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My mother's BIGOS recipe

A few weeks ago, or is it months, Silverjay asked me to post my mother's recipe for Bigos, which is translated from Polish to English as "Hunter's Stew" by most restaurants. I didn't forget you, Silverjay! I've spent all this time trying to convince my mother to tell me! She kept responding with an evasive "Bigos is an art!" speech.

Bigos is to Poles what madelines were to Proust, in fact in Polish literature there is a similarly effusive Proustian passage about bigos in Adam Mickiewicz's famous 19th Century epic poem Pan Tadeusz. It's not a stew that most Americans would recognize as such, it's mostly based on sauerkraut, and it's one of those "little of this, little of that" recipes that changes slightly with the contents of your pantry. It's impossible to make just a little Bigos, you must make a big pot of it and either feed an army or freeze some for another time. It's evolved into a day after Christmas tradition in Poland. There are as many recipes for Bigos as there are Poles in Poland, this is just one of them...

The first thing to keep in mind when you decide to make Bigos, is that you must be sure of the quality of your sauerkraut. It must must must be a truly fermented, German-style sauerkraut, if it's a sauerkraut that gets all its sourness from vinegar, your Bigos will be awful. (For New Yorkers: I have found good sauerkraut from Polam on Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint. They keep it in buckets in front of the butcher cases and you have to put it in plastic produce bags with tongs.)

Also bear in mind that you're not going to eating your Bigos until about two days after you start the process...maybe one day if you're impatient.

Basic ingredients:
Meat for veal stew
Pork shoulder (cubed)
Meat for beef stew
Onions, rough chopped
Sauerkraut
Dried Polish mushrooms (soaked, reserving the strained soaking liquid)
Boczek (Polish pork belly, like salt pork or slab bacon), chopped into pieces
Polish sausage (I like krajana sausage from Sikorski Meat Market), chopped into pieces
Stock cubes (not actual stock, too much liquid)
Peppercorns
Bay leaf
Caraway seeds
Red wine

Optional:
Some tomato paste
Prunes

(For an idea of quantities and proportions: about a half pound of each kind of stew meat, 2 pounds of sauerkraut, maybe three onions, a good handful of dried mushrooms, half a two foot link of Polish sausage, a small-ish piece of boczek...nothing is really exact here, sorry)

In a very large pot over high heat brown all your meats in batches until they are just sealed (not the sausage or the boczek), and set aside. Don't cook the meats through because they have a long time to spend cooking and if you take them too far at this early stage, they'll fall to shreds long before you're done. Add the rough chopped onion and the sauerkraut to the pot and just barely cover with water, it shouldn't be "floating" in the water, it should just look saturated. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat way down and add all your meats, the boczek, the sausage, the mushrooms and the strained soaking liquid, the stock cubes, everything but the red wine. Simmer on very low heat for at least an hour and a quarter. Take a peak and a stir at it every now and again.

After an hour and a quarter or so, come back to the pot and add a cup of decent red wine. Poles don't really know their wines at all, but I'd recommend something from a nearby region, a good bodied German or Austrian wine with soft tannins, rather than a very fruit forward wine with lots of acidity. At this point if you want to (we don't in my house), you can add a little tomato paste and about 10 whole pitted prunes. Stir for a bit, keep the heat low, and let it go for another couple of hours, you could even go three hours.

At this point, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and put it in a cool place overnight. My Babcia would do this on her balcony. In the morning put it back on the stove, bring it all back to a simmer and cook it for another 2 or 3 hours. You COULD eat it at this point, we often do. But my mother says you could repeat the overnight cooling and 2 hour simmer the following day and it gets even better.

It's a tricky balance between adding just enough water, and cooking the water off and replacing it. If for any reason your Bigos seems too watery at the end of cooking you can try and fix it with one pureed potato, but you'll have to be careful and watch that it doesn't burn when you continue to cook it. The potato starch tends to sink to the bottom of the pot and burn the pot. It's not ideal, but it's one fix it option if you need it.

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  1. Brilliant! I will source from Greenpoint and make a go of it as soon as I get a chance. I"m really looking forward to it. Thanks a lot!

    3 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      I swear I had to get her all liquored up to spill the beans! You must must must tell me how it turns out!

      1. re: ballulah

        Ok, I'm trying to get my head around the meat elements of the recipe. So there's veal chunks, beef chunks, pork shoulder, pork belly, and sausage. I should be able to source this all from Sikorski, right?...Although the spicy kabanos from Steve's sounds kind of intriguing and so does the double smoked krajana from Beata....Geez, every dog in the neighborhood will be on my tail when I make this shopping run...

        1. re: Silverjay

          You can get everything at Sikorski, yes, but for the stew meats (the veal, pork shoulder and beef) I actually prefer Kiszka (or W Nassau Meat Market). I think you know it, but just in case, it's up at the other end of Manhattan Ave a block or so north of Greenpoint Ave. The kabanos is more of a snacking sausage...great to pack and bring for a hike! The double smoked krajana from Beata has a very dark, almost black skin on it, I've never tried it in bigos, but upon first thought I'd be worried it might a) discolor the stew too much (although that's pretty funny, since the result is kind of grey), and b) might *not* add to the flavor of the stew by imparting too much smokiness. The sausage from Beata I usually skin and slice and grill on a slice of fresh rye bread, and then dab the broiled slices with a bit of really good mustard. Good on the BBQ as well.

    2. There is awesome Sauerkraut at Fairway in Red Hook, it is with the olives by the deli case. Even if you *hate* sauerkraut, this one can easily change your mind.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Quine

        I've had that sauerkraut from both Manhattan Fairways, it IS a true fermented sauerkraut. I'll have to give it another try it's been awhile, I remember liking it and giving some to my mother to try and she hated it. She's a pill!

      2. My family does it sans prunes and tomato paste, and with white wine...the variants begin!

        Great, great description and detail in the recipe, well done! And yes, yes, yes, the "aging" makes it. I recall, as a child not doing "seconds", because I knew the next day would be so much better and I wanted thirds on that!

        2 Replies
        1. re: Quine

          I saw recipes for this back then and made it, sort of winged it really: but never having tasted it before, it smelled very cabbagey to me. So I left it in the fridge for several days before I tasted it. It was instantly one of my favorite soups, when you read the recipe you can't imagine how good it actually is. Thanks to all! I still have a jar in the freezer downstairs and am jealously hoarding it.

          1. re: coll

            Yes, you definitely have to be a cabbage lover to eat bigos! Despite all the meats, with all that cabbage it's actually a dish that's very rich in vitamin C. No scurvy for the Poles!

        2. Thanks for posting this recipe! My parents are from Poland, but I was born in Canada. I'm having them over for dinner tomorrow and I've made this recipe-- so far is looks and smells great! I will post tomorrow to let you know how the "critics" respond to it... Dziekuje bardzo!

          3 Replies
          1. re: jklich

            Such fun to see these musings. We have had Bigos at the Legs Inn north of Harbor Springs, MI. I happened on a recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cookbook which I've had for 30 years. A bit easier and not dependent on NYC shops.

            1. re: mgebs

              Isn't it great? May I suggest that even though your recipe isn't dependant on the NYC shops that perhaps you try to use the meat from a real European deli? I have found that the meat (especially the sausage) just lacks the flavour and texture that you get from a good European deli. Meat from the grocery store doesn't even come close in my opinion.

            2. re: jklich

              Well, I am happy to report that the Bigos went over extremely well! Thanks for the recipe-- I'll be making it often.

            3. This is great! bigos is one of my favorite dishes! we have it during the holidays. Our recipe doesn't include tomato paste or prunes, instead we use mushrooms and a diced peeled green apple! It's excellent!

              1. I learned to cook bigos from a couple in Poland, but they disagreed on whether to use beer or red wine. I tried both and liked it better with a dark beer. They toss in a chunk of pig skin too, which I find frightening. I don't add the prunes, but do chop up a green apple and add that. It's a good crockpot recipe too.

                1. Wow! I didn't realize this topic of mine was still getting responses!

                  I'm so glad to hear that someone gave it a try. The great thing about bigos, like "gravy" (tomato sauce) in Italy, every family makes it their own way. All versions are the right versions.

                  1. Bump for a great recipe. Used my grandfather's homemade sauerkraut, 2 pounds of krajana and a pound of boczek from Jubilat Provisions in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and a Spanish red wine (didn't have any other dry reds in the house). Simmered for 5 hours on Saturday and another 3 on Sunday pre-Super Bowl. The sauerkraut and onions were a deep brown and had an amzing sweet flavor to them - reminded me of childhood.

                    No prunes or tomato paste for me, and I left out the veal and pork shoulder.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: lambretta76

                      how do you like the bigos they sell at Eagle Provisions? glad you bumped this because Im going to try it this winter.

                      1. re: jen kalb

                        I've not tried the bigos from Eagle. While their stuff is very good, I feel like Jubilat is just a bit better in everything they do. That said, Eagle is much cheaper than Jubilat. I noticed that Jubilat did have some homemade dishes, they may sell bigos. One thing I would really recommend is that you buy the real sauerkraut from Jubilat. (It's in a big garbage can by the coolers.) I haven't had theirs, but it "smelt" real - it wasn't cabbage and vinegar. I think starting with quality sauerkraut is the most important step of the entire process.

                        If I would change one thing about my bigos is that it was a little too heavy, too fatty. I trimmed a layer of fat off of the boczek, but I think perhaps next time I would make it with a nice smoked ham instead of smoked pork belly/bacon/whatever boczek is.

                    2. ah bigos---haven't thought of that in years. In grad school, I dated a guy who's roomate was polish by way of venezula and he used to make bigos---big giant pots. It was quite tasty......

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: jenn

                        I had a bunch of chorizo from D'Espana and I was so tempted to throw it in. I'm sure it would have been horrible, but man it would be interesting to try a real Latin American take on bigos. (Not that I think that that's what your former friend made, but that's what I'm thinking about.)

                      2. I wanted to post an update to this thread, since I used the OP's recipe as well as others to guide me through making Bigos for the first time.
                        What I did was:
                        - Cook lardons in a Dutch oven, slowly, to render the fat and brown the bacon. Set lardons aside. Grease was taken out of the pot, save about 1 Tbsp.
                        - Saute up slivered onions, sliced Granny Smith apple. Set aside with lardons.
                        -Brown up sliced fresh and smoked (kabanosi) kielbasa, beef stew cubes and pork cubes.
                        - Add lardons, onion and apple back to the DO
                        - Add a large can of sauerkraut, one small can tomato paste, one cup white wine and hydrated Polish borowiki mushrooms with about 1-2 cups of their liquid (if you don't have dried borowiki, use dried porcini-the mushroom taste is crucial)
                        - Add bay leaves, caraway and a sachet of crushed juniper berries, crushed allspice and whole peppercorns.
                        - Salt a bit (adjust more later)
                        - Braised slowly on the stovetop for about 2 hours, until the pork and beef were tender.
                        - Remove sachet, adjust seasoning and serve. Even better the next day, of course!

                        DH and I enjoyed every last bit of the bigos over the course of a week. It tasted even better than I'd hoped!

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: monavano

                          I have been making this soup since it was first posted and it is so good. I will try adding some of your ideas too next time. I use beer instead of wine though.

                          1. re: coll

                            Beer sounds good, too. I braise keibasa in beer all the time- I had white wine on hand so I used it up.
                            The OP's recipe is a terrific guideline and starting point to making this dish.

                            1. re: coll

                              My grandmother came from Poland and she taught me to grate a potato into the mix to thicken it, actually my mom taught me that because my grandmother didn't give out too many secrets. I wish I could make her chicken soup but she wouldn't tell anyone how she made it. She had some good stories about getting out of Poland.

                              1. re: Floridagirl

                                I wonder if a potato flour slurry would work, too. Poles do like their potatoes! I think for my version, the tomato paste gave the dish a nicely thickened consistency.
                                Thanks!

                                1. re: monavano

                                  I'm going to try that because I always have tomato salad with sauerkraut.

                          2. Thank you for this recipe! My partner is Polish and loves bigos. I am going to make it for his birthday this weekend. None of my neighbours would share their recipe. It seems they are very closely guarded secrets!

                            1. When my wife and I were raising our 4 children, we often had bigos. But we would make a mound of mashed potatoes on each plate and then make a large indentation in which the bigos was served.... yum!

                              1. Hello - my name is Theresa, I work for a non-profit agency in MA that supports people with disabilities, the Polus Center (www.poluscenter.org). We are doing a Polish Picnic fundraiser next weekend and I'm putting together a cookbook. Would you allow me to re-print your Bigos recipe? You can reply to tkane@poluscenter.org. Thank you! -TK