Polish Hunter’s Stew

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Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

A stew with sauerkraut, a whole head of cabbage, and 3 types of pork? You should have seen my dad’s eyes when I told him Hank was making this recipe for us. Enjoy. ~Elise

Also known as bigos, this hearty, cabbage and pork-based stew has been called the national dish of Poland. It definitely has an Eastern European feel to it: Cabbage and sauerkraut, lots of different meats—many of the them smoked—and a variety of mushrooms. Anyone who knows anything about Eastern Europe knows they are mad about mushrooms.

Apparently the original bigos was made with wild game, but over the centuries—the dish is said to be close to 700 years old—it has become a stew of many domestic meats. Smoked sausage, mostly kielbasa, is a given, as is either bacon or a smoked ham hock. Fresh sausages, pork shoulder, veal or beef are also used.

Polish Hunter's Stew

You should know that there is no one set way to make bigos. Every cook has her own secrets, and so far as I can tell, the only constants are: many different meats, cabbage, mushrooms and black pepper. There are two main branches to the dish, one using tomatoes and tomato paste, the other using prunes. I decided on prunes here.

A word on the sauerkraut. While you can make this dish with vinegared sauerkraut, you will need to rinse and wash it several times to remove most of the vinegary taste. You should spend some effort to find simple brined sauerkraut, which is kept refrigerated. Bubbies is an excellent brand.

Use as many different kinds of mushrooms as you can, and definitely try to find dried porcini – most bigos recipes call for it. We used, dried wild mushrooms, fresh cremini mushrooms and a “chef’s sampler” pack of fresh mushrooms for this recipe.

Polish Hunter’s Stew Recipe

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  • Prep time: 40 minutes
  • Cook time: 3 hours
  • Yield: Serves 10 to 12

I used beer as the liquid, although lots of people use red wine. If you are making the tomato-based version, skip the beer and use the can of tomato sauce. If you cannot drink alcohol, use some beef stock.

Ingredients

  • 1 ounce dried porcini or other wild mushrooms
  • 2 Tbsp bacon fat or vegetable oil
  • 2 pounds pork shoulder
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 head cabbage (regular, not savoy or red), chopped
  • 1 1/2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms
  • 1-2 pounds kielbasa or other smoked sausage
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • 1 pound fresh Polish sausage (optional)
  • 1 25-ounce jar of fresh sauerkraut (we recommend Bubbies, which you may be able to find in the refrigerated section of your local supermarket)
  • 1 bottle of pilsner or lager beer
  • 1 Tbsp juniper berries (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp caraway seeds
  • 2 Tbsp dried marjoram
  • Salt
  • 20 prunes, sliced in half (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce (optional)
  • 1-2 Tbsp mustard or horseradish (optional)

Method

1 Pour hot tap water over the dried mushrooms and submerge them for 20-40 minutes, or until soft. Grind or crush the juniper berries and black peppercorns roughly; you don’t want a powder. Cut the pork shoulder into large chunks, about 2 inches. Cut the sausages into similar-sized chunks. Drain the sauerkraut and set aside. Clean off any dirt from the mushrooms and cut them into large pieces; leave small ones whole.

2 Heat the bacon fat or vegetable oil in a large lidded pot for a minute or two. Working in batches if necessary, brown the pork shoulder over medium-high heat. Do not crowd the pan. Set the browned meat aside.

3 Put the onion and fresh cabbage into the pot and sauté for a few minutes, stirring often, until the cabbage is soft. Sprinkle a little salt over them. The vegetables will give off plenty of water, and when they do, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. If you are making the tomato-based version, add the tomato paste here. Once the pot is clean and the cabbage and onions soft, remove from the pot and set aside with the pork shoulder.

4 Add the mushrooms and cook them without any additional oil, stirring often, until they release their water. Once they do, sprinkle a little salt on the mushrooms. When the water is nearly all gone, add back the pork shoulder, the cabbage-and-onion mixture, and then everything else except the prunes. Add the beer, if using, or the tomato sauce if you're making the tomato-based version. Stir well to combine.

5 You should not have enough liquid to submerge everything. That’s good: Bigos is a “dry” stew, and besides, the ingredients will give off more liquid as they cook. Bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for at least 2 hours.

6 Bigos is better the longer it cooks, but you can eat it once the ham hock falls apart. Check at 2 hours, and then every 30 minutes after that. When the hock is tender, fish it out and pull off the meat and fat from the bones Discard the bones and the fat, then chop the meat roughly and return to the pot. Add the prunes and cook until they are tender, at least 30 more minutes.

Bigos is best served simply, with rye bread and a beer. If you want a little kick, add the mustard or horseradish right before you eat it. Bigos improves with age, too, which is why this recipe makes so much: Your leftovers will be even better than the stew was on the first day.

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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank

Links:

Crockpot bigos - A slow-cooker version, from Doris and Jilly Cook

Vegetarian bigos - from Coffee and Vanilla

Polish Hunter's Stew

Showing 4 of 38 Comments

  • Joanna Baliszewska

    They actually have bigos at IKEA in Poland ,and pretty damn good too !

  • Gail C.

    Could you use a smoked pork shoulder in this recipe? I’ve only seen huge pork shoulders at the supermarket, and I think they call them a Picnic ham? Please set me straight!

  • Ben Salnikowski

    I visited relatives in Poland recently and ate Bigos at every opportunity. There were never two the same. One was even with chicken meat [definitely not my favorite] My mother always added some bay leaves but otherwise Polish sausage and pork hock were standard. I still try to use her recipe but somehow hers tasted better.

  • Kerri

    Can you freeze the left overs ?

  • Agarw

    My grandparents are polish and we eat bigos every christmas, I think you’re right every family has its own version. We don’t use that many types of pork, instead we add some beef cut up in squares, as well as cubed apples instead of prunes or tomato paste. I needs to be made a couple of days in advance as you want to color to change from caramel brown to a darker brown, that’s when its the best!

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