This Authentic Pörkölt is What Most People Call “Goulash”
Everybody has heard of goulash, right? You know — that hearty meat stew with a thick, rich gravy spiced with paprika and caraway seeds. And a flavor that goes on until next week.
Well, guess what? That stew is actually called pörkölt (pronounced pur-kult). Goulash (gulyás), although made from similar ingredients, is a soup. No thick gravy in sight. But the flavors of the two are similar.
You can use almost any meat to make pörkölt. In Hungary, pork or veal often star in this dish. In the US, beef tends to be what cooks reach for most often. Its flavor becomes delectable when braised in a long-cooking dish like this.
You can make pörkölt ahead, and reheat just before serving. Dish it up with a side of Homemade Spätzle, and you’ll be the most popular cook in the neighborhood.
Recipe: Hungarian Beef Paprika Stew (Pörkölt)
This dish gets its flavor from well-browned onions and beef simmered in paprika-flavored liquid for at least two hours. Although recipes for pork or veal pörkölt often specify water as the simmering liquid, for beef I prefer to use beef stock — it adds more flavor.
Paprika gives this dish a lot of its characteristic taste, so you want to use high quality, fresh paprika. If your paprika is more than 6 months old, it’s probably lost much of its flavor. In that case, I’d toss it and get a new container (it’s not that expensive). If your supermarket carries imported Hungarian paprika, it’s worth buying for this dish.
My recipe is adapted from one that Susan Derecskey presents in The Hungarian Cookbook. This recipe serves 6 to 8, and leftovers keep for several days in the refrigerator.
It’s a bit hard to estimate preparation and cooking time for this dish, because it depends partially on your skills (and how large a skillet you have for browning meat). Cutting up the meat and chopping vegetables might take 15 minutes. Browning the meat usually takes me at least half an hour, often a bit longer. Braising time for the meat is 2 hours, largely unattended.
As noted up top, Homemade Spätzle is a wonderful (and traditional) accompaniment for this dish. And to start the meal, Hungarian Cucumber Salad would be ideal (and again, traditional).
- 1 large onion, diced (a good cup or a bit more)
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil (for browning onion), plus about 2 tablespoons neutral oil for browning meat
- salt to taste
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 - 4 garlic cloves, sliced or minced (optional; not traditional in pörkölt, but tasty)
- ~2½ pounds lean stewing beef (bottom or top round are excellent choices; quantity need not be exact)
- ~4 cups beef stock (you can substitute water; see Notes)
- 2 - 3 teaspoons paprika (fresh is better; see headnote)
- ¼ teaspoon whole caraway seeds, crushed
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1 medium green pepper
- 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch to thicken gravy (very optional and not traditional; see Notes)
- 4 tablespoons water (for mixing cornstarch; optional)
- chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
- Peel the onion and cut into ½-inch dice. Place a 3-quart Dutch oven (or similar heavy pot) on a burner, and heat on medium until hot (about 2 minutes). When hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and allow to heat (it will ripple when ready; this takes only a few seconds). Add the onion, salt and pepper to taste, and turn down the heat a bit. You want the onion to turn quite brown — this will take at least 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, peel and mince or slice the garlic. Add it to the onion during the last few minutes of the onion’s cooking time.
- While browning the onion, you can also begin browning the beef chunks. The better the crust you put on the beef chunks, the tastier the stew will be.
- Cut the beef into cubes of about an inch (remove excess fat and gristle as you go). Pat the beef chunks dry with paper towels (wet beef doesn’t brown), then lightly salt and pepper.
- Heat a large skillet on medium until hot (about 2 minutes). Add about 2 tablespoons of oil, allow to warm (this takes seconds with a hot skillet; the oil will ripple when ready), and add a few chunks of meat. Start with just 4 or 5 chunks at first, because the fat cools as you add the meat. When the fat returns to heat, add as many beef chunks as will fit comfortably in the hot frying pan. Do not crowd! The chunks should not be touching (if they do, they’ll steam rather than brown). Brown each chunk until the first side is a deep brown, then (using tongs) turn and brown another side. This will take at least 5 minutes for the first side, a bit less for subsequent sides. As each piece becomes fully browned, remove it to a plate that has been lined with a paper towel (to absorb excess grease). Add another piece to the skillet in its place (easy to do when all the pieces are cut to a uniform size — you know the next piece will fit). Continue (adding more oil if necessary) until all the beef chunks are browned.
- When the onions and beef are browned, add the beef to the Dutch oven containing the onion and garlic. Discard any remaining oil from the skillet you used to brown the meat. You should have a nice, brown crust on the bottom of the frying pan. Check to make sure the pan crust isn’t burned (if it is, discard it). Add a cup or so of beef stock to the skillet and deglaze the pan: Using a spoon or wooden spatula, scrape the brown crusty bits off the bottom of the pan until they dissolve in the stock.
- When the crust is dissolved, add it to the Dutch oven with the onions and the meat. Add enough beef stock to barely cover the meat.
- Add the paprika, caraway seed (crush with the back of a spoon to help release its flavor), and dried marjoram. Bring to a simmer, and simmer for an hour.
- Meanwhile, clean and seed the green pepper, and cut into strips.
- At the hour mark, add the green pepper to the pot (just lay it on top). Open and drain the canned tomatoes, and add to the pot (again, just lay them on top). Add more stock if necessary, and continue simmering until the meat is tender (this should take about another hour – 2 hours total cooking time).
- If you wish to thicken the gravy, mix corn starch with cold water (make sure you completely dissolve the corn starch). Remove the Dutch oven/casserole from the heat, and add about half of the corn starch mixture. Stir to incorporate — it will thicken almost immediately. If the sauce is still not thick enough (it may not be), add more of the corn starch mixture until the sauce is as thick as you like.
- Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve with an optional garnish of chopped parsley sprinkled on top.
- Beef stock is really better than plain water in this dish, IMO. You can either use canned beef stock, or dissolve some beef base in hot water. Beef base is a paste sold in jars. I find it superior to canned stock (and much superior to bouillon cubes). Most supermarkets carry this product in the soup aisle. My favorite is Better than Bouillon, although there are other good brands out there (I have no association with this brand other than being a happy customer).
- If you want to make a pork or veal pörkölt, you can follow this same basic recipe. Use water instead of beef stock, but otherwise everything else is the same.
- Traditionally, the stock for this dish isn’t thickened. If you prefer to do so, however, cornstarch makes a good, flavor-neutral thickener that’s quick and easy. It also adds a bit of glossiness to the dish, which some regard as a positive, others as a negative. The pictures in this post include examples with and without the thickened gravy.
- If you don’t have caraway seed, you really should get some to make this dish. Caraway seed adds a little flavor on its own, but when combined with paprika, the effect is startlingly good. It’s really not an optional ingredient in pörkölt.
- Paprika is an important spice in Hungary, and many Hungarian recipes require it. Hungarian paprika is often rather hot, but there’s a sweet version available (it has the same flavor, just not the heat). The sweet variety is what I see most often in supermarkets.
- Pörkölt and gulyás are two traditional Hungarian dishes that use paprika. But gulyás has much more liquid and often contains potatoes. Noodles, not spätzle, are the typical accompaniment.
- There are two other Hungarian stew-like dishes that contain paprika and have a flavor similar to pörkölt. One is Paprikás Stew, which is usually made with chicken or veal (it’s essentially pörkölt with sour cream added at the end). Probably the best known dish of this type is Chicken Paprikash (a/k/a Chicken Paprikás; also called Paprikás Csirke).
- The other dish, called Tokány, contains meat that often is cut into pieces about 2 inches long but only a quarter of an inch thick. It contains very little added liquid — the meat essentially stews in its own juices. The most famous example of this dish is Seven Chieftians Tokány (Hét Vezér Tokány). According to legend, this dish got its name because each of the seven tribes of Hungary contributed an ingredient.
The Buddy System
Our Hungarian feast was in full swing at Kitchen Riffs central. We had finished our Hungarian Cucumber Salad and moved on to the main course: Beef Pörkölt served with our own Homemade Spätzle.
“Gosh, this is some wonderful grub,” said Mrs Kitchen Riffs. “It’s hard to say which I like better, the pörkölt or the spätzle.”
“They’re both super,” I said, glancing across the table.
That’s when I noticed Mrs K R pointing at her chin. “Time for a swipe,” she said cheerily. “It’s heading for your top button.”
Our napkin pact! Something we always invoke when eating this dish.
“Thanks,” I said, wiping gravy away in the nick of time.
Ah, pörkölt. Eat it with someone you trust.
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Hungarian Cucumber Salad
Hungarian Noodles and Cabbage
Homemade Pasta and Noodles
Red Beans and Rice
Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes
Pasta e Fagioli