Sunday, October 16, 2011

Braised beef and boiled bread.

Sauerbraten, with semmelknodel and rotkohl. © Ryan Schierling
Friday night cooking show / with a horse meat dish / I had to stay in the freezer / all Thursday eve talking to that horse – The Dead Milkmen, "Dean's Dream"

I've never been known to skimp when it comes to the authenticity of a dish, but I swear there was no horse involved in this meal. Historically though, horse meat (or venison) was used when preparing sauerbraten. Maybe horse is how they did things in Germany when it's longingly, nostalgically referred to as the "old country," but I'm betting they go for das Rindfleisch nowadays.

This is a traditional meal that your Oma might cook from her grandmother's recipe cards, that you – being four generations removed from the Fatherland – give a wrinkled nose and a sideways glance before pushing it around on your plate for half an hour because German food is just so… bland.

Really? What do you need? An Oktoberfest oom-pah band, a 72 oz. Spaten and a busty beer wench that looks like the St. Pauli girl slugging you in the belly with a bratwurst brickbat?

Don't be such a tourist. Mass-market ethnic cuisine is so diluted in the United States that we're already beginning to associate the lowest common denominator with authenticity. On The Border = Mexican. Olive Garden = Italian. P.F. Chang's = Chinese. Where do you go for American food? Old Country Buffet?

German food is not easy. Most times, it is not pretty. 

It is, for the most part, a heavy, filling cuisine that American restaurants do poorly. It's difficult to find homemade pungent, puckering sauerkraut, fresh caraway-flecked sausages, sinus-imploding mustards... and when's the last time you saw choucroute garnie on a menu? We tried... but disappointed by German fare in Fredericksburg, Texas (a bastion of German-Texan heritage) on more than one occasion, I decided we were going to do this on our own – starting with sauerbraten. I consulted dozens of recipes and tried to distill the essence of what really made sauerbraten so special. What were the historic similarities? What were the regional differences? Why were there differences?

When the roast went into the Dutch oven to brown, the olfactory nostalgia began. Adding the marinade the beef had rested in for the last three days filled the kitchen with a memory for me. I don't know if I really recall eating sauerbraten as a child, but if I did, it was probably at a Schierling family gathering and the preparation smelled exactly like this – rich, savory, sweet and full of red wine and vinegar.

All afternoon the house felt like Fall married with the scent of comfort food, and I couldn't wait to tuck into a plate of beef and gravy.

Julie made semmelknodel, a simple and traditional German boiled bread dumpling. Sweet and sour red cabbage with green apple simmered on the stovetop. When everything came together it was... authentic German. Or so I imagine. 

Truth be told, this might have been a little too German for me. The roast was tangy and tender, and the gravy complemented the beef well, but it was almost bracing. Authentically bracing? I don't know. I figured the sugar and the gingersnaps would have sweetened the rich, acidic sauce just enough, but it didn't seem to work out that way. A straight-up pan gravy made with beef stock probably would have been more pleasing to my palate, but that wouldn't be sauerbraten now, would it?

German food might be tough to love, but I'm going to keep trying. It's in my blood somewhere. I'm sure of it.


1 3-4 lb. boneless bottom round beef roast

1 c. dry red wine
1 1/2 c. red wine vinegar
1 1/2 c. water
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 tbs. crushed black peppercorns
1 tbs. crushed juniper berries
1 tbs. mustard seed
1 tbs. whole allspice
1 tbs. whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1 bay leaf
2 tbs. salt

2 tbs. butter
5 carrots, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
2 tbs. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. water
12-14 gingersnap cookies, crumbled

Combine all marinade ingredients in a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Place the roast in the bag, remove as much air as possible before sealing. Place the bagged roast into a large bowl (just in case the bag leaks) and refrigerate for 3 days, turning the bag over twice daily.

After the beef is done marinating, remove from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade and reserve the liquid, discarding the onions and spices.

In a large, heavy Dutch oven, heat the butter until it stops bubbling and brown the roast on all sides. Transfer beef to a large platter and set aside.

Add the onions, carrots and celery to the Dutch oven and saute for 6-8 minutes over medium heat, until the vegetables are soft. Sprinkle 2 tbs. flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes longer. Pour in 2 c. of the reserved marinade and 1/2 c. water and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Once the liquid has boiled, turn down the heat to a low simmer, return the beef roast to the Dutch oven and put a lid on it. Simmer over low heat until the meat shows no resistance when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 4 hours.

Move the roast to a clean platter and cover with aluminum foil.

Pour the liquid from the Dutch oven into a large measuring cup or bowl and skim any fat off. You will need 2-3 cups for the sauerbraten gravy.

Combine the liquid with the sugar and the gingersnap crumbles in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for 10 minutes. Allow the gingersnaps to completely dissolve and thicken the sauce. If it's too thick, add a bit of the remaining reserved marinade. If too thin, add more gingersnap crumbs. Strain the vegetables out of the sauce through a sieve or strainer, pressing the liquid through with the back of a wooden spoon. Return liquid to saucepan, adjust seasoning and simmer over low heat until you are ready to serve it.

Slice the beef roast, pour gravy over the slices.


  1. Having been to Germany, I'll heartily second the dilution of German food in the U.S. And you can add dilution of almost every other type of food from foreign countries.

    I'd imagine it would taste much better with actual horse meat. I never found it in Germany, but I've had it numerous times in Italy, where it's a fairly common staple in restaurants. And yes, it's delicious - an earthy, aromatic meat that hearkens to new hay and freshly cleaned stables on the farm.

  2. I think it's getting better with the rise of the über food-conscious as far as authenticity goes. There are places out there, but you really have to seek them out, ask for them, and then the chances are someone's done it and food-blabbed (blogged) about it, which helps.

    But for every "keepin' it real" Armenian mom and pop joint, there are a hundred bullshit byorek carts out there.

    Just kidding. And regarding the horse, everything in moderation!


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