The gussied-up versions of Hungarian goulash served in the United States bear little resemblance to the authentic dish. Sour cream has no place in the pot, nor do mushrooms, green peppers, or most herbs. Least welcome of all are ketchup and Worcestershire sauce-standard ingredients in some renditions. More important, how do you infuse intense paprika flavor without creating a stew that’s so gritty, it’s as if you dumped a handful of sand into the pot.
Traditional Hungarian goulash is the humblest of stews and we wanted the real deal-a simple dish of tender braised beef packed with paprika flavor.
We wanted to keep the focus on the meat and the paprika. To achieve the desired level of spicy intensity, some recipes call for as much as half a cup of paprika per three pounds of meat, but with that much fine spice, the dish took on a gritty, dusty texture. After consulting chefs at a few Hungarian restaurants, we were introduced to paprika cream, a condiment that’s as common in Hungarian cooking as the dried spice. This convenience product was great, but almost impossible to find. Instead, we created our own quick version by pureeing dried paprika with roasted red peppers and a little tomato paste and vinegar. This imparted vibrant paprika flavor without any offensive grittiness. As for the meat, after settling on chuck-eye roast, we bought a whole roast and cut it ourselves into uniform, large pieces to ensure even cooking. Since searing the meat first-normally standard stew protocol-competed with the paprika’s brightness, we referred back to a trend we noticed in the hundreds of goulash recipes gathered during research: Skipping the sear. We tried this, softening the onions in the pot first, adding paprika paste, carrots, and then meat before placing the covered pot in the oven. Sure enough, the onions and meat provided enough liquid to stew the meat and the bits of beef that cooked above the liquid line browned in the hot air. A bit of broth added near the end of cooking thinned out the stewing liquid and made it more saucelike.