Sauerbraten, or “sour roast”, is a dish well-known in the cookery of Germany and what used to be called Mitteleuropa.
Anyone learning about foreign cuisines in the 60’s through the 80’s knew about sauerbraten. It’s of the time when quiche lorraine, green peppercorns, cassoulet, sole almondine, coq au vin were popular – and I daresay carbonade flamande, the Flemish beef-and-beer stew.
Dishes go in and out of style, which has little to do with their inherent goodness and lots more to do with fashion and other vagaries.
Chuck Cowdery, America’s authority on bourbon whiskey, recently commented here that my carbonade flamande posting made him think of sauerbraten. Indeed, there are numerous similarities. Both use beef as the main meat, and onion, both use vinegar or another souring agent, and both can have a spicy note. In fact, there are numerous dishes across a band of northern or north-central Europe which are broadly similar. Yorkshire had a dish of beef and beer, a harvest dish for farm workers. The Czech Republic has a beer goulash (good example here), as do Germany and Austria, and Poland does a turn in beef or game marinated in beer, vinegar and spices. Other versions appear farther east still. Each one is somewhat different though and assumes finally a national or ethnic character.
Anyone who knows about sauerbraten may object: but it’s based on red wine. True, but not exclusively. Beer versions exist too in the German lands.
I will give a recipe for a beer sauerbraten from Germany, but first a note on the source. It is from Ruth Vendley Neumann’s Cooking With Spirits, published by Castle Books in 1961. According to Internet sources, Ruth Neumann grew up in the Detroit area before World War II. She trained as a concert violinist but later became an advertising executive in the Chicago area, she had her own agency in Winnetka for many years. This book is what might be called topical (like most cookbooks), not seeking to mark any kind of culinary achievement or stand as compelling social history or memoir. The book is mostly a collection of recipes, many of the author’s own devise, which employ in some way beer, wine, spirits and liqueurs in cookery from soup to nuts.
In the 1950’s, cookbook publishers, and probably still today, were looking for an angle, something different to catch the attention of the public. In that period, you saw books on lazy susan cookery, Polynesian food, cooking with leftovers, or outdoor cooking (relatively new in the 50’s). It’s no surprise someone thought to publish a book based on using, not just wine or beer, but any sort of beverage alcohol. There was an element of novelty, even fun, to some of the food publishing of that time. Today, the obsession with supposedly natural food and “clean” eating can cast a Soviet-style humorlessness on dining. The Fifties were less sanctimonious. If a certain florid superficiality characterized the food scene, so what? It was no worse than the studied gravity which attends the business of fueling the body today, and was understandable in any case as a reaction to wartime rationing and shortages.
The publisher of Cooking With Spirits found the right person to write it. The book displays the author’s enthusiasm and can-do attitude, a part of her personality which must have assisted her professional work, too. And for those who look, there are a few nuggets which qualify as interesting social history. One of these is her spare but deft portrait of an Italian-American colleague she encountered in a WPA sewing project – a New Deal-era program, for those not familiar with the acronym. The other woman brought zucchini sandwiches from her family which entranced Neumann, and she gives the recipe, called Zucchini Paganelli. It was her friend’s, save the addition of some Chianti. Another nugget describes a pie Ms. Neumann’s mother made from Concord grapes. She says the only problem with it was you couldn’t stop eating it: “Too darn good”. There is a story of a beef sirloin dish a friend enjoyed during a 1920’s fishing trip in Wyoming. The friend, a young executive with General Motors at the time, was introduced to the dish by a “Turkish rug dealer” who had joined the excursion. The sirloin, a 5lb. centre cut, was treated with cognac, chili sauce and mustard, amongst other things. The result convinced Ruth Neumann that her previous philosophy, “when I eat steak, I want to taste steak”, required modification.
During the early 1950’s, she traveled with her husband to Germany and Austria. The early 50’s was still a time of privation and rebuilding in Germany, it wasn’t on everyone’s “Europe” list then. Perhaps she or (I’d guess more) her husband was of German background, as she mentions they went more than once.
During one of the trips, she was much taken with a sauerbraten in which beer, not wine, was the base. She calls it, Ben Burkhart’s Sauerbraten. (I’m not sure who Ben Burkhart was or is, perhaps the owner of the hotel where the dish was served). This is how she starts her account:
The date was October 15, 1953. The Schottenhaml Hotel in Munich was just getting back into shape after the ravages of the war; so when my husband and I arrived there from Cologne, we had to tote our bags through the back door. The front façade still presented a gaping hole where a bomb had made a direct hit.
The recipe involves 4 lb. of beef round or chuck, 2 cups wine vinegar, 3 cups beer, 2 onions, 2 tbsp. pickling spices, 3 tbsp. brown sugar, 1 tbsp. salt, flour to dredge the meat, and Mazola to brown. Of course, sour cream enters into it, too. If you want the full recipe, buy the book! Very inexpensive used copies are available online, and the book has much else of value or period interest.
As one can see, despite the use of beer, the recipe is not like carbonade flamande in that much more vinegar is used, and mustard and herbs are absent. Still, it is easy to see the general connection, as stated earlier. And indeed, for cooks in Lille, Roubaix or Brussels who use spice bread in their carbonade and put a swirl of crème fraiche in at the end to enrich the dish, it probably bears more than a passing resemblance to a beery sauerbraten. The more classic wine version does have a different taste though: Bacchus puts it on a different vector.
I’ve made some of Ruth Neumann’s dishes – her Lamb Curry (addition of gin) or Bourbon-cued Chicken are terrific – but not the beer sauerbraten. If I do, I’ll let Chuck Cowdery know, maybe he’ll make the drive up from Chicago to help us dig in.
Note re image: This image is in the public domain and was sourced here.