GÚLYAS: Hungarian Goulash

This was sent to the Chefs on the Internet Mailing List by Steve Holzinger <holzinger@sable.adelphi.edu>, author of the column "eGGsalad" in the online food magazine eGG, the electronic Gourmet Guide:

No chef worth his salt can resist putting his two cents in on a discussion of goulash!

Gúlyas, and I refer to the kind that is known as "Hungarian Goulash", is in my mind an excellent example of culinary confusion. The confusion, of course, is in my mind, not the minds of others. They are perfectly clear on this subject. Ingredients like flour and tomatoes, and adding the potatoes near the end of the cooking process are all OK. Sources so reputable and classical as Escoffier and Larousse are certain of this. I'm not!

I once worked for a Hungarian Chef. Hungarian, born and bred, Karl taught me that there were certain unchangeable rules for making goulash:

  1. No Flour
  2. No Tomatoes!
Real Hungarian Goulash, according to Karl, got its savor and color from paprika, in generous amounts, and was thickened only by the potatoes that cooked with the meat. In later years, when I worked at the Jager Haus on Lexington Avenue in New York City, we had Hungarian Goulash on the menu all the time. The reason I'm confused is that at Die Jager Haus we made the Hungarian Goulash in just about the same way Karl had taught me some years before. So, quite naturally, it seemed to me that this was the right way to do it. What do you think causes the different styles? The two classical sources I quoted, and which I have the greatest respect for, are after all, French, and we are talking about Hungarian Goulash.

What goulash really is is an excellent example of is the fond de cuisine of moist heat stewing of meat. Beef stew is another, and I will cover it under pot pies, one of my favorite meals. Goulash Soup, by the way, is made just like goulash, but everything is cut in small dice that can fit in the bowl of a spoon, and the broth is the major ingredient in terms of volume.

We cut large chunks (3-4 oz each) of shin beef for this recipe. This makes a great deal of sense, as well exercised tough muscles like shin (lower leg) develop a great deal of flavor. The toughness of the meat is rendered tender by moist heat cooking. The connective tissue in the meat, collagen, is what holds the muscle fibers together. The more exercised the muscle, the more collagen is developed to hold the fibers. When we cook such meat in water, slowly at simmering temperatures, (180F) the water combines with the collagen to form water soluble gelatin. This makes the meat tender -- sometimes too tender if we cook too long. The fibers separate...the meat becomes "stringy". There is a dish called Ropa de Viejo, "Old Mans Clothes", where the meat is cooked this way and then shredded.

Using large chunks of shin implies two things. First, the finished dish will have a rich 'beefy' flavor. Oxtails are an even better example of a meat that gives this intense flavor. Can you think why? The second idea is that, seeing as the meat is in large chunks and we are going to cook it slowly in water or stock, the cooking time will be long, as compared to the same meat in smaller chunks. This goes back to the ideas in "Boiling Water". If we add chunks of potato at the same time as the meat, the potato, having a shorter cooking time will overcook. When a starchy vegetable like potato overcooks, it thickens the liquid it is in.

Are you beginning to see that the natural properties of the foods we cook determine the techniques we use, and thus the results? It cannot be otherwise, but it is worth noting. The words we use to describe our technique are technical terms, jargon if you will. Specific words have special meanings, sometimes detailing a complicated process. Stew, for example, means that there will be chunks of food, cooked immersed in liquid, at simmering (180F) temperatures. Oddly enough, simmering temperatures keep the meat moist and juicy, but if you boil (212 °F) a stew the meat will be dry. Long slow cooking is the ticket. This can even be taken to extremes. If you have ever made a stew in a crockpot, for many hours at lower than 180F you know how tender and juicy things get.

Stews can be white or brown. This goes back to the ideas we discussed under Mirepoix. Brown stews, like a goulash, have more robust flavors, with aromatic vegetables like onions and garlic, strong flavored fats like bacon or ham, and tomatoes to enrich and warm the brown color. Aha! Why do you need tomatoes for the warming red color when you are going to have lots of bright sunny red paprika,? So, no tomatoes, and no flour. Not needed!

At Jager Haus, we rolled the beef chunks in a pan of Kingred Hungarian Paprika. (Kingred is hot, Sunred is mild) so that they would take up as much paprika as could stick to them. Then we put the meat into a roast pan with diced onions, and an amazing amount of garlic, and poured some melted fat from the top of the brown stock over the meat, and mixed all well.

We used this fat for two reasons. It was free, we already had it, and it had just the right flavors from the brown stock. It was orange in color, having extracted the fat soluble color from the tomatoes. That color is always associated in my mind with Vitamin A, beta-carotene. The pan containing the meat and paprika, onions garlic and oil was put into a moderate oven and slowly the meat became brown and the onions melted and combined their fragrance with the garlic. The soul of this dish filled the kitchen, making mouth watering aromas. "What are you cooking that smells soooo good?" everyone who came into the kitchen would ask.

"A slow brown is a brown that stays on the meat," I was told by the chef. "Besides the darn paprika burns if you try to rush it.!" he said. When it was nice and brown, the meat was dumped into a 10 gallon pot on a candy stove, which is a low circular multiburner open stove, used by bakers, hence the name. Then diced Idaho potatoes were added, and the thick pot was filled with brown stock to cover the meat.

First the pot was brought to the boil quickly, and then the heat was lowered to just a bare simmer, and everything cooked slowly. As the fat rose to the top it would be skimmed off, and the contents of the pot were stirred with what looked like a canoe paddle. No binding of starch was used. The potato dice got kind of round edges and picked up the flavor of the meat, which was cooked to fork tender. Patrons were given the choice of buttered egg noodles or spatzle, which are little flour and egg dumplings, browned in butter. This dish was a big seller in that old fashioned German restaurant, where we went through a 10 gallon pot full each week. Sweet and sour red cabbage, made with wine and spices was a favorite side dish.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cut shin beef in large dice, as large as 2 inches square. In a large roast pan, roll the beef in paprika, generously coating all surfaces. Push it to one side.

Add the diced onions and garlic, and coat them too. Add melted fat from the brown stock, and toss all to coat well. There should be just one layer deep, so that everything can brown evenly.

Place in oven and allow to brown, stirring from time to time so that all surfaces color. Adjust oven heat as required to keep from burning, but don't let it be too cool or the meat will sweat out its juices. You should be able to heat the meat "singing softly in the pan." (A slight sizzling sound)

When the meat is brown, transfer it to a heavy pot, and add the peeled diced potatoes. Cover with brown stock, and bring to the boil. As soon as it boils, cut to a simmer. As fat and scum rises to the surface, skim it off from time to time. Stir gently from time to time. note: You could do the same in the oven, if the roast pan is deep enough, but evaporation is more rapid, so you will need to keep a pot of hot stock to replenish with.

When the meat is tender the potatoes will have rounded edges, where originally square. What ever thickening has taken place is what you want. This benefits from overnight refrigeration, so that the fat rises and forms a cap on the top. It will be bright orange, and is very nice for sautéing veal cutlets and the like. I like to grind onions and garlic and mix it with this fat to 'paint' chickens before roasting. The point is that this fat is very nice, everywhere but in the goulash. Remove it.

Naturally, before serving, you will want to reseason it, salt first. If you used Kingred Hungarian paprika, I doubt you will want more pepper, unless you are a real chili head.

Serve this on top of buttered noodles or spaetzle.

Suggested Wine: Red Zinfandel or Beer.

NOTES : A very full bodied red wine will stand up to this dish. Wines that might be considered tannic otherwise will taste wonderful. Dark European beers will go well. Somewhere I remember some speculation that Zins might have had their origin in Hungary.  

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)