This 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 chunks (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
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.