It’s one of the world’s most famous beefy blessings. And, sadly, one of the most abused. But, by treating it with the respect it merits, Hungarian goulash can easily win the gold medal it undeniably deserves.
Put good beef together with good paprika, and you’ve cracked the essential secret to making a shining example of Hungary’s proudly national dish.
In a great Hungarian goulash, the flavors of those two primary ingredients become immense. A deeply rich, beefy savor is paired with the fruitily sweet richness of aromatic, spicy paprika and its oh-so distinctive, chili pepper bite. That duo of starring roles is supported by onion, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and small, sweet bell peppers. Add the slightly astringent, aniseed flavor of caraway seeds, and it’s easy to see why a country would award this dish with national status.
Although exceptionally fine goulash is actually easy to make, it is absolutely critical to use the right sort of beef, and the right sort of paprika.
The beef is easy to come by from a good butcher, and we’ll get to those straightforward details in a moment. Finding the paprika is a little more involved, but it’s really important to pick the right one for your goulash.
Picking your paprika
Now, I’d always thought there were just two types of paprika — the smoked one from Spain that’s tagged as ‘pimenton’, and the unsmoked, regular one from, er, well, you know, somewhere else.
It wasn’t until I decided to make a genuine goulash that I discovered there was a lot more to paprika than had met my untutored eye. I’ve never particularly liked the smoked stuff, so, for around four decades, I’ve been buying the other sort.
Happily, I now know that for a really fine goulash, the paprika has to come from Hungary — my ‘somewhere else’ country that, in fact, gave paprika its name. Ranging from very mild to cayenne-type heat, there are several varieties of Hungarian paprika, and there’s an excellent, must-read guide to them all right here.
I also learnt that it’s got to be used in very generous amounts for a proper goulash — a heaped tablespoon for each serving is a rule-of-thumb that’s wise to follow.
So, armed with my newly acquired insights, and steering well clear of Spain’s smoke-dried pimenton, I checked the spice sections of the stores I routinely visit. The little glass bottles and boxed sachets of paprika were all just labelled as that — paprika. However, one was a noticeably darker red than the others, and I was delighted to see it aptly described as ‘pungent, sweet, and spicy’.
And it certainly ticked those boxes in terms of giving this goulash those essential, medal-winning qualities — pungent, sweet and spicy. Look for that sort of description, and you’ll be on the right track.
Buying your beef
This is a straightforward choice. With a marrow-centred bone, shin is the right stuff for goulash. Also referred to as osso buco, shin is a cross-section of beef shank. Choose slices that are at least two-thirds well-marbled meat to one third bone. And you want the slices to be cut a good inch thick.
The meat gets cubed into squarish, ½-inch chunks, and the trimmed-out, marrow-fatted bones cook with the goulash to give it their own, richly savory dimensions.
Lard (pork fat) and paprika: Another grand combo for goulash
Anthony Bourdain praised The Concise Larousse Gastronomique, as being, “The absolutely indispensable bible of cooking”. It’s certainly encyclopedic — my 2003 edition runs to a weighty 1408 pages, plus index. And the entry for paprika stresses that, “It develops the best flavor when it is cooked with onion and lard.”
Using lard — as opposed to any other fat or oil — to brown the cubes of shin, and to soften the onions, garlic and bell peppers, certainly adds to the well-rounded richness of our goulash. My definite recommendation? Use lard, and plenty of it. You and your fellow diners will be glad you did. As they say in Hungary, finom — delicious.
Hungarian Goulash With Homemade Butter Noodles
For the Hungarian goulash
- 4 heaped tablespoons Hungarian paprika
- 2 ½ pounds beef shin 1-inch thick with marrow-centred bones
- 8 cherry tomatoes roughly chopped, skins, seeds and all
- 2 heaped teaspoons caraway seeds
- 6 bell peppers halved, de-seeded, and cut into 1-inch wide slices. I used a mix of red and orangey-yellow ones.
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, halved, and cut into ¼ inch slices.
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 4 tablespoons lard
- 2 tablespoons white flour I used stoneground white bread flour
- 4 1/2 cups water
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
Trimming the beef shin
- Trim the meat from the bones, cut away and discard any tendon, then slice the meat into ½-inch cubes. That bone-in weight should give you about 2 pounds of cubed meat – ideal.
- Keep the marrow-fatted bones – they’ll cook with the goulash to add their flavors, and be removed when it’s done.
Cooking the goulash
- You’ll need a large, oven proof pot with a tight-fitting lid for this – a cast-iron dutch oven / casserole pot is ideal.
- To max the flavor of the beef, you first need to give batches of it a good browning in the lard – so that’s where we’ll start.
- Melt the lard in your big pot over a high heat until it begins to shimmer, but has not yet started to smoke. Stir in a third of the cubed beef so it gets a coating of the lard, and drop the heat to medium-high. Let the cubes sizzle away with a few turning stirs for about 7 minutes until the beef takes on a good brown – but not charred – color all over.
- Use a slotted spoon to transfer the browned cubes to a plate – leaving as much of the hot lard as you can in the pot. Now repeat the process with the next two batches of the beef. Why do this in three batches? Well, if you add too much beef to the hot lard it won’t fry hotly enough or quickly enough to seal in most of the cubes’ juices. They need to fry pretty hot and fast in a single layer in the pot, with a little space between each cube.
- Once all the cubes are browned and set aside, drop the heat to medium and stir in the sliced bell peppers. Let them fry with a couple of stirs so that they just begin to pick up a little color and soften slightly – about 5 minutes on that medium heat. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set them aside on plate. They’ve done most of the cooking they need, and are only going to be added to your goulash towards the end of its cooking.
- Add the onions to the pot and fry them with a few stirs for about 5 minutes on a medium heat until they also soften and take on a little browning color. Now return all the browned beef cubes to the pot – together with any juices on their plate – and thoroughly stir in the paprika, garlic, caraway seeds, black pepper, and flour. The mix needs a really thorough stir so that the flour and paprika become completely absorbed.
- Now pour in the water and add the shin bones, salt, and tomatoes. Give your goulash a really good stir, and turn the heat to high. As soon as it starts to bubble, drop the heat to low, cover the pot and let it simmer gently – and I mean gently – for ten minutes.
- While you’re waiting for those ten minutes of simmering to finish, turn your oven to 300 F / 150C. Once the ten minutes is up, give the goulash a good stir, cover the pot, and set it in the oven for 2 hours. Time now to make the noodles.
Making the noodles
- Begin by beating the eggs and salt together. Add the flour to a good size mixing bowl and gradually stir in the egg mix. I use a stout wooden spoon to begin this mixing, then use my fingers to get all the flour thoroughly combined with the egg – takes about 5 minutes.
- Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic / saran wrap and let it sit – not in the refrigerator – for 30 minutes. Then unwrap the dough and start kneading it on a cold work surface. Give it a thorough kneading for about 5 minutes until the dough begins to take on a little shine and becomes slightly more elastic. Good. Form it into a ball, wrap it again and let it sit for another 30 minutes.
- Time for some rolling. Cut the dough into two halves and form each one into a ball. Dust a little flour onto a cold worksurface and use a lightly floured rolling pin to start rolling the first ball into an elongated oval shape that’s about 18 inches long and 9 inches wide. More importantly than those dimensions, you’re aiming to roll the dough to an overall thickness of 1/16 inch. (If you have a pasta machine, put it through the rollers a few times till you can almost see through it.)
- Now use a small sharp knife to cut the thinly rolled dough lengthwise into strips about ½ inch wide. Lay the strips to one side and cover them with a clean kitchen cloth. Repeat the rolling and cutting process with the other ball of dough.
- The strips can now sit until the goulash comes to the end of its 2 hours in the oven.
Finishing the goulash and cooking the noodles
- Remove the goulash from the oven, give it a good stir, and taste for saltiness. Adjust if necessary to your taste. Lift out the shin bones and discard them. Now stir in the slightly softened sliced peppers, cover the pot, and return it to the 300F / 150C oven for it’s final 30 minutes of cooking.
- While that’s happening, it’s time to cook the noodles. Fill a good-sized pot 3/4 full of water, add a heaped teaspoon of salt, and set the pot to boil on a high heat. As soon as the water reaches a good rolling boil, add all the noodles and give them one swift stir. The noodles will lower the water’s temperature, so keep the heat on high until the water comes back to that rolling boil. As soon as it does, drop the heat to medium high so that the water just barely keeps the noodles slowly moving.
- Let the noodles cook like that for 5 minutes, and then test a piece. You want the noodles to be cooked through, and just be al dente. If you think they’re still a little too chewy, let them cook for another couple of minutes at that gently moving boil.
- Drain the noodles in a colander and return them to their pan. Add the butter and cover the pan. It’s time to serve.
- Once the goulash has had its final 30 minutes in the oven, I like to present it in its cooking pot – and then let people help themselves. To serve the noodles, give them a stir in their pan so that they get a coating of the by-now melted butter. Turn the noodles into a serving dish, and set them alongside your pot of goulash so people can help themselves.
Serve with sour cream and chopped chives (optional)
- It’s a simple question. If you like sour cream – and the look of it when scattered with a few chopped chives – then by all means do please offer them at the table.
- My preference? Yes, please, and it should be full fat soured cream. This goulash is a very rich dish indeed, and I like the freshening lightness of a good, heaped tablespoon of the nicely thick cream. The chives? Yes, again. I just really like the look of them.