Polish hunters’ stew, bigos, is the best winter warmer in food shape. Smoky flavour, a variety of meats, it is braised for days in mild sauerkraut with dried mushrooms and prunes.
Bigos means ‘mess’
It smells out the house something awful while it’s cooking: sauerkraut, after all, is cabbage albeit fermented.
The list of ingredients makes you go: ‘Wait, what? and what? and what?’ rather than ‘yum, yum, yum’.
The name of the dish itself is a byword for a godawful mess in Polish.
And yet, it is the absolute best of Polish cuisine, in my humble opinion.
Know your cabbage
I agree: if cabbage, and especially sauerkraut, its fermented incarnation is not your thing, it won’t hit any spots with you.
Unless you meticulously pick out all the meat bits and eat those only. But I’ll think less of you if you do that, you know.
Because the dish is a mix of delightfully varied chunks of meats and sausage against the background of sauerkraut cooked so long it’s turned buttery smooth.
It’s also called hunters’ stew and it’s at its legendary best on the third day of cooking and reheating.
The reason why people in the UK sniff at sauerkraut is nothing to do with two World Wars and one World Cup.
It might as well be called kapusta kiszona (which is what it’s called in Polish) and it still couldn’t hold a candle to kimchi. It’s because the British, especially those of the wellness, plant-based, gut-healthfulness seeking tribe are hideous snobs.
Kimchi good, sauerkraut bad? One uses Napa cabbage totally alien in this country and gochugaru seasoning which has to be imported half the world across. The other is made from cabbage that grows in allotments seasoned with salt and nothing else.
It's also stupidly easy to make at home, one small jar at a time. Still sniffy? Pure snobbery, I said.
Sauerkraut is one of the best foods for the gut, practically being a natural probiotic, and it is immensely rich in vitamin C. I can’t recommend it enough.
Cooked, it is well known in France as choucroute. They cook it lightly and season it likewise, serving choucroute as a side dish.
In Poland admittedly we take a ballistic approach to it when cooking sauerkraut.
How to prepare sauerkraut for bigos?
Sauerkraut can be very acidic so the first thing is to taste it.
If it’s just nicely sharp and tart, it will be enough to squeeze out the liquid as much as you can. If it’s face-puckeringly acidic, rinse it with plenty cold water and squeeze out.
Then roughly chopped, covered with fresh water in a very large saucepan or a stockpot, it gets half an hour head start on cooking, with a few aromatics.
You can also add some fresh, shredded cabbage to the pot if, after squeezing and rinsing, the sauerkraut still tastes too sour.
In the meantime you can turn your attention to the meats.
Meats for bigos
Hunters’ stew would suggest there will be game in the pot. That is a delightful option but traditionally, old Polish recipes advise to use a selection of pork, beef or poultry, with bacon and sausage.
Originally it was the dish that used up various leftover roasts – but it shows how far back the recipe goes, considering the unrealistic circumstances of having VARIOUS roast meats left over in sufficient quantities. A medieval feast comes to mind!
In modern times bigos is usually made from scratch so I suggest a combo of pork belly or shoulder, fatty and reasonably tender, plus chicken or duck legs, all boneless and chunkily diced. The meat can be from cheaper cuts but decent, and with lots of nice fat but no poultry skin.
Bacon should best be also chunkily diced but that is hard to encounter in the UK. Either way it must be smoked as the smoked flavour is the characteristics of good bigos.
Likewise the sausage – Polish smoked kielbasa is ideal if you can get it. As an alternative I suggest smoked cooking chorizo or French Montbéliard.
All into the pot
While the sauerkraut is cooking, the meats need to be browned in the frying pan with the onions before they go into the pot.
And the last but by no meant least bunch of ingredients: dried wild mushrooms, prunes and a small, grated apple.
Dried mushrooms traditionally should be self-foraged and dried but if you buy a tub of dried porcini from Sainsbury’s, you’ll be excused. They are an essential addition though – the earthy, woody flavour and bags of umami that bigos can’t be without.
Prunes and apple add sweetness; in Poland you’d use powidla, a mighty flavoursome Polish plum preserve, but Agen prunes in my view will do the job just as well, especially if matched with a couple of tablespoons of redcurrant jelly.
And that’s really the work done, once all the ingredients are in the pot.
It will now need to cook forever – or at least a couple of hours, then same again on the following day.
It’s ready when the sauerkraut has nearly turned into a homogenous mass with meat chunks and mushrooms interspersed. There should be no juice spilling over the plate when ladled up, but just a little thickish meat gravy.
It gets better with each reheating, even better when warmed up from frozen. It’s best with thickly cut, plain fresh bread but it won’t mind the company of a baked potato either.
More Polish recipes
Cabbage rolls stuffed with a pork mince and rice filling, baked in simple tomato sauce – that’s Polish golabki, the ultimate comfort dish. Also, the best use of the outer cabbage leaves.
Pojarski is a super tasty cutlet made of steak partly chopped and partly minced. My veal pojarski is an authentic dish unlike the cheap breaded chicken patties pretending to be the East European classic.
Potato babka is an unusual and tasty alternative to a boring nut roast, the vegetarian Christmas or Thanksgiving option. It’s a lavishly seasoned grated potato mass studded with peppers and mushrooms baked till crisp in a loaf tin.
More cabbage recipes
This is the best cabbage dish: crispy and caramelised, first fried and then baked green cabbage Swedish style, shredded and cooked to perfection.
Cabbage lasagne, a vegetarian dish of pasta layered with a filling of lightly cooked cabbage with tomatoes. Surprisingly flavourful and delicious!
Cabbage with bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms is a delicious main dish, served with plain pasta or potatoes. It can also be a hearty side dish to go with fish or chicken.