Goulash has so many variations that the lines that distinguish one kind from another are often blurred. American goulash is heavy on tomatoes and often uses ground beef. German goulash, on the other hand, is predominantly all about big chunks of meat, cut about 1 ½ inches big, and uses just a little bit of tomatoes in the form of tomato paste.
A typical German goulash uses roughly a one to one ratio of beef and chopped onions. Worried that the stew will be too onion-y? Don’t be! By the time cooking is done most of the onions will disintegrate and dissolve, leaving behind only liquid and loads of aromatic flavor. The beef is not seared prior to braising. Instead, it’s cooked in beef broth together with caramelized onions, a touch of tomato paste and spices: paprika, bay leaves, marjoram, caraway seeds and pepper. Dry German wine is often added for additional flavor and acidity, but a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar are just as common.
Beef broth plays an important role in making of German goulash. Not only does it add liquid to beef goulash but also brings a lot of flavor. That’s why you will find many German goulash recipes calling for what can be translated as ‘strong beef broth’ – thick, intensely flavored and insanely delicious. But don’t worry, any beef stock will do. I like to use good quality beef bouillon cubes to make beef broth, with a few extra cubes thrown in for stronger flavor. If you can make your own beef broth, do it. There is nothing like homemade broth made with beef bones slowly simmered in water with veggies and spices for several hours, similar to the one used to make pho soup.
Many modern goulash recipes in Germany tend to use a ‘Saucenbinder’, or a sauce thickener. In the classic recipe this is unnecessary as the goulash will thicken plenty on its own if you let it cook uncovered, or partially covered, for a certain amount of time. This will allow the dish to taste rich, flavorful and tasty but without the added calories and the heaviness after you devour a bowl of this goodness. This dish is a great example of soul food that does not leave you feeling guilty. Not unless you pair it with a big bowl of noodles or pasta. It would be a shame though if you don’t as the two go so well together.
Classic German Goulash
- 2 lbs yellow onions (about 6-8 medium onions)
- 50 g clarified butter (regular butter will work as well)
- 2 lbs lean beef (veal or trimmed chuck is best)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- 2 tsp dried marjoram
- 2 Tbsp sweet paprika
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 3/4 cup beef broth
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp kosher salt (plus more to taste)
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper (plus more to taste)
Preheat the oven to 350F if cooking in the oven as opposed to on the stove top.
- Peel and chop the onions very finely. Set aside.
Heat the butter in a roasting pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 30 minutes.
In the meantime, trim the beef of any fat and sinew, then cut the beef into about 1" - 1 1/2" pieces. Set aside.
Peel the garlic, chop, add caraway seeds and mince together with a knife.
Once the onions are ready, add the beef broth and the meat together with the bay leaves, garlic, caraway seeds, marjoram, and tomato paste. Mix and bring to gentle simmer. Turn the heat down to low, cover and let simmer on the stove top (or in the oven at 350F) until the onions have mostly disintegrated and the beef is tender, about 90 minutes to 2 hours. For a thicker consistency, cook uncovered or partially covered after 1 hour while frequently checking on the progress. Once the goulash is thick enough for your taste, cover and continue cooking until done.
Season the goulash with salt and pepper, remove the bay leaves and serve while hot.