infinity in a grain of paprika


Phase I: Fry the Onions.

The first step is to fry lots of onions. Dice 2 large onions.  Fry in fat appropriate to the meat (lard for pork, goosefat for poultry, either of these or butter or suet for beef or veal).  The trick is that you want the onions to begin to brown – caramelize – which brings out their sweetness, dries them out, and gets rid of the oniony aftertaste.  But if the temperature of the pot drops below 212, the mass of the onions will likely start to simmer rather than fry and they won't caramelize before they turn mushy. 

To avoid this, use a pan that retains heat.  Cast iron or enameled cast iron takes a long time to change temperature.  The heavier the better; the heavier it is the more heat it retains.  Then get it as hot as possible, which means bring the fat to just below the temperature at which it starts to smoke (when the first hints of smoke appear, throw in the onions).  The thing is that solid fats – goosefat, lard, butter, Crisco, suet – start to smoke at a higher temperature than liquid fats (that makes sense, since they melt into liquid from a solid at a higher temperature).  So you can get those fats hotter.

Add about a tablespoon of salt, sprinkle with a good hit of pepper, and fry at medium-high heat.  The fat is what keeps the onions from burning, so there needs to be a good bit of it (I start with about 4-6 T and add more if it looks like things are sticking too much).  Otherwise they'll burn before they brown.  You wind up cooking the water out of them (their water is what has that raw onion flavor), so eventually they should be golden brown with very few bubbles, just fat and onions left in the pan.

Variant 1: Root vegetables.  Before adding peppers, consider adding a couple of handfuls of finely chopped carrots and perhaps 1/3 or 1/2 that amount of chopped parsnips.  These should cook down to almost nothing before it's all done, so get them well softened while sautéing.  The effect is to sweeten the gulas somewhat, and make it richer.

Variant 2: Peppers.  Almost all Hungarian dishes except Szekely Gulas require peppers as well as onions.  NO PEPPERS FOR SZEKELY GULAS!  I chop the peppers after I throw the onions into the pan and throw the peppers int with the frying onions as soon as they are all chopped.  This gives the pan a chance to heat back up and the onions a chance to start to caramelize before the peppers add their water and make it harder to get everything to brown.  The peppers, too, should cook out their water and begin to brown around the edges.  It should happen at about the same time as the onions.

Variant 3: Apple.  I add a thinly sliced whole apple (something tart, usually Granny Smith) to the onions and peppers.  Just like the peppers.  Start to peel after you throw in the peppers, core it, slice it translucently thin, throw it in.

Variant 4: Mushrooms.  Not a very Hungarian gulyas ingredient, but mushrooms absorb the flavor of whatever they are cooked with, pretty intensively, so they are an interesting addition to any flavorful stew.  Here the trick is to cook the water out of them before putting them in the stew, and they start with even more water than onions or peppers.  They should be quartered or sliced, and sautéed with the other vegetables on very high heat until all the water cooks out but not until they brown (so they shouldn't go into the pot until the peppers and onions are starting to brown)

Variant 5: Caraway Seeds.  You can, and probably should, throw a tablespoon or less of caraway seeds in with the onions, peppers, and apple (not for Szekely Gulas, though for reasons that become obvious).

Phase II:  Brown the meat.

The next step if to sear the meat so that it stays moist as it stews.  Doesn't matter what the meat is.  Dry the meat, rub with salt, pepper and some form of garlic (crushed actually works least well because it burns easily; powdered, granulated, or garlic salt works well).  Be generous with all three parts of the rub.

Remove the vegetables from the fat (let the fat drain back into the pot), and crank up the heat again.  In relatively small batches sear the meat so that it browns at the edges.  Let it sit for a bit without stirring or it won't brown.  Then turn and scrape  it a bit till it's browned all around.  Again, unless the heat is high the meat will start to simmer in its own juices, which is sort of the opposite of what you want.

When all the meat is done, deglaze the pan of the brown/black stuff that's stuck to the bottom.  You can use water to do this.  Say, about 1/2 cup.  Scrape the bottom as the water boils, let it boil vigorously until it pretty much all has evaporated.

Variant 1:  Deglazing liquid.  I actually use Tokaji or some other sweet dessert wine.  But you can use Port (I use White Port) or apple cider.  I also add the juice of about 1/2 lemon (be careful not to let the seeds fall in; they turn sour when they cook).  And if I have one I dice up a tomato and throw it in and cook it down with the deglazing liquid.

Phase III: Stew it.

Throw the meat, onions/peppers/etc back into the pot with the fat and add the paprika.  I use a vast amount (about 1/2 c) of the sweetest Hungarian paprika I can find.  Mix it around until the paprika dissolves.  If you don't mix it, it will burn in the fat.  It will act as a thickener as well as a flavoring agent.  Bring the temperature down to the lowest simmer you can get and put a cover on it. 

Variant 1: Hot Paprika.  IN ADDITION TO the sweet paprika, I add about 1/2 t of hot paprika.  You can always add more later if you want it spicy.

Variant 2: Szekely Gulas.  Szekely Gulas is a pork gulas with sauerkraut.  Once the pork is simmering, it's time to start thinking about the sauerkraut.  The question here is, "How sour do you like it?"  I like it not very sour.  I buy fresh kraut from a Hungarian butcher or a place that sells fresh pickles, and I rinse it with cold water until it's not very sour.  You should make sure that it's still at least a little sour, that's sort of the point.  Then simmer it in a separate pot (to get it warm and soft), with about 2 T of caraway seeds mixed in.  Traditionally, one uses an equal amount of kraut and meat, by weight.  I tend to do about twice as much meat as kraut by weight though, and the balance doesn't change the flavor a lot; it's just a matter of taste.  Where do you want the meat/vegetable line to fall?

Variant 3:  Tomatoes.  While simmering you can add tomatoes (1 can or less of whole Italian-style plum tomatoes, mushed up, or 1 similar sized can of crushed tomatoes, or as much thick tomato paste as you feel like, or two-three fresh tomatoes, or whatever you'd like).  This is entirely a matter of personal taste.  In general, most Hungarian recipes don't call for tomatoes, and adding watery may require you to cook the sauce down for longer,   But they can add sweetness, intensity, and/or color depending on what you use and how much.  My mother always used to sneak in a couple of tablespoons of thickened paste.  I toss in a fresh tomato or two if I have a couple that are beyond eating, and when I cook in volume I'll toss in a large canful for bulk and flavor.  Start with none; experiment to see whether you want to add any.

Phase IV: Finish the sauce.  Let the stew simmer for at least a couple of hours, until the meat stops being tough and chewy.  Be patient, it will eventually get flaky and soft.  When it does, you're almost done.  How you finish the sauce depends on what you want it to be when you're done:

Variant 1: Szekely Gulas.  Basically, all you have to do now is drain the kraut and combine it with the meat.  Stir it around, add a bit more (2-4 T) sweet paprika so that the kraut will take on a rosy red color, and simmer them together for 30 minutes or so, very low heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn't burn. Keeps more or less forever.  When you serve it, add sour cream to taste and stir it around so the color turns a creamy red.  About 1 c should do it.  You can put more sour cream on the table with it, as well as sweet and hot paprikas.  A VARIANT WITHIN THE VARIANT: You can add sliced sausage during this final heating phase while the meat and kraut are together.  Debrecen (a Hungarian sausage) or kolbasz or any sausage you feel like, about 1/2"-1" thick rounds.  You can also add another apple, finely diced, but then be sure to keep the thing simmering until the apple turns soft and indistinguishably mushy.

Variant 2:  Gulas soup.  Real gulas is a thin beef soup, more sharp than sweet.  If that's what you're aiming for, add some beef or veal or even chicken stock to thin it down to watery consistency, and crank up the hot paprika to taste.  You can boil some potatoes in with it, and some carrots and parsnips and turnips if you want.  If you're going to add these vegetables, don't let the meat get too soft in Phase III before you add them, since you'll be cooking it for about another hour after the vegetables get tossed iton it.  Serve with tiny dumplings cooked in the gulas, a dollop of sour cream (about 1 t per bowl) and sprinkle with hot paprika on top of the sour cream (just a dash).

Variant 3:  Goulash.  Actually, in Hungarian a porkolt.  At the end of Phase III that's pretty much what you have.  Make sure the sauce is hearty and flavorful.  If not,  remove the meat and boil it down (you can also add paprika) to get a dense, intense sauce.  It will be thinned a bit by the creams, so you really want it intense.  When it's there, serve with sour cream and paprikas on the side.  A VARIANT WITHIN THE VARIANT: there is no defensible reason not to add 1 c of heavy cream at the very end.  Mix it in.

Variant 4:  Paprikas.  Paprikas sauce is a smooth creamy sauce.  Take the meat out of the stew and get the sauce to the same intense place described above for Goulash.  There's no turning back; however intense you get it here, that's the most it will ever be again, so make sure you're happy with it before going on.  Then throw the onions/peppers/etc. into a food processor with whatever sauce travels with them, and puree them down into a smooth paste (if you have added mushrooms, it sort of ruins them to puree them, so I'd leave it as a goulash if you've got mushrooms in it). Throw the puree back into the sauce (do it slowly, so that you get the right texture and taste to suit you.  Add the meat back in (this will thin the sauce a bit because the meat juices will have come out while it was sitting there.  Add 1 c of heavy cream (or less, to taste).  Stir.  Note that heavy cream doesn't really boil or freeze very well (though I've never had problems freezing goulash even with the heavy cream in it; but it can curdle or separate when boiled), so assume that this is almost your last step.   Serve with sour cream.  I put a dollop on each serving (about 2 T), and let the people mix it in themselves, or you can mix it in, or you can just serve it on the side. 

Whatever variant: Serve with some form of noodle or dumpling.  You can always correct flavor by playing with any of the following at any stage (in diminishing order of rationality): salt, sweet paprika, hot paprika, sweet wine (Tokaji or port), lemon juice, garlic powder, apple cider).


All Hungarian meat stews are variations on a theme. 

Here is my master recipe: