Bigos (Polish Sauerkraut and Meat Stew / Hunter’s Stew)

bigos_ppThis humble looking stew is in my opinion the most magical Polish dish and one of the most amazing dishes in the world. Simmered for long hours, in excellent company of herbs, spices and meats, sauerkraut is here in its full glory, creating surprising complex flavours, with a definite presence of umami. Even though it may not look or sound attractive, I don’t know anyone who would dislike good homemade bigos. I insist on “good” and “homemade” because even though it’s not difficult, bigos doesn’t stand shortcuts, cheating or industrial ready-to-reheat ersatz. It requires time, patience, care and love, easily recognisable through the final taste.

Bigos (pron. bee-goss) doesn’t mean “hunter’s stew”. It was called this way in English because it used to be served during hunts and at the time contain game (nowadays extremely rare), but the etymology of the Polish word is not certain. Bigos has a long ingredients list, takes several days to cook and tastes different in every house. Depending on the meat one chooses, bigos can be very rich and difficult to digest or – the way I prefer it – filling but low-calorie and healthy. Recipes are often meticulously respected and proudly kept secret because people develop their own methods throughout the years, regularly improving them (I do it too of course!). In theory bigos is an good way to use up Christmas leftovers (meats, cold cuts, sausages…), but it is the best when carefully planned, without accidental ingredients. Bigos tastes better reheated and even defrosted, so even though it’s time consuming, a big batch can be made well in advance and then treated as an emergency meal.

The obligatory ingredients (in my opinion, of course, because, as I said, everyone has a different recipe and I suppose different obligatory items) are: sauerkraut, fresh white cabbage to balance the sauerkraut’s acidity, onions, dried aromatic mushrooms (I mean not shiitake, cloud ear mushrooms or morels; penny buns (porcini/ceps) or other mushrooms from boletus genus are perfect here), smoked meat, smoked sausage, prunes and raw meat (if you can get game, it makes an exceptional bigos, extremely rare nowadays). Smoked cold meats are necessary to obtain a wonderful smokey aroma, typical of bigos. Marjoram is the typical Polish herb, so don’t skip it! The remaining ingredients depend on your preferences, but if you use fresh mushrooms instead of dried ones or skip smoked meat/sausage, you are making sauerkraut with mushrooms, not bigos.

TIPS: People rarely use sauerkraut alone and tame its acidity by fresh white cabbage; the ratio of both depends on the cook’s preferences and on the sauerkraut’s acidity. Sauerkraut is sold in plastic bags, plastic containers, jars or loose, from a bigger container. It is also popular for example in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Switzerland and France, but its acidity varies. I would strongly advise against French sauerkraut which from my repeated experience is not sour and rather bland. Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and German sauerkrauts are quite similar in taste, in level of acidity and perfect for this dish. In short, bigos can vary from very sour to sweet, depending on how much fresh cabbage is added.

Remember to buy raw sauerkraut (in certain countries it’s sometimes sold precooked).

The seasoning and even meat or cabbage amounts can be adjusted during the cooking process (for example on the second day).

The orange specks you see at the photograph are grated carrots (sauerkraut, at least in Poland, is often fermented with carrots).

If the third day you realise the sauerkraut is too acid, you can always add more sliced and precooked fresh white cabbage and simmer several more hours. You can also add more prunes to make it sweeter.

Preparation: three days (several hours of simmering each day)

Ingredients (serves six):

1 kg (about 2 lbs) sauerkraut, drained (don’t throw the brine: keep it to adjust the taste -see below – or simply drink it: it’s delicious!)

1 medium white cabbage, thinly sliced (you might need to buy a second cabbage the following day if the result proves too acid for you; you will know better how much raw cabbage to add next time)

2 medium onions, sliced

1 chicken leg, skinned + 200 g/about 7 oz raw pork cut into chunksย (tenderloin is my favourite here) or 2 chicken legs or any raw meats of your choice, except for lamb, mutton and goat

200 g/about 7 oz smoked sausage or smoked pork cold cuts, or a mixture of both, cut into pieces

a handful of dried aromatic mushrooms

a handful of prunes, chopped

20 juniper corns, crushed or ground

1/2 l (about 2 cups) light chicken stock or water

salt, pepper

chilli in powder

250 ml (about 1 cup) red wine

3 garlic cloves, crushed

4 flat tablespoons dried marjoram

soy sauce or maggi sauce

1 bay leaf

Place dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water.
When the water cools (don’t throw it away! it retains a very precious mushroom aroma!), cut the mushrooms up and place both – the soaking water and mushrooms – in a big pan.

Taste the sauerkraut and if it’s very acid, drain it, but keep the brine in the fridge (just in case you need to make your bigos more sour, otherwise, if you don’t use it after one day, you can also drink it: it’s delicious and healthy).

Slice the onion, chop the garlic and place them in a big pan (the one where you have already placed soaked mushrooms + soaking water). Add the stock (or water), the sauerkraut, the spices, the meats, the sausage and/or the cold cuts.

If you are doing it for the first time, add at the beginning only 1/3 of the fresh sliced cabbage.

Give the whole bigos mixture a delicate stir and simmer, covered – avoiding further stirring – for three hours, at very low heat.

After two hours add some red wine and give the bigos a delicate stir.

Taste the bigos and if it’s too sour, cook some more of the sliced fresh cabbage separately in a pan (about 10 minutes) and combine with the bigos (without the water). The amount you add depends on how sour the bigos is and how sour you want the final result to be. You can always repeat this quick cooking and adding process (the taste changes also depending on the prunes’ sweetness).

If the bigos is too sweet, add some sauerkraut brine you put aside at the beginning.

Let the bigos cool down and refrigerate.

Simmer the following day at least three hours, adding some water (1/2 l / about 2 cups ) at the beginning so that it doesn’t burn).

The second day, after simmering, remove the chicken leg bones and adjust the taste (add salt, pepper, chilli, more brine if it’s not sour enough or more cooked fresh cabbage if it’s too sour).

Simmer once more at least three hours the third day.

Bigos can be refrigerated for about a week or frozen, in individual portions.
It is excellent reheated and also defrosted.

Make sure you don’t burn it when reheating! (Add some water every time).

Serve hot with bread.

34 Replies to “Bigos (Polish Sauerkraut and Meat Stew / Hunter’s Stew)”

  1. I have a feeling i’ve tasted something like this once long time ago and from what I can remember it tasted fantastic! I didn’t know it takes this long to make, but hey, good things are worth waiting for, aren’t they? ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. One of the longest recipes I have ever seen. Sounds hearty, great for cold nights. I guess considering time and effort required, its probably not interesting to prepare a portion enough for 1-2 servings.
    “Bigos tastes better reheated and even defrosted” – sounds like its ideal for companies to make in large quantities and sell through ready to heat frozen packs in supermarkets.

    1. Strangely, I have never seen it frozen in Polish supermarkets (though it exists sold in jars), but maybe recently some industrial producer has had this idea… To be frank it’s less fussy to prepare than say a risotto: you just put it at low heat three days in a row and it cooks itself.

  3. With all of those ingredients, the flavor must be wonderful. I love these types of food where you can reheat and reheat and would taste the same or better. Have a great week, Sissi! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. This delightful sounding stew has so many elements that I’m drawn to and I don’t come across many stews from this part of the world that call for sauerkraut and fresh cabbage… how great! Prunes are delicious in stews and savoury dishes as well aren’t they? (not just in our beloved chocolate ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) — I make a chicken and prune dish that we really enjoy. Love the sounds of this one Sissi – full-flavoured and satisfying.

    1. Thanks a lot, Kelly. This is a wonderful dish indeed. Some people say it’s the hallmark Polish dish. (Yes, I also love prunes for being so versatile: in both savoury and sweet dishes).

  5. I have never made Polish dish before. My husband actually like sauerkraut so I’m very curious about taste. And I love prune. I made appetizer with it.

  6. What a delightful stew Sissi, the sour taste of the sauerkraut definitely brings my “wild meat” dish to mind, although that one does use vinegar. Knowing your taste profile, I think this would be delicious. I adore marjoram although 4 tablespoons seems a bit excessive, even for me. Did you mean teaspoons? The stew image is lovely, you have captured a particularly lovely light in this shot and the moody right side sets the tone for this rich and delightful stew.
    I have a recipe from Martha Stewart’s mother for a Pork Loin with marjoram and prunes and the combination is mesmerizing! I can see how well it would work with the sour taste of the sauerkraut. Not surprisingly, I have often made braised red cabbage with the Roast Loin of Pork, the flavours just go so well together! Now you have me craving this dish and sadly I have already made the menu plan for the following days but I will definitely add it to the list for next week, we haven’t had that dish for quite some time. Thank you for the inspiration.

    1. Thank you so much, Eva. Yes, it’s 4 tablespoons! It’s a big pan of very strong-flavoured products. If you want to feel some herbs, you need to put a lot of them (and I usually add more the second day). It’s not a delicately seasoned subtle dish ๐Ÿ˜‰ (Marjoram also makes the cabbage easier to digest.)
      Marjoram is, as I have said, very important in Polish cuisine (it’s like thyme in French/Italian). I always sprinkle marjoram on my pork roasts, so I’m not surprised the recipe called for marjoram.
      I hope you will make this one day. Just remember: no shortcuts and three days of cooking ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. I had also forgotten to mention a curious coincidence! I virtually never buy sauerkraut, not because I don’t love it, but because I do and my husband’s tolerance is limited so I usually end up eating it all! The coincidence is that I just bought sauerkraut on Saturday for a dish we were going to have Sunday but didn’t! So we are having it today instead! Isn’t it fun how things align in the world?

    1. What a coincidence! It’s so funny! (I love sauerkraut so much, I open the jar and eat it raw… It’s packed with vitamin C, so apparently such an “attack” on its raw version is very healthy ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). In POland we also make a kind of raw sauerkraut salad with grated carrot and a pinch of sugar for some sweetness. It’s served as a side dish.

  8. You’ve made me wonder now whether it’s possible to buy sauerkraut here! I don’t think I ever saw it before, but worst case scenario I could make it myself. My wife has done that once or twice with great success. Have you tried to do it yourself before?

    I love how warm your dish looks – the colour just makes it seem so filling and hearty!

    1. Thank you, Charles (you are very kind once more, but I know bigos looks awful for those who have never had it ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). I have never made it. My grandmother used to, but it was a long process (she made a huge batch), much longer than kimchi because it’s much more sour (at least in Poland). How much time did your wife ferment the cabbage?
      I did prepare fermented cucumbers several times though. Very easy and quick, but it requires special variety.
      PS In Sweden there are many Polish shops. Sauerkraut is one of their basic sales I suppose… I don’t know if in your region there are Polish shops too.

  9. Interestingly there is a similar Chinese dish I cook all the time. It calls homemade cabbage pickles but I always use sauerkraut as a substitute. I guess this is why people say food is the universal language! I’ll definitely try this bigos dish as it does call for a few different ingredients and I already know that I’ll love this dish! Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Amazing! I also often think that world of cooking is so small! Actually when I keep kimchi for several months, it starts to have a taste very close to sauerkraut (minus the spices of course). I am very curious about this Chinese dish you mention… have you posted it?

  10. This is so tasty Sissi! I wish I could find sauerkraut here! I would make it in a snap. I think I must make a research to see if I can find it. This is a delicious stew and it is perfect especially these days which are very cold here!

    1. Thank you, Katerina. If it was easier to transport, I would happily send you a jar of sauerkraut! (If there are any Russian shops in Greece, you might find it…).

  11. Thanks for sharing this very interesting Polish recipe, Sissi. My husband and I enjoy sauerkraut dishes and this is very different from anything we have had. My grandmother on my mother’s side was Polish and added sauerkraut juice to some of the dishes she preparedโ€ฆlike her stuffed cabbage which I requested for my birthday each year when she was alive. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thank you so much, Karen. I had no idea your grandmother was Polish! (I shouldn’t be surprised though: there are lots of people with Polish origins in the US). Bigos is considered by many Poles as THE national dish, so I hope you can taste/make it one day.

  12. Umami powiadasz… Przyznam, ze nie myslalam nigdy o bigosie w ten sposob. Ale chyba masz racje – to naprawde niepowtarzalny, bardzo ‘pelny’ smak. Nie jadlam juz wieki…

    Pozdrawiam serdecznie i milej niedzieli zycze!

    1. Czesc, Bea. Podejrzewalam dosc dlugo, ze umami, ale zanim napisalam, sprawdzilam jeszcze w internecie u wiekszych “specjalistow” ๐Ÿ˜‰ bo ja na umami tak bardzo sie nie znam… Sledzie tez podejrzewalam o umami i okazalo sie, ze mialam racje. Milego tygodnia zycze i pozdrawiam!

      1. Tadaaam!!! Nareszcie dostaje powiadomienia!!! Czy zmienilas cos od strony technicznej? czy to przez nowy hosting moze itp? Jestem bardzo ukontentowana ๐Ÿ˜‰
        A co do sledzi i umami, to faktycznie racja, choc ja za nimi i tak akurat niestety nie przepadam… (bigos to co innego ;)).
        Milego tygodnia! (ja mam wolne, wiec radosc wielka, mimo niezbyt sprzyjajacej aury…).

        1. Czesc Bea, niczego nie zmienilam…. Przykro mi, ze nie dostawalas powiadomien. Nie mam pojecia dlaczego. Milych wakacji! (U nas teraz pogoda bardzo ladna sie zrobila. Prawie wiosenna dzis ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

  13. Sissi, this is the most creative, unusual, and hearty sauerkraut dish that I’ve ever seen…seriously! Lucky for us here in S. Florida, we have an abundance sauerkraut available in our supermarkets. No one can miss it. Bags, and bags of fresh sauerkraut place next to the pork isle in their cooler, canned, and jarred ones, and even pickled ones (Kosher) in the refrigerated section. We have so many Eastern Europeans here, that it would be a ‘sin’ not to find any sauerkraut…enough said!

    Love your delicious and hearty stew, and the addition of the prunes, as well!

    1. Thank you so much, Elisabeth. It’s nothing original though: a rather typical Polish bigos… Though I admit, if you compare German or French way to cook sauerkraut, this one is very complex! I’m glad you have access to fresh sauerkraut. It’s very healthy when raw, did you know it? Lots of vitamin C! In some countries brine from sauerkraut is sold as healthy drink (even here in Switzerland).

  14. It’s a brand new dish for me, but I really love food that’s simmered for many hours. The flavor is amazing! I’m glad you introduced this dish; otherwise I’m not sure when I get to taste it or even know about it. Love to learn more dishes from you… the authentic ones. ๐Ÿ™‚

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