We served sauerbraten at our first dinner party as a married couple. But we didn’t know it would be so explosive, providing the evening’s entertainment, as well as its entrée.
Peter had been talking about hosting the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign German club for months before our wedding. He’d formed friendships with several of his fellow members, and I’d gotten to know them too. Sauerbraten was a logical choice. We both loved it, and most of its preparation happens days before it’s served; the same could be true of its perfect partner, potato dumplings.
Everything was going splendidly: Our guests seemed to be enjoying themselves and the hors d’oeuvres we’d set out. We’d meticulously planned our last minute preparation tasks: When it was time for everyone to be seated, Peter would slice the meat and thicken its sauce; I was in charge of boiling the dumplings and garnishing them with buttery breadcrumbs.
I’d turned away from the stove when Peter reached for the yellow box of cornstarch. Then people began shouting – in both German and English – and I whirled around to see a volcanic river of purple foam spilling out of the sauerbraten pot onto the stove and down to the floor. Peter had grabbed the baking soda box, which was the same shade of yellow as the cornstarch box; mixing the sauerbraten’s acidic vinegar and red wine sauce with baking soda recreated the grade-school science demonstration of combining an acid with a base.
The foam continued for several minutes. Peter did the best he could with the remaining liquid, but it lacked its normal delicious tang, and had an off taste. At least the meat – and dumplings – turned out fine. And our first dinner party definitely was memorable, even if not quite in the same way we’d hoped!
Food writer David Rosengarten says, “Sauerbraten is, quite simply, the best pot roast [I] know of,” and I wouldn’t disagree. Traditionally, sauerbraten is made with a beef top round roast, which isn’t usually used for braising, as it can easily become dry. Top round is used because it produces regular slices, but I prefer using a chuck roast or brisket. The slices are, maybe more irregular, but the meat is more succulent. I’ve made sauerbraten many times and tried several different recipes. But I always come back to the recipe we used for that explosive dinner party, although I’ve made a few modifications. It comes from the late, great Craig Claiborne’s classic, Cooking with Herbs and Spices.
For the marinade:
• 1 c. red wine vinegar
• 2 c. red wine
• 2 T. brown sugar
• 1 T. whole peppercorns
• 1 tsp. salt
• 4 bay leaves, crumbled
• 6 whole cloves
• 2 cloves garlic, smashed
• Peel from 1 lemon (remove with a vegetable peeler)
• 2 c. roughly chopped onion, not supersweet
• 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
• 3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
• 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
• A handful of parsley stems
• 1 beef roast suitable for braising, such as rolled top round, chuck roast or brisket
anywhere from 2-6 lbs.
To braise the beef:
• 3 T. vegetable oil or bacon fat
• 2 c. unsalted or low sodium beef stock, plus additional if necessary
• 3 T. cornstarch
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, if needed
Combine the ingredients for the marinade in a 2-gallon resealable plastic bag, seal the bag, and squish until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Alternatively, use a large nonreactive pot or crock big enough to hold the meat and marinade completely; stir to dissolve the salt and sugar, and put a small plate on top to keep the meat submerged. Refrigerate for 4-5 days, turning the beef once or twice daily.
Take the beef from the refrigerator 2 hours before beginning to braise it. Strain the marinade into a saucepan. Pat the meat dry, put it on a rack, and let stand to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 F.
Combine the strained marinade and beef stock in a saucepan and place on low heat.
In a large nonreactive Dutch oven or pot with a tight-fitting lid that’s big enough to hold the roast, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking.
Put the beef in the pot and brown its top and bottom well. Remove the meat and pour off any excess fat. Place the beef back in the pot, and add enough stock/marinade so that the liquid comes about 1/3 of the way up the roast. Keep the remaining liquid warm.
Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with lid and braise in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Turn the meat, replace the lid, and continue braising until the meat is very tender, at least another 1 1/2 hours or longer, depending on the roast’s size. Throughout the entire cooking time, baste with the marinade/stock about every 30 minutes until all is used.
Remove the meat from the pot to a warm platter. Whisk together the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water, then add to the pot, whisking constantly until the cornstarch is incorporated. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture has thickened.
Slice the sauerbraten across the grain and place on a warm platter. If necessary, strain the sauce again. Serve the sauerbraten with or without some of the sauce spooned over the slices; pass the remaining sauce separately.
Leftover sauerbraten make wonderful sandwiches.
The dough for German potato dumplings is exactly the same as that for Italian gnocchi. But each delectable dumpling in this particular version has a surprise inside: a cube of butter-browned toast.
• 2 1/2 lb. russet baking potatoes
• 1 1/2 c. all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional if needed for the dough, and also for forming the dumplings
• 2 eggs
• 1 1/2 tsp. salt plus additional for the water to cook the dumplings
• 2 slices good quality sandwich-type bread (not dense rustic breads such as sourdough)
• 2 T. plus 2/3 c. unsalted butter
• 1/3 c. fresh breadcrumbs
• 1/3 c. chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
Bake the potatoes at 375 F. until a knife pierces them through easily. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on size. Cool to room temperature, then scoop out the flesh and put through a ricer. They can also be mashed, but be careful not to overwork them. Combine with the flour, eggs and 1 1/2 tsp. salt in a large bowl to form a dough. Again, be careful not to overwork the dough or the dumplings will be heavy.
Trim the crusts from the bread and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet, toss the bread cubes in the butter, and sauté until golden brown.
Form the potato mixture into balls, using about 2 tablespoons for each dumpling. Insert a bread cube into the middle of each ball, roll to cover the cube, and then roll the balls in flour. They can be made ahead and chilled, covered, until ready to cook. They may also be frozen in a single layer, then placed in plastic bags for up to a month.
Bring a large (at least 1 gallon) pot of salted water to a boil. Add the dumplings a few at a time. It’s important to not overcrowd the pot. Depending on the size and shape of your pot (wide or narrow) you may have to do this in batches. The dumplings should cook for about 4 minutes after they rise to the top – about 8 minutes in all. Remove them from the pot and drain on paper towels or lint-free cloth towels.
While they are boiling, melt the remaining butter in a skillet, stir in the bread crumbs, and sauté until the breadcrumbs are golden and crisp. Serve the dumplings topped with the breadcrumb butter mixture and sprinkled with the parsley. Serves 6-10.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.