Citizens, your beloved and glorious leader occasionally enjoys the end-results of a successful hunt, with the pastorally-grazed wild meats frequently ending up in this recipe of renown – Bigos!
Frequently translated into English as hunter’s stew, this is a Polish dish of finely-chopped meat of various kinds stewed with sauerkraut and shredded fresh cabbage. The dish is also traditional in Belarusian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian cuisine.
The principal ingredients are assorted kinds of meat chopped into bite-sized chunks and a mixture of sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and shredded fresh white cabbage. The meats may include pork (ham, shoulder, bacon, ribs, loin, etc.), beef and veal, poultry (chicken, duck, goose, turkey) and game, as well as charcuterie, especially various kinds of kiełbasa, or Polish smoked sausage.
The variety of meats is considered essential for good bigos; its preparation may be a good occasion to clean out one’s freezer and use up leftovers from other meat dishes. Some of the meats may be roasted before being diced together with other cuts of meat and braised in lard or vegetable oil.
As noted by my dear friend and master of all Polish goodness John Biggs: “The key is to point out that this isn’t WET. It’s not a stew in the traditional sense but the bigos should be almost dry with a reduction of all the flavors coating it, like a carbonara. If it’s too wet the meat falls apart and makes a mess and it isn’t bigos.”
Take due note, Citizens!
The sauerkraut is often rinsed and drained before being chopped and mixed with shredded fresh cabbage. The proportion depends on the sauerkraut’s maturity – the longer it has cured, the more sour it tastes, calling for more fresh cabbage to balance the flavor. Other ingredients often added include onions, diced and browned in lard together with the meat, and dried forest mushrooms that are precooked separately in boiling water.
The stew is usually seasoned with salt, black peppercorns, allspice, juniper berries and bay leaves. Some recipes also call for caraway, cloves, garlic, marjoram, mustard seeds, nutmeg, paprika and thyme.
The tart flavor of sauerkraut may be enhanced by adding some dry red wine or beet sour (fermented beetroot juice that is also a traditional ingredient of borscht), which may impart a reddish hue to the stew. Bigos is often slightly sweetened with sugar, honey, raisins, prunes or plum butter (known in Polish as powidła).
Traditionally, bigos is stewed in a cauldron over an open fire or in a large pot on a stove, but it may also be prepared in an electric slow cooker. The contents should be stirred from time to time, to prevent scorching, which may impart a bitter taste to the entire batch. The stew is considered best after it has been repeatedly refrigerated and reheated to allow the flavors to fuse.
In the region of Greater Poland, bigos typically contains tomato paste and is seasoned with garlic and marjoram. Kuyavian bigos is often made from red cabbage as well as white. In Silesia, it is usually mixed with kopytka or kluski, that is, small plain boiled dumplings made from unleavened dough that contains flour and mashed potatoes.
A variant which contains julienned apples, preferably with a winey tart taste, such as Antonovka, is known as Lithuanian bigos and is typical for the territory of the erstwhile Grand Duchy of Lithuania (now Belarus and Lithuania).
In bigos myśliwski, or “hunter’s bigos”, at least part of the meat comes from game, such as wild boar, venison or hare. It is usually seasoned with juniper berries, which help neutralize off-flavors that may be found in the meat of wild animals.
Bigos is particularly associated with major Catholic holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, as it can be prepared in ample quantities beforehand and only reheated on the holiday itself and the following days.
The stew is typically dished up with rye bread or boiled potatoes. In a fancier setting, it may be served in stoneware bowls, puff pastry shells or bread bowls.
Bigos, especially when enjoyed outdoor, is traditionally paired with shots of chilled vodka, either clear or flavored. Varieties of flavored vodka that match well with bigos include żubrówka, jałowcówka (juniper), piołunówka (wormwood), Goldwasser (various herbs) and starka (oak-aged). If served at home or in a restaurant, the stew may be washed down with beer, red wine or Riesling.
Bigos made entirely of meat and exotic spices was affordable only to the affluent Polish nobility. The 18th century saw the development of a poor man’s version of the dish, known as bigos hultajski, or “rascal’s bigos”, in which vinegar and lemon juice were replaced with cheaper sauerkraut as the source of tartness.
Sauerkraut and cabbage also acted as a filler allowing to reduce the amount of meat in the dish. Rascal’s bigos became common during the reign of King Augustus III of Poland (r. 1734–1763). Over the course of the 19th century, its rise in popularity continued as the proportion of meat decreased in favor of sauerkraut, eventually superseding all other kinds of bigos and losing the disparaging epithet in the process.
Citizens, my version of the dish is both traditional and profound – I truly hope you enjoy this classic recipe!
Battle on – The Generalissimo