meat available for purchase. Do NOT buy it. Not only will you be pretty certain of getting a wonderful selection of left-over odds and ends that weren’t really of much use for anything else. You’ll also be paying over price. And we’re not talking just a small premium here, we’re talking upwards of twice the price on a good day!
What you’ll want to do instead is get yourself a big chunk of beef and cut it up into chunks yourself. It’s a process that takes about five minutes and it will save you upwards of 25% to 50% on the meat budget. Not bad for five minutes of work, eh? You don’t even have to worry about getting a fancy cut of meat, in fact don’t do that. Since we’re making slow food here, something tough and fibrous such as chuck would do just fine. And the connective tissue within the meat will only add more flavor to the finished stew.
Goulash Tip #2: First you brown, then you stew!
I’ve said this about a thousand times before. Well, more like twenty, maybe. But I’ve definitely said it at least once in every beef or stew-related post I’ve done. Why? Because it’s important. A stew is all about flavor and browning throughly enhances flavor!
Browning also takes time, but it’s a pretty worthwhile investment. What you sacrifice in time, you more than make up for in flavor. So do take the time to thoroughly and meticulously brown the meat that goes into your stew before chugging it all in the pot with the other ingredients. Ideally you’ll do so using a cast iron skillet over high heat and you’ll want to work in batches of about 300 grams of meat at a time. Any more than that and you run the risk that the meat starts stewing rather than browning.
Can I use non-stick instead? You may have noticed that I almost always recommend reaching for cast iron or stainless steel when cooking meats or browning things. I don’t do it out of hate for non-stick coatings, I simply do it because metal surfaces do a cracking job of conducting and retaining heat. Also, they actually handles heat well. Non-stick surfaces most certainly don’t. When subjected to high heat they will actually slowly evaporate and eventually completely dissipate. This is bad not only for the pan, but (depending on the chemical compounds of the surface) sometimes also for the cook. It is also why you may have noticed that your non-stick cookware turns less non-stick and more stick over time.
Stewing, admittedly, is desirable, but not at this time. For starters, you’ll want the meat to develop a nice, brown, flavorful crust on all sides. Only then can you threw it into the pot for further stewing.
Goulash Tip #3: Mushrooms make great sponges
I use mushrooms in my Goulash and in most other stews. A lot of mushrooms. They make great fillers and they add a nice layer of flavor, and a surprisingly beefy one at that. They also, however, contain a fair bit of water and water is not exactly known for bringing a lot of flavor to the party, so we might as well get rid of some of all that water before adding them to the stew.
Luckily, I’ve discovered a nice little trick here. I brown my mushrooms much like I brown my meat, but unlike my meat, I don’t worry too much about crowding the pan. As a matter of fact, I make a point of crowding the pan when it comes to cooking mushrooms. I put my pan over high heat, drizzle on a little oil and then pile on a load of mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Why? Well, the heat along with the salt pretty much immediately starts drawing moisture from the mushrooms. As this happens, the mushrooms will shrink dramatically in size while the water in the pan will start to boil and evaporate. The water, eventually will have boiled away and the mushrooms will now start to fry and brown in the remaining oil. Eventually, they’ll be golden brown, flavorful and have almost completely given up their moisture.
The funny thing about mushrooms, though, is that they’re essentially little sponges so once the water is gone and your mushrooms have browned, throw in a generous knob of butter along with a clove of chopped garlic and watch in amazement as the new flavors absorb into the mushrooms… Then dump your mushrooms into the stew.
Goulash Tip #4: Oh onion my sweet
I use what some would consider a shocking amount of onion in my Goulash. About a pound of the stuff to be exact! But I do so in a way that helps really enhance the sweet and rich flavor compounds of properly slow-cooked onions rather than the harsh (albeit lovely) bite of fresh onions.
What I do, to be exact, is I actually start the entire cooking process by slicing up a few large onions, and then throw them in a pot over medium-low heat along with a bit of fat – bacon fat works wonders here. I then leave them to cook slowly and gently, stirring every now and then while I get everything else chopped up, browned and ready. By the time I’m ready to add the other ingredients to the stew, the onions will have reduced in size by at least half and will furthermore have developed a sweet, rich flavor that will work wonders in the stew.
Goulash Tip #5: Use real cream!
This is another well-repeated mantra of mine. Cream has been given a really bad rep over the last few decades at the hands of well-meaning health freaks and some now questionable science. And it’s not fair. Because cream is good for you! Alright, maybe not technically good for you except maybe in the same fashion that bacon is good for you, in that it makes you happy. Fat is a great carrier of flavor and so I make my goulash with (heavy) cream and I use upwards of half a litre of the stuff for a large pot. It’s probably bad for me, but then again, so are so many other things and the flavor of heavy cream is unparalleled. So go ahead, knock yourself out, use real cream, just don’t eat it every damn day.
And once and for all for those of you with a phobia against fat: Yes, if you really, really want to, you can use half and half, milk or one of those disgusting and downright scary vegetable fat cream substitutes. Buy really, why would you want to? The flavor will suffer tremendously. I say use real heavy cream and if you’re worried about the fat content, bear in mind that curves are sexy – or use half of what I used and substitute the other half with water, stock or milk.
Goulash Tip #6: Umami, it’s Japanese for Yummy!
The object of any stew is to enhance the flavors of whichever main ingredients we use by cooking them low and slow with spices and complimenting ingredients. The main object of any meat-based stew, obviously, is to enhance the meaty flavors of the finished stew, and luckily, we have a few secret ingredients to help us achieve that goal.
To maximise the meatiness of my stew dishes, I always hit them with a tablespoon of either soy sauce, fish sauce or Worchestershire sauce (a blend of liquids and spices which uses fish sauce as a major component!). I personally prefer Worchestershire sauce for its depth and flavor profile, but I’ll take whichever I have at hand if I’m cooking outside of the trusted, familiar environment of my own kitchen. I usually add a few shakes of hot sauce as well, and a dollop of ketchup (don’t ask me why and don’t judge, it just plain works!) to the pot as well before leaving it to simmer.
It may all sound a little silly, but trust me, it works. The point here is not so much to add flavor as it is to boost existing flavors, so not to worry, my friends, the end results will taste neither fishy nor soy-like. The fermented components in the sauce of choice will, however, substantially boost the meaty flavors in the finished stew because they’re full of a strange, somewhat mysterious flavor compound known simply as Umami. True story. Try it.
The perfect (and slightly lengthy) recipe for Goulash!
With the tips above clear in mind, I set out to create a Goulash that I hoped would win my grandma’s praise. I did so using a combination of the meticulous process she’d mystified and captivated me with years ago along with some new tricks I’d snuck up my sleeves through the years.
And, alright, I’ll be the first to admit that the resulting recipe may look a bit long and intimidating. But as already stated above, the process really isn’t difficult – it just involves quite a few steps that require some attention and explaining on my part. As such, it will probably take a few read throughs and some memorizing. I apologize, but hey we are striving for perfection here, right? I’ve broken the steps down best as I could as to (hopefully) not make it all entirely overwhelming.
- 200 grams bacon sliced or chopped
- 2-3 large onions halved and cut into slivers
- 500 grams button mushrooms cut into quarters
- 500 grams red bell peppers deseeded and cut whichever way you prefer
- 1.5 kilos stew meat cut into bite-sized chunks
- 500 ml heavy cream
- 500 ml beef stock
- 1 glass of quality red wine something you’d actually drink
- 100 grams concentrated tomato paste
- 400 grams canned chopped tomatoes
- 3-4 tablespoons paprika
- 1-2 tablespoon smoked paprika can substitute regular
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
- 0.5 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
- 3 splashes tabasco or other hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon of tomato ketchup
Render bacon fat and sweat onions down:
- Grab a large heavy stew pot of choice (preferably cast iron) and dump in the bacon along with a tablespoon or so of cooking oil.
- Turn heat under pot to medium and cook bacon, stirring occasionally until it turns crispy and all the fat has rendered out.
- Lower heat slightly and add the slivered onions along with a little pinch of salt, stir to coat onions and allow the onions to cook down while you continue on with the recipe (toss or stir every five minutes or so).
Brown the meat:
- At this point, season meat generously with salt and pepper.
- Grab your favorite cast iron or stainless steel pan and put it over high heat on a separate burner.
- When pan turns hot, add a splash of cooking oil and start browning your meat.
- To properly brown your meat it’s important to never fit more meat in the pan than would fit into a single layer. Depending on the size of your pan that may mean you’ll have to work in batches of 2-300 grams, so be it.
- When your meat hits the pan, it should hiss angrily. That’s the sound of water evaporating quickly. It’s also a good sound.
- After a couple of minutes of more or less angry hissing, you can start slowly turning your chunks of meat. Do so slowly, those raw surfaces of the meat will bring down the temperature of the pan quicker than you’d think, so don’t start chucking everything around. Move kind of slowly and appreciate the nice deep char you’ll see on every little piece.
- Once every little chunk of meat has been turned and properly browned, you can move the browned pieces of meat to a bowl and start over with the next batch. This entire process will take quite a bit of time, but believe me your patience WILL be rewarded.
Brown your mushrooms:
- Once all your meat is browned, add a little more oil to the pan (if needed) and add your mushrooms along with a little pinch of salt.
- They, too, will hiss at first but quickly dump a lot of water into the pan and start boiling way. Let them.
- Once all the water has evaporated, your mushrooms will start frying and turn a nice, dark, brown color.
- Once thoroughly browned, turn down the heat, and dump in a generous knob of butter along with the chopped garlic and a few grinds of black pepper.
- When butter has melted, add mushroom mixture to your bowl of browned meat cubes and get ready to deglaze the pan.
Fry tomato paste and deglaze:
- Return the pan to the heat, dump in the tomato paste and fry for about a minute to mellow the acidic bite and release additional flavor components.
- After about a minute, kill the heat, dump in a glass of red wine and stir thoroughly, making sure to scrape along the bottom to release any flavor compounds that may have stuck to the pan during cooking.
Everybody back in the pot:
- At this point, check your stew pot. The onions should have turned lightly brown, soft and have reduced remarkably in size.
- You can now add the bell peppers, the meat, the mushrooms and the tomato/red wine mixture.
- Also add the paprika, thyme, bay leaves, chopped tomatoes, stock and cream. And stir everything well together.
- If the stew ingredients are not completely submerged, add more liquid in the form of stock, cream, water, wine or all of the above. Just don’t go too heavy on the wine.
- Raise heat and bring pot contents to a boil, then back down the heat to maintain a low, steady boil.
- Add in Worchestershire sauce, hot sauce, ketchup and stir again, then leave to cook uncovered and relatively undisturbed for at least two hours, preferably longer until beef is tender and sauce has reduced and thickened.
- When cooking time is up, remove the bay leaves and taste your sauce for seasoning. Add a bit of salt or black pepper if needed. You may at this point also add more paprika or hot sauce for heat or a splash of sherry vinegar for freshness and acidity.
- Once you’re happy with your result, serve immediately over rice, potatoes, egg noodles or, better yet, mashed potatoes!
The final verdict?
It’s safe to say that the recipe and procedures outlined above create a rich, deep, meaty, filling and warming stew. It’s probably also safe to say that it created the most basic, yet most fantastic Goulash I have ever made. The sweet notes of the onions and bell peppers blend really well with the caramelized meaty flavors of the beef and mushrooms, and the smoky flavors of the bacon. The paprika adds more warmth, depth and smokiness while the cream and potato sauce helps smoothen things out and create balance.
And that’s just the beginning. So many things can be added here to add new elements and more flavor. Aromatic vegetables, carrots for example, smoked (or non-smoked) sausage, other kinds of mushrooms, potatoes, different spices… So many variations can be built from this basic recipe, but that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the basic version. Far from it!
Mashed potatoes, the perfect side dish! Not feeling quite decadent and over the top yet? Why not pair this dish with my perfect mashed potatoes? It’ll be a cream and butter orgy to remember, I guarantee it!
My basic efforts, however, were pretty well received by the judges on that fateful evening. Including my grandmother who in a very tongue-in-cheek-like manner remarked that one obvious upside to turning 91 is that it was perfectly alright to expect people to cook for you, preferably as well as this.
Was it, however, better than my grandma’s? No, of course not, far from it. While I think I could be largely proud of my efforts and even earned the highest praises for my attempt to shine, I think in the end only my grandmother knows the perfect proportions of what I now know to be the two secret ingredients of the perfect Goulash: love and decades of repetition.
Looking for more hearty stews? You may have want to have a look at my Classic Danish Pork tenderloin stew, or perhaps my increasingly popular Slow-cooked Chili Con Carne recipe. Y’know, whatever fits your mood.