I put sauerbraten on the menu a few weeks ago. It’s not my favorite dish, but it is one of Janet’s, so I try to make it for her at least once each winter. If you’ve ever made sauerbraten you know two things. First, it takes at least three days to marinate. I learned that lesson the hard way. Second, it calls for the cheapest cut of beef you can find…I use chuck roast. It took three weeks of searching through half a dozen grocery stores before I found something under $6 per pound. I would have settled for a sirloin or round roast, but they too were crazy expensive.
It shouldn’t be so hard to find a cheap roast. I refuse to blame COVID related supply chain shortages. The supply chain between the national meat packing plants in the Midwest and the grocery wholesalers here on the East Coast hasn’t had any trouble getting truckloads of that double digit dollar per pound USDA Prime Certified Angus stuff to the grocery stores. In fact it’s all you can find some days. USDA Prime represents just 3% of all beef sold in this country, most of which…supposedly…goes to the restaurant industry. With restaurants having been closed for the better part of two years guess whose getting it now?
Enough whining and sounding like my parents. After three weeks of searching I finally found a chuck roast at Food Lion for $5.49 per pound so I put sauerbraten back on the menu. And I made it. And it was good.
In the weeks I spent searching for a cheap roast, I became curious how other people cook their family’s version of sauerbraten. I put the question to my Facebook friends, asking especially for family recipes with a German connection. I got about half a dozen responses, some with really touching backstories to go along with them. That’s the thing I like most about food and cooking…the smells and the flavors they result in evoke the best memories.
I went in search of the history of sauerbraten as a dish and in the process found a great online source for traditional German recipes. The website presents two recipes for sauerbraten, the “classic” Bavarian style sauerbraten (their words not mine) which they describe as a traditional Swabian dish, and a Rhenish recipe from the Rhineland. When I looked at the recipes my friends sent me, indeed they were one of those two styles.
Sauerbraten is meant for whatever kind of meat you have available that is tough by nature, or that you pulled out of your freezer after it sat there for who knows how long. The dish supposedly originated from the Romans, when Julius Caesar moved in to conquer Europe. As the war and work animals his troops used for the conquest died along the way, particularly horses, soldiers would butcher the meat and preserve it in crocks of salt, pickling solution and wine…whatever they had on hand at the time. The long marinade time kept the meat from spoiling, tenderized it to make it edible, but left a decidedly sour flavor to it. Sauerbraten remained popular in Germany where horse meat continued to be the favored source of protein. By the time the dish caught on in this country it was most often made with some of the tougher cuts of beef like the chuck roast I use. You can even use pork if you prefer it to beef.
I did a side by side comparison of recipes for both the Swabian and the Rhenish versions of sauerbraten that I found on the traditional German cooking website and they are almost identical. The ingredients for the marinade are the same for both recipes, but the Swabian version has you add the meat to the cold marinade without boiling it up. The Rhenish version has you boil the marinade before adding the meat, to unlock to flavors from the root veggies and the pickling spices. I suppose at a molecular level there is some difference in the flavors that get into the broth from boiling as opposed to the acid extraction caused by bathing for a week in vinegar. But can you taste it?
The other difference between the two sauerbraten styles is that after marinating the meat, the Bavarians add six tabespoons of honey to the marinating liquid before cooking the meat in it, while the Rhinelanders only add four. Wars have been fought over smaller differences. Rhinelanders also add 3-4 ounces of crumbled pumpernickel bread to their marinade just before cooking it up which the Bavarians don’t add, or at least don’t admit to adding. Again…can you taste the difference in the finished dish? Maybe a Michelin star palate could tease it out, but not mine. Of course the raisins the Rhinelanders add to their gravy that the Bavarians don’t would give it away. Both styles are in agreement on one point…you thicken the gravy with a roux. Gingersnaps have no place in a traditional sauerbraten.
Like the Rhinelanders, I boil my marinade before adding the meat to unlock the flavors of the veggies and spices, but unlike either of the traditional styles I also brown my meat first, before I put it in the marinade. I figure if it makes sense to boil the marinade up front to unlock flavors from the veggies, then it makes sense to brown the meat too and incorporate the fond in the marinade. Once I have it browned on all sides I set it aside and then saute the veggies in the same pan, which I then de-glaze with the marinade liquids and scrape up the fond from when I browned the roast. I bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it up a few times, then drop the heat down to low and let it simmer for about 15 minutes before taking it off the stove to cool. Once it is cooled I add the meat back in, cover it, and stick it in the fridge for three to five days, turning it and sloshing the liquid about once or twice each day.
The other differences between my recipe and the traditional recipes come when I use the marinade to make the gravy. I don’t add any pumpernickel crumbles to the marinade before I cook the roast up, but I do add sugar. The nutritional value of the amount of sugar I add is roughly on par with the 4 tablespoons of honey added to the Rhenish style of sauerbraten gravy. What sets my recipe apart from the traditionalists is that I use gingersnaps to thicken my gravy rather than a roux. I like the flavor and texture I get out of it. OK I’m not going to lie…I also like snacking on the left over gingersnaps. I usually add raisins to the gravy just before I serve it but I didn’t have any in the pantry this time, so I substituted what I did have…some dried cranberrries. It worked.
Sauerbraten is one of those dishes where you can’t mess with tradition. Except…I do. I do it with just about everything I cook because I like exploring flavors and textures. You can’t do that by cooking the same thing the same way every time. My recipe, as it turns out, didn’t come from one of Janet’s family cook books. I took it from Alton Brown, which is really just an Americanized version of the Rhenish recipe that uses gingersnaps in lieu of pumpernickel and the roux. I’ve made a few changes over the decade and a half since I’ve been making it, but not many. This year I made a few more changes, thanks mainly to some ideas I took away from my friends’ recipes, and I have a few more things to try the next time I make sauerbraten. I’m through with it for this year, but we’ll see what next year brings!