A national dish of Poland, bigos is a traditional one-pot meat-and-cabbage stew, often referred to as a “hunter’s stew” and usually made during the winter months or for special occasions. In Poland it’s the go-to dish for all of the holidays, small or large, and even on birthdays.
The history of bigos stretches back to the 14th century. It is claimed Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila, who became king of Poland in 1385, served it to his hunting-party guests.
Recipes for bigos can be traced back to very old cookbooks dated in the 1600’s and 1700’s. In those versions, bigos did not include cabbage and was made with chopped meat or fish. Parsley and onion were added to the mix which was then made sour with with vinegar, lemons, limes, or gooseberries; made sweet with sugar and raisins; or spicy with pepper, cinnamon and other spices. These strong flavors were valued back then, but today’s palates would find it inedible.
One recipe does not fit all
As with many traditional dishes, Bigos differs in preparation from region to region and from family to family. Though today’s recipes and methods vary, the mainstay ingredients are mixed meats, sauerkraut and/or cabbage, mushrooms, tomatoes and other spices.
Although recipes for bigos are flexible (think “clean out the fridge and larder…”) one requirement is that there should be lots of different meats — hence the figurative meaning of bigos in Polish, “big mess”.
The more festive the occasion, the more varied the composition. Pork, beef, and lamb are all good, as well as game meats like venison or rabbit which stick to the theme of the “hunting” connection. The centuries-old original recipes for bigos almost always included wild boar, but that’s not so easy for folks to come by these days.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter a great deal what kind of meats you put into the dish. Many cooks make it with the ends and scraps of meat saved and frozen over months’ worth of meals, so feel free to experiment.
Smoked meats, traditionally kielbasa, are included and many recipes also use bacon or ham. As for the “cabbage”, sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, or a mix of both, can be used.
When using sauerkraut in bigos, use good quality sauerkraut. That means not the variety made with vinegar, but made the old fashioned way; naturally fermented cabbage with just water and salt. (Aldi carries the “German style” in jars or you can make your own homemade sauerkraut for future use). Cheap sauerkraut in a can or jar made with vinegar can ruin the taste and wind up being bland and less complex.
Some recipes use beer or vinegar as a marinating liquid, other more “fancy” versions use dry red wine, some use tomatoes in juice, some a combination like this one does.
Three times is the charm
One thing that never varies is the fact that cooks insist this dish is at its best after repeated heating and cooling meaning it becomes better with age. Rare is the Polish cook who would even think of serving bigos on the same day they finish its preparation! Many cooks claim it is tradition that bigos be reheated three or more times before serving.
Vodka, bread, and bigos
The traditional accompaniment for a bigos is a hearty dark bread, like rye or pumpernickel) and chilled vodka (preferably Polish).
Plan ahead when making this hearty meal so that you can give the flavors time to develop before enjoying this traditional “Hunter’s Stew”!
Bigos (Hunter’s Stew)Course: Entrees, Soups and StewsCuisine: Polish, Eastern European, Coal RegionDifficulty: Intermediate
A national dish of Poland, bigos improves with repeated reheating; traditionally it is reheated three or more times before serving.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound pork butt
1 pound good quality kielbasa, quartered
1/4 pound thick cut bacon, cut into half inch pieces
3 cups yellow onion, diced
2 cups carrots cut into half circle slices
1 pound baby bella mushrooms (cremini) sliced
3 tablespoons fresh garlic, chopped
6 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup red wine, such as Burgundy or merlot
2 1/2 pounds sauerkraut, drained
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1 quart beef broth
1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoon dry marjoram
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1 whole bay leaf
1 teaspoon juniper berries (optional)
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup pitted prunes, quartered
- In a large 5 – 6 quart Dutch oven, heat oil over high.
- Pat the pork stew meat dry and fry half to sear both sides, about 4-5 minutes per batch. Remove to a bowl and reduce temperature of pot to medium high.
- Add the four Kielbasa quarters and brown all sides, about five minutes. Remove to the same bowl.
- Add bacon and onions and sauté for three minutes (do not crisp).
- Add the carrots and sauté two minutes.
- Add the mushrooms and garlic and sauté two minutes.
- Add the cabbage and cook two minutes.
- Add the wine and scrape up brown bits from the bottom.
- Add the drained sauerkraut, canned tomatoes, beef broth, thyme, marjoram, allspice, bay leaf, paprika (and juniper berries if using).
- In a mortar and pestle, place caraway seeds with the salt and pepper and crush until the seeds are fine, then add to the mixture OR give a quick spin in a spice grinder
- Add the seared pork and large pieces of kielbasa.
- Raise the heat to high then once bubbling, reduce to low and cook partially covered for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick. Meat should be easy to shred. Adjust your cooking time to get the textures you desire.
- Remove the four big pieces of kielbasa to your cutting board.
- Remove and discard bay leaf.
- Add the prunes and simmer ten minutes.
- Slice the kielbasa into bite sized slices and add back to pot
- Cool/reheat at least three times before serving. Serve with hearty dark bread.
- This dish gets better the longer it cooks and the longer it sits. It is traditional tro reheat three times before serving.