Polish Hunter’s Stew

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.

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

  • 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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Links:

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

bigos-b.jpg

49 Comments

  1. Magda

    I’m Polish and I always used to eat it when I was a kid. It’s still one of the most traditional Polish foods you can ever find, we eat plenty of sauerkraut in plenty of different ways.

  2. Tracy

    Wow this sounds amazing! My friend is Polish, and I would love to make this with him. One question: Are you using fresh or dried prunes here?

    Dried. ~Hank

  3. Oui, Chef

    It’s not the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen, but man does it sound delicious. Three types of pork……my heart’s racing just thinking about it. This will be a perfect ski-house recipe this winter. Thx – S

    Yeah, totally! It ain’t dainty, and while I was thinking about adding something nice and green to the stew, I did not see one recipe with fresh herbs in it. Even still, I’d add lots of parsley the next time. ~Hank

  4. grumblefish

    This sounds fantastic! I live in a very Eastern European area of Chicago, but have yet to run across this particular dish. I will admit to having a bit of a prune phobia though… Any ideas on the tomato variation?

    I’ve adjusted the recipe to include the tomato-based version. ~Hank

  5. Chip

    We make Polish Hunter’s Stew every Christmas Eve (we have Polish heritage). Our version actually does not include cabbage (even though you say every version you see does), and we use a dry white wine instead of beer or red wine. We will sometimes serve over boiled white potatoes. But as you say, there are many ways to make it. Include some rye bread on the side, maybe a side salad, and that’s a great meal.

  6. Jayme J.

    I really want to make this over the weekend. How would I make it w tomatoes instead of prunes? By using fresh cherry tomatoes in same way or is canned tomatoes to be used?

    Many of the tomato-based recipes I’ve read will use 1-3 tablespoons of tomato paste when they are sauteing the cabbage, and then some crushed tomatoes in the broth; maybe try adding 1 15-ounce can instead of the beer. ~Hank

  7. Al in SoCal

    I’m kind of worried about the sauerkraut – it’s not my favorite – is the taste of it in the stew really pungent or kind of mild?

    It’s pretty mild, but if you are a sauerkraut hater, just use more fresh cabbage. ~Hank

    • Diane

      You can also rinse the sauerkraut to weaken the flavour of it. I love sauerkraut so I dont rinse it, but I have heard of it being done that way too.

  8. kirsten

    Never heard of Bigos but am in love! Pork, pork, more pork, and mushrooms, what’s not to love! And juniper, and caraway and rye bread…umpf…that was me floating up to heaven! thanks for posting!

  9. Magdalena

    How wonderful, an authentic Polish recipe! Thanks very much for your attention to detail. I’m from Poland and this is almost exactly how we make bigos, except that we buy sauerkraut by the kilo from big barrels at the market or the greengrocer’s. For a real bigos, brined (not vinegared) sauerkraut is a must. The prunes really help balance the flavor, although some people use tomato paste instead.

    Traditionally, bigos is cooked over the course of a few days – cook for two hours, cool overnight, bring to a simmer, cool overnight, bring to a simmer again. The flavor improves (and gets stronger) as the ingredients meld and the spices release their flavors. If your bigos gets too strong, just add more rinsed sauerkraut or cabbage and bring to a simmer.

    In Poland, the proportion of sauerkraut to cabbage in bigos changes over the course of the year as the sauerkraut matures. In the early fall we make bigos with just sauerkraut, which at that time of year is freshly fermented and not too pungent. In winter and spring we add more and more cabbage because the sauerkraut has a stronger, more sour flavor. I’d say bigos should definitely have a tang, but that’s my personal preference.

  10. Joanne

    I make bigos for a Polish friend of mind for his birthday every year – last year we even had it for Thanksgiving dinner instead of the traditional spread because he was joining us. I use a recipe from Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table, which includes a roasted duck! I substitute a glug of gin for the juniper berries. It’s wonderful with lots of bread and an array of mustards to slather on the chunks of pork. Freezes well, too! Unfortunately, it’s in the 90s in LA today, so I’ll have to wait to make this – but will definitely try this recipe – looks great!

  11. Judith

    A high school friend’s mother used to make this for us. She was from Poland. Her bigos had a very high proportion of sauerkraut/cabbage and a low proportion of meat. It wasn’t at all juicy or fatty, but was absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, I never saw her make it. I like the idea of more veg, less meat. Any suggestions on how to replicate that style?

    Sure, just use less meat. ~Hank

  12. Dan

    Ok. I just finished making it. It’s now on low simmer on the stove. I couldn’t find juniper berries anywhere, nor could I find the ‘kraut you mention, but I did find a mild ‘kraut jarred with mushrooms included. I also did not find a good mix of mushrooms, but I really didn’t feel like heading to Whole Foods. We have a great store nearby that has tons of variety including many ethnic items (a large polish section, even), and a huge produce section. The mushrooms were lame today, however.

    I look forward to eating it, tonight, but I’m thinking it’ll be a bit too savory/peppery for my kids. I really look forward to tomorrow’s serving. I believe whole heartedly that the left overs will be better than tonight’s.

    What do you think about a restaurant idea where the main draw is stews? I’m thinking something like “Stew On It.” This little dish would have to be on the chef’s specialty menu.

  13. lo

    In Poland often we use some smoked dry prunes and dry red wine to bigos. It’s so nice to find polish recipes in your blog. Lo (from Poland)

  14. Christina

    A friend of mine served a huge pot of bigos at her birthday party once and it was absolutely yummy! I’m not a big fan of meat, especially so many different kinds of pork, but it was delicious. Just the perfect dish for cold and wet weather.

  15. Kyndra

    We were introduced to Bigos by some Polish friends who were doing an exchange at the University of Notre Dame. It was fantastic! We spent many a very happy evening at their house eating bigos and drinking vodka. For those of you in or near Chicago, there is a Polish grocery store that has a bigos spice blend that I’ve used on several occassions. Here’s to you Ania and Martin! Na Zdrowie!

  16. Macarons

    Take out the prunes and we would have ourselves a winner here!….Looks and sounds awesome!

    ryan

    • Bud

      Mom was born just over the mountain from Poland in Eastern Slovakia. I had the same reluctance about dried prunes as a kid until she made pierogies ( pirohy) stuffed with cooked dried prunes or other fruits. These were very good desert type treats.

  17. sharon

    Anyone who knows anything about Eastern Europe knows they’re mad about mushrooms Thank you for that sentence, you just explained my husband.

  18. pinky black

    it doesn’t look so enticing but i bet it’s delicious. three kinds of pork, it’s kinda heavy. is there anything that can make it more attractive? i am so curious ’bout the recipe. a 700 year old dish.

    You know what? It’s a stew of cabbage and meat. It is what it is, and it ain’t gonna be dainty. Sorry. It sure is good, though. ~Hank

  19. iga@thedelishdish

    i grew up eating bigos and i love it!! we sure do love our cabbage, mushrooms, and meat!

  20. Dimara Almeida

    This might seem sacrilegious, but can you make this without mushrooms? I just can’t stand the texture…

    Not sure if the Polish people out there would crucify you for it, but I personally don’t see any reason why you can’t leave out the mushrooms. ~Hank

  21. Helene

    I have several friends and relatives who would love the flavors of this dish, but who avoid pork for religious reasons. Using turkey kielbasa and a smoked turkey leg are obvious substitutions for the sausage and ham hock. What would you suggest as a substitute for the pork shoulder?

    Some fatty hunk of beef, like short ribs, cheek or oxtail. ~Hank

  22. Paul D

    I’ve made bigos before, and what I like about it is you can be creative, and it will still be bigos! For example, if you don’t like prunes, put a little brown sugar in – the sweetness helps cut the sourness of the kraut a little.

    If you don’t want so much pork, you can put other meats in as well – venison, beef, smoked turkey legs, smoked duck, just about anything but lamb (too gamey).

    Think of it like French choucroute garnie. Try it, you’ll love it.

  23. HARVEL

    How ironic, I just made it last night. It’s simmering on low and makes the house smell so good…
    It’s a great dish for a rainy day like today. You have to try it, it’s easy to make. There is no way this wouldn’t taste great!!
    Thank you for sharing…

  24. Victoria S.

    How exciting to see my family’s favorite dish for the holidays! My mother’s version is with tomato and over the years has switched to using only browned turkey meat in order “to accommodate the lighter CA weather”. In this case, it’s a necessity to have the different mushrooms to maintain the unique flavor. I also sneak in some pancetta to the mix if she makes me in charge of cooking it.

  25. Micheal McDermott

    Any left in the fridge?

    Nope. We ate it all! ~Hank

  26. Anna

    I spent a week in Poland over Easter last spring and had Bigos several times, prepared slightly differently each time (everyone wanted me to try “their” version of Bigos). Mmmmm, good stuff, even for a not-so-keen-on-mushroom person like me. Thanks for reminding me to make it myself.

  27. Carolyn Binder

    I have a big pot of bigos bubbling on the stove right now. The aroma is amazing, and I cannot wait to have a big bowl of this hearty stew. Since I’m traveling this week, the leftovers will insure that my family doesn’t starve while I’m gone! Thanks, Elise!

    Carolyn
    http://www.cowlickcottagefarm.com

  28. Kristopfer

    I’ve got a batch of this cooking right now and it smells wonderful! Because I’m not a huge fan of kraut, I halved the amount and added a bunch of purple flowering kale. I also used 2 ham-hocks instead of one because, well, 2 are better than 1!
    I also added some of the mushroom soaking water to the stew as well for more mushroom flavor.

  29. Marisa

    Oh man, I completely disagree that this stew isn’t pretty. That’s a pretty stew. I just read the ingredient list out loud to my boyfriend like we were reading Keats. Can’t wait to try it. Also, very excited that my local market has juniper berries and there are two recipes here recently using them! It will be a pork bonanza.

    Thanks for your sense of adventure with meat, Hank and Elise.

  30. Scott at Real Epicurean

    We eat this a lot as my Wife is Polish, and this is such a staple food for Poles. Tastes great, too.

  31. Kelsey

    My husband’s family is Polish and he has made this stew for me several times. I love it– something magical happens when you put sauerkraut in a stew. His family’s recipe also includes a lot of paprika and beans (usually butter beans or garbanzo). I look forward to trying this recipe since it’s a bit different and includes some ingredients that his doesn’t, like the prunes and beer. Thank you for sharing a great recipe!

  32. andrea

    we love bigos! got the family recipe from my guy’s mom a few weeks ago and we’re making it again right now – it’s so delicious. our bigos is more of a dry stew, not much liquid in there at all, and it’s served over boiled potatoes. the basic recipe is super simple (sauerkraut + cabbage + sausage) though i’m sure all the ingredients listed above make it taste pretty great too. but really how can one go wrong with sauerkraut and meat.. ;)

  33. Woodwife

    I think it’s gorgeous! It looks so tasty and soul satisfying. Just the thing for a cold, rainy day.

    I had to take a huge pork butt out of the freezer to make room for my turkey. Now I know what to do with the leftovers!

  34. Michael

    We tried this Polish Hunter’s Stew over this last weekend. It was excellent and very easy to make. I follow your recipes to the “T” and that makes it so much fun for someone like me learning my way around the kitchen. Thank you!

  35. Judy

    Made this last night. Man was it some kinda ugly but oh so tasty. It’s a keeper!

  36. Gordy

    We made this last night with the brined kraut, four kinds of pork (can you ever have too many?) and it was fantastic. Just the thing for a cold rainy Autumn evening.
    Thanks for the recipe.

  37. Gourmet Mum

    This is a fantastic stew and love the fact that you have replicated a national dish which has been authenticated by your readers. I will certainly be trying this out.

  38. aniawl

    man, this made me homesick…..
    Honestly, kudos on a great recipe, my Mum wouldn’t be ashamed of calling it her own.

  39. Meggie

    I’ve made this three times since you posted! Thanks so much for the recipe.

  40. Janna

    Oh, my!!! This is amazing! I made the version with the beer (not the tomato sauce/paste). Then made two substitions to cut down on the fat a little bit… I used 2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs instead of the pork shoulder, and used turkey kielbasa and smoked turkey sausage. Can’t wait to try the left-overs. Will definitely be making this again. Thanks!

  41. Polish Mama on the Prairie

    This was my husband’s first authentic Polish meal. We were first dating and were watching tv in my room with a couple of friends and he looked at me and asked what that smell was? I thought he was saying something stunk. Then, I realized my father was making his Bigos downstairs and that my now-husband liked the smell. He probably ate about 4 bowls that day and more the next day. We love Bigos and when we went to Poland for our honeymoon and my Babcia made it, you should have seen the look of adoration on his face for her!
    Btw, the prunes don’t add some weird texture or flavor to the dish, it helps to temper the sourness, and also thickens it a bit. We make both ways, depending on what we have at the time. Bardzo pyszne! Your recipe above is a great one.

  42. Rojo

    Thank you very much for including a non-alcohol alternative! I come across so many delicious sounding recipes, but get discouraged when I see alcohol in the ingredients. I’m never too confident about just how much “cooks out”, and would like to know more about substitutions for common alcohols used for cooking.

  43. Qing

    Today I made bigos based on your recipe and it made my Polish husband a very happy man. :) I used red wine instead of beer and added a lot more dried mushroom (trying to finish an old stash). I think the sauteing of the cabbage and mushroom really made a difference in the final taste. It’s interesting because the dish requires such a long cooking time (I pretty much cooked mine for 2-3 hours last night and again 2 hours today), so one would think the veggies do not need to be sauteed first. But it really gives the dish a more complex and rounded flavor. I’ll definitely be doing that from now on. Thank you!

  44. Pete

    I have Polish relatives so grew up eating Bigos. I’ve got a pot going at the moment using German bratwurst and english ale as ingredients, but it still tastes like good bigos. I think everyone who makes it develops their own recipe over time. Great with potatoes or crusty bread and butter, and of course a glass of Piwo. Na Zdrowie!

  45. Aimee

    Yummy! We’re making this for supper tonight. I’m intimidated by kraut, but the hubs loves it so I’m going to take it on faith, like I have (to my delight) many, many things over the years that I’ve been reading Simply Recipes. Thanks for always keeping me willing to try new things and create new traditions for my own little family.

  46. Aimee

    Just wanted to come back and say, it turns out I DO like sauerkraut after all! :)

  47. Mike Anderson

    Just discovered bigos at the Stash Restaurant in Montreal–I love it! They didn’t use the prunes, so I’m eager to try it with all the trimmings when fall rolls around here in South Texas.

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