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If you grew up eating goulash then it’s likely that you have a specific idea of what goulash is. For some it’s beef soup with carrots, parsnips and potatoes. For others it’s a thick stew without a vegetable to be found. If you were raised in certain parts of the US, goulash might even be ground beef with tomato sauce and macaroni noodles. This last version, which veers dangerously close to Hamburger Helper, is a far cry from traditional Hungarian goulash. Whether it’s served as a soup or stew, with vegetables or without, Hungarian goulash must involve one thing: chunks of beef simmered in a paprika-laced broth until the meat is so tender you’ll eat it with a spoon.
Simmering meat in a pot with a handful of other ingredients until it turns into a rich, thick, comforting meal isn’t a unique idea. The French have Boeuf Bourguignon. Texans have Texas Chili. What makes goulash different is paprika, and lots of it.
Paprika is made by grinding up various types of dried peppers. The type of pepper determines how sweet or spicy the paprika will be. If paprika has a bright red color it’s likely to be sweeter and milder. When the color starts leaning towards brown and orange hues, watch out. It’s going to be spicy. Hungarian Paprika, which is sold in sweet and spicy versions, tastes different than Spanish paprika (which is usually smoky) and regular generic paprika (which doesn’t have much flavor at all). If you can find Hungarian paprika, by all means use it for making goulash. It will give the dish a stronger flavor, one that is slightly sweet and pungent – a little bit like what the essence of a really flavorful red bell pepper tastes like. The mildest varieties of Hungarian paprika are often labeled as Különleges, Édesnemes, Csípmentes and Csemege. Things start getting spicy when you see Félédes, Rozsa or Eros on the label.
This goulash recipe also includes fresh bell peppers, tomato paste and vinegar for extra flavor, but a goulash purist will skip all three. If you take goulash very seriously, it’s all about the meat, onions and paprika. Like most hearty dishes that revolve around tender chunks of beef, goulash must be cooked slowly over the course of a few hours. If you really want to taste goulash at its finest, make a point of eating a bowl as leftovers the next day. The more time the ingredients spend together, the better they taste.
In a heavy deep pot (like a Dutch oven) heat half of the fat over medium-high heat. Add the meat in three batches, removing each batch from the pot after it browns. The meat doesn’t need to be cooked all the way through, just browned on the outside.
Once the meat is out of the pot, add the rest of the fat followed by the onions and paprika. Stir the onions as they cook, for about five minutes.
Add garlic and caraway seeds. Add vinegar and tomato paste and cook 1 minute, whisking constantly. Add the meat back to the pot along with the salt and bell peppers.
Pour in the broth. The meat should be fully covered by liquid. If needed, add a cup or so of water. Bring to a gentle boil.
Simmer goulash, covered, stirring occasionally, for an hour and half, or slightly longer if meat isn’t tender enough. If you want very little broth, you can remove the lid halfway through the cooking time.
Serve alone in a bowl or over lightly sautéed, thinly sliced cabbage or cauliflower rice.