Research: Goulash

Friday, March 24, 2017
I love paprika, but I am far from its only fan. Paprika is especially popular in Hungary (the plant that yields it has been grown in Budapest since 1529), and frankly, I don't have a lot of experience with the best-known use of it: Goulash. Goulash is the national dish of Hungary, though it’s a popular dish worldwide. Paprika is the sole defining feature of goulash – all of its other components are variable. Paprika was used from the very beginning; the first recorded goulash recipe in 1748 specifically recommended its use. Hungary loves paprika so much that they haven’t even restricted its use to the culinary world. During the 1831 cholera epidemic, Hungarians used red paprika powder, red paprika schnapps, and red paprika wine as medicine. I can’t recommend following this treatment regimen for any illness you might contract, though, so let’s stick to paprika’s use in goulash.

There seems to be some internet confusion over whether it’s more properly referred to as a soup or a stew, so let’s indulge in some research history. Let’s see… Goulash is eaten hot, served as a main dish, and though paprika is the most important ingredient, its flavors center around the meat and vegetables. Survey says: Stew.

Goulash traces back to the 9th century, to stews eaten by Hungarian shepherds. Cooked and flavored meat was dried with the help of the sun, and packed into bags made from sheep stomachs. Just add water, and the meal is complete. In fact, the word goulash derives from gulya, which is Hungarian for “herd of cattle”. Goulash can be made from pretty much any meat, from beef to veal to pork to lamb. It’s typically made from shank, shin, or shoulder cuts. Those cuts are rich in collagen, and when they break down, the collagen converts to gelatin, giving goulash its thick texture. This may be why goulash is one of the few stews that does not rely on flour or roux as a base.

The meat is cut into chunks, seasoned with salt, and then browned with sliced onion in a pot with oil (or lard, if you’re going old-school). Paprika is added, along with water or stock, and then left to simmer. Then you add garlic, whole or ground caraway seed, and vegetables such as carrots, parsley roots, bell peppers, or celery. Other herbs and spices are also generally added (chili pepper, bay leaf, and thyme, usually). Diced potatoes are a popular addition, since they provide starch as they cook, which makes the goulash thicker and smoother. A small amount of white wine or wine vinegar may also be added near the end of cooking to round out the taste. Modern cooks have also started adding tomato, but those are not included in “traditional” goulash. Once it’s done, the goulash can be served with egg noodles, called csipetke in Hungary. Csipetke are not a side of pasta, though. They’re prepared by boiling them in the goulash itself.

Those are just the basics of Hungarian goulash. There are tons of variations:

Gulyás à la Székely: Reduces the amount of potatoes, and adds sauerkraut and sour cream.

Gulyás Hungarian Plain Style: Omits the csipetke, and adds vegetables.

Mock Gulyás: Substitutes beef bones for the meat, and adds vegetables. Also called Hamisgulyás (Fake Goulash).

Bean Gulyás: Omits the potatoes and the caraway seeds, and uses kidney beans instead.

Csángó Gulyás: Adds sauerkraut, and omits the csipetke and potatoes.

Betyár Gulyás. Uses smoked beef or smoked pork for the meat.

Likócsi Pork Gulyás: Uses pork and thin vermicelli in the goulash instead of potatoes and csipetke, and is flavored with lemon juice.

Mutton Gulyás: Uses mutton as the meat, and adds red wine for flavor. Also called Birkagulyás.

There are also countless variations on goulash in other countries. Since I'm writing this from America, I’ll just mention American goulash briefly. The American tweak is a casserole mentioned in cookbooks dating back to 1914, and has plenty of its own variations. Originally it was a seasoned beef dish, but now usually includes various kinds of pasta (usually macaroni or egg noodles), ground beef cooked with onions/garlic, and tomatoes. Cheese, melted into the dish during the cooking process, can also be added. Now that’s American. At least we have the good grace to maintain the use of paprika to connect it back to its Hungarian origins.

How about putting this research to good use? Instead of the usual pot roast or meatloaf at your next dinner party, how about trying out a hearty goulash? Your guests will thank you! Maybe even in Hungarian.