Goulash vs Pörkölt

‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
 By any other name would smell as sweet;’

rose from wikiWell yes, Bill… but technically, the name ‘goulash’ is derived from the Hungarian word ‘gulyás’, which refers to a soup, not a stew. The word for the stew [sic] is ‘pörkölt’, which has connotations of ‘browned’ or ‘roasted’ – i.e. the exact opposite of a soup that has been boiled!

[The phonetic pronunciation of pörkölt is something like ‘purr-curl-t‘ by the way]

So why is the correct naming of this iconic Hungarian dish so important to me? Because I’ve been cooking it most of my life yet only just realised that the technique is more braised than stewed, exactly as the name implies!

I know how silly this must sound, but you have no idea how much trouble this simple dish has caused me. Since starting my ecookbook project back in July, I have probably cooked it about 8 times. That’s about 7 times more than I normally would. AND I had the recipe beta-tested by a good cook. Yet each time, I ended up missing something in the process. I’d go on ‘automatic’ and suddenly realise I hadn’t measured this, or timed that. 😦

Now when you’re cooking for friends and family, you can add a pinch of this and a hint of that and still make everyone happy. When you’re writing a recipe, however, it has to be reproduce-able, and for that you need exact quantities, exact instructions, exact timing, exact bloody everything…


Honestly, at this point, cooking becomes a kind of science experiment rather than art, and definitely stops being fun. But last night I finally nailed it. I wrote everything down as I did it. I measured every last little thing. I noted down the techniques I used… and I have photos to prove it.

Of course, the reproduce-ability of my pörkölt will still depend on things out of my control, such as cut of meat and type of pot, but at least I now know the recipe is as ‘right’ as I can get it from my end.

So now <<drum roll>> The Purr-curl-t!


1 kg gravy beef cut into 2 inch cubes.

[Gravy beef is the tough meat cut from the shin. Perfect for long, slow cooking]

1 large brown onion finely chopped [do I have to say it’s peeled first?]

2 tablespoons of paprika powder

1/3 of a cup peanut oil [equivalent to 6 tablespoons]

1/2 a teaspoon salt

1 cup of cold water [250 ml]


Saute the onions in the oil until just golden. [Low to medium heat if using a cast iron pot]

Remove from the heat and stir in the paprika powder.

Return the pot to the heat and add the cubes of beef.

Keep stirring the beef until it is thoroughly coated in the onion and paprika, and each piece has seared [i.e. changed colour]

Sprinkle the salt over the meat and keep stirring for about 10 minutes. This is almost like stir frying as you have to keep stirring until the meat releases its own juices into the pan.

This is what it looks like after 8 minutes:

porkolt at the beginning

Every drop of liquid in the pot has come from the meat itself and I will not add any water for about an hour.

This is the braising part of the technique and accomplishes two things :

1. it stops the flavours from being diluted, thus you get a stronger, richer gravy, and

2. it ensures that the flavours cook into the meat as well as the gravy. There’s nothing worse than biting into a piece of tasteless boiled meat.

Once the meat has released its juices, you can cover the pot, and turn the heat down very very low. The pörkölt will now simmer away quietly for about an hour.

[If you are not using a heavy, cast iron pot, you will have to check the pörkölt more often to ensure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. This is where a difference in cooking pots really makes a difference. If you need to add more water, just add 100 ml at a time so the pörkölt doesn’t become ‘soupy’.]

At the 1 hour mark, I added 100 ml of cold water to the pörkölt – just to keep the level of the liquid near the original level.

At the 2 ½ hour mark, the meat was very tender and start to ‘flake’. I added 150 ml of cold water to ensure there was enough gravy to go around, and brought the pot up to the boil. As soon as the extra liquid came to the boil I turned the heat off and let the pörkölt sit while I made the accompaniments.

And that’s it, a deceptively simple dish with very few ingredients, but a bit of fiddling when it comes to cooking technique.

If anyone out there is prepared to test the recipe for me I’ll be eternally grateful!




About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

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