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Bigos, or Hunter’s stew, is generally considered the national dish of Poland, though it is found in many European kitchens and in American ethnic restaurants. Ingredients for bigos can vary according to family and regional recipes or depending on what is available in the kitchen when it is made. Some ingredients may be considered essential. Meat and sauerkraut are typically included in the making of bigos, while seasoning and additional vegetables can change from stew to stew.
Some of the meats used in making bigos are veal, pork, beef, chicken, bacon, and sausage or kielbasa. Meats can be cubed or added in larger chunks, and they can be highly salted and chopped fine. A combination of meats is generally used. Stock or soup cubes often are added to flavor the liquid of the stew, and these can be meat or vegetable based, store bought or homemade.
Vegetables cooked in bigos can include mushrooms, onions, carrots, and tomatoes. Potatoes can be added to the stew or served on the side. Cabbage may be added to the sauerkraut, which is itself a specially fermented cabbage. With the high sauerkraut and meat content, many recipes may also include a sweet ingredient such as fruit. Plums, apples, and dried prunes can be used.
Wine and vodka also may be included in bigos recipes. Most stews cook for long periods of time, and the added alcohol mellows in taste while generally adding a rich layer of flavor to the meat and sauerkraut. Red or white wines can be used, and even beer can be substituted. Often beer and wine are recommended accompaniments to be served alongside the stew, as is rye bread or other flavorful or crusty breads.
Seasoning and herbs used in hunter’s stew are generally of the savory variety and may also include dried or fresh juniper berries. Caraway seeds and bay leaves often are found in bigos recipes, as are black pepper and paprika. Garlic may be used as well, though many recipes omit garlic altogether. Chefs and home cooks may even add secret ingredients all their own.
As with many regional varieties of stew, bigos also can improve with cooking time and with age. A pot of stew can be refrigerated for days, with cooks adding ingredients to stretch it out with each reheating. This deepens the flavor of the original preparation while adding dimensions of flavor with each new serving.