What exactly is Goulash?

Hungarian goulash, pork or beef stew served in round bowl

Now that I am spending a lot more time at home, I am cooking a lot more and experimenting with various cuisines and looking for dishes that have heard that Goulash does not require me to shop for a lot of ingredients. What exactly is Goulash?

Goulash is making a big comeback. If you’ve been hearing about goulash more and more you’re not alone, this classic Hungarian dish has been all over the news recently, and today we want to take a deep dive into what it is and what its origins are. If you’re like me you can remember this warm comforting dish being slowly cooked throughout the day, making your mouth water in anticipation for a delicious dinner. In fact, there might not be a more classic comfort food than this classic dish. My family served their goulash with mashed potatoes and macaroni, but there a variety of ways different folks might remember it, depending on where you grew up and whether you have and Hungarian in your family tree. Today we are going to look closely at this classic meal and try to answer this question, goulash: what is it?

Traditional Hungarian goulash is a great example of how just a few simple ingredients, cooked properly, can yield an incredible flavor. Though many varieties of Hungarian goulash exist, and every cook makes it just a bit differently, this is a traditional, authentic recipe from the heart of Hungary. Over the ages different chefs and changing regional dynamics have put their own spin on the classic recipe, some with great success, as you will see below. Before we get into the current state of goulash and which might be for your family’s table, let’s go over the history of this dynamic dish.

The invention of goulash began with one of the humblest groups in Hungarian society, the cowherds. Groups of five or six single men, with their dogs and a couple of horses to pull their supply cart, spent months or even a year at a time out on the plains tending tall, slender gray cattle with long upturned horns. They cooked for themselves in large cauldrons slung from a pole supported by posts over an open fire, using simple, nonperishable supplies: millet, lard, bacon, onions, salt, and sometimes black pepper. If one of the cattle died or was slaughtered, the cowherds would feast on a rare dish of fresh meat, a simple stew made by browning the meat in lard and onions, adding water and, if available, black pepper. At some point, they began substituting coarsely ground dried red chilies from home gardens for the pepper. In the villages, some unknown innovator had rediscovered what was already known in the Americas, that chilies could be dried, crushed underfoot, and pounded in a mortar. By the end of the 18th century, travelers were commenting on this rough, spicy peasant dish that left a pleasant warmth in the stomach. Since the Hungarian term for herdsmen was gulyás, the travelers called this herdsman’s meat, or gulyás hús.

So, what kind of meat should you use to make goulash?

Beef shank- which is a cut of beef taken from the lower leg of the animal. This muscle is very soft and it has a lot of connective tissue. This connective tissue is broken down through slow cooking over a low heat and results in a moist, tender meat with rich flavor.

Chuck beef- it has a lot of flavor. While not as tender as other cuts of beef and can become rather tough if not cooked properly, this cut is perfect to be stewed, slow-cooked or braised to make it more tender.  

Pork– If you choose to use pork instead, then any kind of pork meat is fine. I personally prefer the shoulder part, because it has more connective tissue, therefore more flavorful.

Once you decide on which meat you will use then you can figure out if you want to go the traditional Hungarian route, or go for the classic American style. For me, I make American unless I have all day to slow cook and I have the more diverse ingredients needed for the old-world version. Also, I just love the macaroni noodles used in the American dish, that to me, is the goulash I remember my family cooking growing up and there is just no substitute on a cold winter’s evening. Whichever style you decide on you really can’t go wrong, so pick up the ingredients and make some tonight, your family will thank you for it!!

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