Why You Should Make Authentic Gulas This Weekend

Gulas

March 17, 2012

Allan Stevo

The main reasons you should make gulas this weekend are because it tastes good, it is easy to make, and it will feed you for a week.  With that matter settled, I’ll move on to the next topic:  How to make gulas this weekend.

Three rules of Gulas + 1

Everyone’s got their own rules for gulas.  The best gulas, in my opinion, comes from any two, randomly-selected, opinionated cooks going into the kitchen ready to fight over their theories about gulas making as they collaborate on over a pot of the stuff.  Below are a few rules I try to stick to when cooking gulas and that I argue for when I find myself in a test of wills like that.

  • 1. Gulas should have a low work to enjoyment ratio – This is a stew of hunters and warriors.  With that in mind, it is probably not meant to have thirty different ingredients – choose a few ingredients that are easy to get – correct the seasoning one time only and then sit down and enjoy your gulas.  There are plenty of recipes for gulas that call for great intricacy.  They miss the point of gulas – preparing a delicious and nourishing meal that has a low work to enjoyment ratio.  Easy cooking.  Easy cleanup.  Delicious food that will last at least a week in the fridge – that’s gulas.
  • 2. Onions should be in at least a 1 to 1 proportion with meat You can never have too many onions – dice them finely enough and cook them long enough and you can even exceed the hallowed 1 to 1 ratio.  Meat and onions are the key components of gulas.  Unless you have some sort of inulin digestion deficiency, don’t go with fewer onions than one to one by weight.
  • 3. Decide on your most important ingredients and stick to them I consider the key ingredients in gulas to be – onions, meat, and something spicy.  If I can get marjoram, all the better – it will taste like something made out in the forest by a band of hunters.  If I can get sweet paprika, all the better – my gulas won’t be fatback gray, but will instead be a natural brilliant red. If I can cook with lard instead of vegetable oil, it will be a hardier dish that will stick to your bones and I’ll feel a little better about the food.  If I can’t get those things, or if they take a great deal of effort or money to acquire, then there’s no need to get them and well, that’s no big deal.  As long as I have some onions, something spicy, and some meat I have gulas.
  • 4. Buy the ugliest piece of meat you can –  This hunk of meat will be cooking for hours.  Don’t waste your time removing extra fat.  Don’t waste your time removing gristle.  Heck, throw the bone in the pot.  Buy a nice, tender cut of meat and you will be wasting your money.  Buy a lean cut of meat and it might end up dry.   Buy something cheap; buy something ugly.  The fat will melt away leaving the gulas tastier.

More Time with Friends

I don’t waste my time with tomato paste, fresh peppers, parsnip, tomatoes, but I do know people who do.  They may make a better gulas, but I can, in 30 minutes of effort, make a darn good pot of gulas that people will talk about for weeks.  With another two hours of work, you can make a pot of gulas that people will talk about for months.  But I will have had an extra 120 minutes of time to spend with my party guests instead of worrying about dinner.  There’s a tradeoff and I think that if it will save me 90 minutes then making really good and memorable gulas is just as good as making really, really good and memorable gulas.

All that being said.  Every family makes gulas in their own way and usually has several recipes.  I have no desire to badmouth anyone else’s recipe and I practice that principle by tasting and admiring every bowl of gulas that is offered me.  Below is a quick recipe for gulas that I alter according to what is available.

A Recipe for Slovak, Czech, Moravian, Ruthenian, Gypsy, Ukrainian, Austrian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, German, and Hungarian Gulas

I include all these adjectives, because I don’t consider there to be significant national differences in the gulas of central Europe.  Culture permeates borders with ease in Central Europe.  I predict that this article will not be posted an hour before someone instructs me how wrong I am about the use of all these adjectives, but that won’t bug me – everyone’s entitled to their opinion own opinions.  So here’s the recipe:

Chop onions finely.  Cover and lightly fry the onions in lard in a pot until the onions are golden.  Add pork meat in one inch cubes.  Brown, covered.  Stir occasionally. After meat is browned, add water to cover.  Simmer covered 45 minutes.  Add 3 or 4 finely grated carrots to thicken.  Simmer 30 more minutes.  Add a full pack of sweet paprika (about a handful); add a full pack of marjoram (about a handful); add a few dashes of hot paprika to achieve desired state of spice.

That’s the recipe.  Follow that and you will have a great pot of gulas.  If you want a ridiculous amount of footnotes (about 20 times the length of the recipe itself) please keep reading the variations section below. Otherwise, please stop reading, go make some gulas, and tell me all about it later.

Variations in “A Recipe for Slovak, Czech, Moravian, Ruthenian, Gypsy, Ukrainian, Austrian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, German, and Hungarian Gulas

Meat: Pork is my meat of choice because it is readily available, tastes good, and you can’t mess it up.  I have spent three or four hours cooking plenty of pots of beef gulas only to end up having to serve some very tough pieces of meat to guests.  Beef is so unpredictable.  It’s sometimes tender, sometimes dry, sometimes tough.  Any type of meat is acceptable for gulas, but pork is easiest, wild boar is second best, for all the same reasons that pork is good.

Water:  Beer and red wine are popular substitutions for water in gulas.  If you want to try using beer or wine in place of water, you are welcomed to do so.  The heavier the better.  (Secret: don’t tell anyone, but I use the very inexpensive elixir called “tap-water” and I still get high praise for my gulas.  As long as it’s thick and flavorful, it’s a hard dish to not get praised for cooking).

Lard: Lard is good.  Canola oil I try to avoid. Olive oil doesn’t always do a good job cooking at a high temperature and its flavor can be quite pronounced.  Lard is the best option.  Butter is the second best option.  You aren’t sitting down to a big bowl of meat because you are watching cholesterol intake, so why worry about the canola v. lard today.  Just opt for a delicious salad if you don’t want to go all out on the gulas.

But to address the issue of animal fats being unhealthy, if you are hyper sensitive about lard, maybe this 50-something-year-old guy who looks fantastic or this doctor in his 50s (who also looks fantastic) are worth hearing out on the matter of how lard can be good for you.  Lard has wrongly gotten a bad name, as have saturated fats.  These gentlemen are both quick to point out that the fats we should really be avoiding are oils like Canola or margarine as they are artificial mutant oils that are not healthy for our bodies.  Dr. Mercola even offers some reasons why we should eat more saturated fats.  Sisson takes it a step further and argues that fried foods  can be healthy, because fat is not in itself unhealthy.  Both of these gents think that the connection between fat and heart disease is a weak one and that we’ve grown overly obsessed with saturated fat and cholesterol intake when there are much more suspicious items that we should watch out for.

Carrots:  Potatoes grated, flour, cornstarch are also good thickeners.  I prefer carrots finely grated.  They add flavor, color, and sweetness and don’t tend to bring the starchy texture of the other three.

Garlic:  Add it at the end if you feel like it. 3 or 4 cloves squeezed in a garlic press and stirred into a 3 or 4 liter pot in the last 5 minutes of cooking will leave a nice flavor that will not be overpowering.

Color: Sweet paprika is an easy way to color your gulas.  While some claim that sweet paprika also brings flavor to the gulas, that is something I tend to dispute.  I believe sweet paprika is used largely as a natural food coloring.  There are plenty of other ways to color your gulas, including tomato paste, which I have found can make gulas a bit too acidic.  If the gulas is a little too acidic after using tomato paste, you can toss in some sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to calm it down a little (this might take 10 or 20 minutes until it stops bubbling), but I prefer not using the tomato paste at all and to color the gulas with that handful of sweet paprika (which also thickens the stew a bit).

Marjoram: Marjoram, sweet paprika, hot paprika, and salt should be enough for a good pot of gulas.  If you would like to add caraway seeds you may add them with the onions as they fry, just before you add the meat.

Other Root Vegetables: Some people like to add potatoes, parsnips, chunks of carrots and other root vegetables to their gulas to make it more hardy.  That’s a fine thing to do, but again, I recommend giving serious consideration to the cost and effort involved in acquiring them and getting them into the pot.  If you do not like peeling potatoes, then by all means, don’t use potatoes.  Some people (restaurants especially) use lots of big chunks of potatoes to dilute their gulas – Slovak Pub on Obchodna Street in Bratislava disappoints me repeatedly because they serve potatoes as the main component of a variety of soups – e.g. kapustnica (cabbage soup) that is mainly potatoes, fazula (bean) soup that is mainly potatoes, kotlikovy gulas (“cauldron gulas”) that is mainly potatoes, and bareny gulas (ram gulas) that is, you guessed it, mainly potatoes.  Paying 4 Euro (about 6 dollars) for an already mediocre bowl of gulas and then being served a bowl of mainly potatoes is a real disappointment.  When I’m in control of the recipe (unless I am really trying to stretch the budget), I try to make meat the most prominent ingredient in every pot of gulas I make.

Bread: Slovak bread can be quite good.  However, that praise of Slovak bread also deserves a bit of a caveat attached – lots of bread here isn’t that good.  I regularly encounter visitors to Slovakia who tire of the bread quite easily.  Slovak bread does not tend to have the variety that most visitors to Slovakia might expect from a Central European country with such an interesting and varied culinary tradition.  And some are left at least a little disappointed.

In neighboring Austria, there are still local bakers and butchers making their own local specialties that you can’t find elsewhere and that you might have to travel a distance and pay a premium for.  In Slovakia, a place very close to Austria geographically, and culturally very similar with only a brief divergence from the same cultural trends as Austria (which happened from approximately 1948 to 1989 when they were separated by the Iron Curtain) the bread situation is a little different.

In Slovakia, the government was openly opposed to small (or large) business owners like famers (who might raise an exceptionally good type of grain), millers (who might grind an especially good blend of flour), and bakers (who might bake an especially good type of bread).

At each step of that process, the Czechoslovak government sabotaged the rich tradition of Central European bread by

1. nationalizing the industries and taking individual motivation to excel (e.g. profit) out of the equation,

2. centralizing the planning for the industries, which made local cultural traditions in a given village, city, or region less likely to be followed,

3. flattening the industries, which sought to make the below-average breads better and the above-average breads more mediocre, and

4. commoditizing the output of the industries, by pretending that every loaf of bread was the same, every acre of wheat the same as every other, every blend of flour the same as every other.

On that last point I am over-exaggerating – surely bakers and millers still understood things like gluten content of flour differed still, but much of the small-scale expert distinction, because the economy was centrally planned, disappeared out of necessity.  At some point a central planner needs to stop paying attention to details because there are simply too many details to pay attention to.  Paying attention to such details leads to the creation of something we commonly referred to in English as “quality.”

This need to neglect attention to detail in a centrally planned economy is an observation made by Austrian School of Economics thinkers like Ludwig von Mises in his book Socialism.  Many others in the Austrian School made similar observations.   Mises’s Socialism is here for free or here to buy.

Ultimately, it feels like Slovakia still has a lot of production that is done as if the goods made were looked at by the maker as a commodity.  That would mean that just because a good meets minimum standards, it is therefore acceptable – such minimum standards include:  that chairs be able to stand up on their own, that tiles be capable of being adhered to a wall, or that bread be edible. So many things feel so very low quality in Slovakia, as if all items were commodities.

Now, all that was intended as a preface for the next – statement.  Serve a rough cut, heavy, dense loaf of bread with a crispy crust alongside your gulas if you can.  Don’t serve just any bread that you buy in Slovakia and expect it to go well with a pot of gulas, because Slovak bread is not a commodity, despite what some may think.  The mere fact that it is made in Slovakia does not make the bread good.  The mere fact that it does not contain high fructose corn syrup does not make the bread good  ( Slovak visitors to America tend ridicule “sweet” American bread).

What counts is that someone comes along and likes the bread.  One day I’ll sit down and write out a recipe of an easy-to-make, tasty bread, that I’ve learned from a Slovak couple who live 45 minutes away from civilization (finding a home 45 minutes away from civilization is not an easy task to accomplish in such a small country).  You can make the bread at home with no special skills and no special equipment and it will be darn good. That’s the kind of bread that should be served with gulas.  The thing is, it takes time to make, which violates one of the key tenants of making gulas.

So, even if you do have a great bread recipe, to save time, and to be able to spend more time being social, I’d like to recommend that you just ask a Slovak friend over to enjoy this meal with you and say “On your way over pick up a loaf of bread that will go well with gulas.”

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • John Bartko Pennsylvania

    Mar 18th, 2012

    Hello Allan, thanks for this piece on Gulas. Always good to hear from you. Now please don’t tease us about the bread recipe. Please publish it soon! dakujem a dovidenia. Janko

  • John,
    Will work on the bread recipe soon. Thank you for pushing me on that issue. It’s motivational.
    Allan

  • Good advice on ‘Making Gulaš’, Allan !! However, I make the ‘zásmaška’ with a 1/4 cup of flour, a chopped medium onion, 1 tsp. sweet paprika and vegetable oil. In fact, my Moravian mother stopped using lard here in the states so I never acquired a taste for it !

    And my mother always added lots of carrots, celery and potatoes !! Her ghoulash was a little thick and she always used beef. The idea of using pork because it retains more moisture is useful. But a pork gulas must taste entirely different from a beef gulas !!

    I add garlic to the sauce, I don’t want it to be seared and bitter from being fried in the zásmaška. I also recall my mother adding sour cream to one of her versions of gulas. I’ve never tried sour cream in gulas.

    Canola oil isn’t unhealthy. It’s derived from rapeseed and is high in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The problem with canola oil, I’ve noticed, is that is tastes Fishy !!

    Adding sunflower oil, olive oil, or safflower to a meat dish after it’s cooked, makes it moister and creamier. But don’t use canola oil this way !! It’ll taste fishy !! (Canola oil seems to work better when it’s cooked or boiled).

  • Cynthia,
    Thank you for all the good input. I’ve even heard of people soaking their cut meat for hours in Canola oil in order to make that meat more moist for cooking. Thank you for sharing all the good secrets.

    Allan

  • Well written and sort of humorous. I enjoyed it. I assume Gulas is what Americans call Gulash. My mother had a recipe for it so she could do something different with round steak. Hers had a tomato base and sour cream in it. Personally I prefer it more in the style you are presenting here. Simple spices in a stew to make lesser cuts of meat edible.

    Well done.

  • Kevin,
    I think it’s spelled Goulash usually in the U.S., but my guess is that there’s no hard and fast rule for spelling it, since I’ve seen it spelled differently and it doesn’t, for whatever reason look like the Hungarian spelling. I decided to go with Gulas to represent the Slovak word (minus the diacritical mark that should have been over the ‘s’). Thank you for the kind words about the simpler version “Simple spices in a stew to make lesser cuts of meat edible” and thank you for writing.

    Allan

  • and there is one “saying” which was also used for commercial – A real man can cook goulash with one hand, coz he holds a beer in the other. 😉

  • here is a link to that commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuCRHa5-zeQ 😉 where You can see how the gulas is cooked;) oh and beef is much much better than pork ;))

  • Cynthia: I don’t really know what is the traditional way (pork or beef) or if there even is one. I guess that recipes are like our dialects – guláš can be different in every region and town and even families. But in my family we always made guláš with both pork and beef, in which case you have to add the beef a bit sooner than the pork because it cooks longer. Also, my uncle is a hunter so we make deer guláš whenever he brings us some nice meat. It’s really great, you should try it some day.

    And of course, for some reason, guláš always tastes better when cooked in a cauldron over campfire with your friends.

    Allan: I guess you live in Bratislava, I imagine it is harder to find small family-owned bakeries there. But I live in a small town and we still have some and you can buy really good bread there. But naturally, home-made is home-made.

  • My comment seems to have disappeared or maybe I accidentaly posted it under a diffferent article, but anyway:

    Cynthia: In my family we make guláš with both pork and beef. But you have to add the beef a bit earlier since beef needs more time to cook.

  • Sometimes I add Mex style fried beans. Also my preferrable meat combo is 60% lamb + 40% pork. I’ve tried kangaroo (living in the Oz) and turkey as well, it’s not bad but lamb is a winner. You forgot to mention that when the goulash is cooked close to the forest and there is a lot of booze around, it is appropriate to add pine needles :-)

  • Too much onions will make gulas sweet (especially fresh ones). We do not use carrot for gulas but I imagine it can also add to sweetens if used. Potato will not and you get nice colour with paprika. Onions are of course one of the main components of gulas but do not use them indiscriminately.

    Best meat for gulas is wild one. Deer, wild pig, some use even European bison (zubor).

    If you want to show extra bit of skill, make gulas with two kinds of meat: beef and pork (about 50% each). Beef just take bit more time to cook so add pork later (it takes some experimentation to get timing right). In general, you can not cook meet (especially beef) in gulas too much so when in doubt, cook it more.

    Friend of mine made gulas out of turkey meat and it was not bad (turkey is quit reddish meat for poultry and resembles pork).

    And last most important note about gulas: older it gets, better it is. Obviously before it spoils. One or two day old gulas which rested in some cold place and then got rewarmed is the best one.

  • That last sentence of advice was probably the best you could tell about buying bread for gulas. I guess we Slovaks just know by heart which one is the right one, and I will tell you – for me, it is the one you can buy in village of Rakova near the church. Big, dense, with big air bubbles too. I’ve never had better bread. And yes, British bread is awful too.
    On the issue of meat: we use pork and beef together, as pointed out earlier in the comments. It is generally a good idea to have both. But i must also alert that omitting fresh tomatoes, pepper and potatoes is a big mistake. It just adds that little of spark that does not need that much effort. Or you can pick a bottle of “lečo” in the nearest grocery, which will save you any time issues you might have with all that peeling and cutting.

    By the way, if you have so many friends anxious about guláš, why don’t you make them help you with it?? I can guarantee you they will assist happily and you can have all the finest ingredients ready in no time :)

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