I grew up thinking that German sour beef and dumplings were a tradition specific to my family. After all, we have a bit of German in our genes on my Dad’s side. But apparently, the dish is a Baltimore tradition. So many other Marylanders may have the same memory I do: eating sour beef at my grandmother’s house once a year. Honestly, I didn’t care for the dumplings or the beef when I was young, and I was iffy about the sauce. Still, this year I finally wanted my grandmom to teach me how to make sour beef.
My grandmom says she grew up eating her grandmother Elsie’s sour beef and dumplings. Then Elsie passed away without writing down the recipe. “My mother just guessed at it,” she says. “And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”
Grandmom already had the beef ready to go when I got there – that’s four beef rounds, marinated in white vinegar with four white onions and whole allspice for two days. We eventually stacked the beef chunks and onions in two pots and cooked them in a mixture of white vinegar and water until the meat fell apart, about an hour.
Then, it was time to make the sauce. Are you ready for this? Sour beef sauce is basically…melted gingersnaps. “I can remember MomMom [her mother, my great-grandmother] sitting there and crunching them,” Grandmom says about the cookies, wincing her face at how long this process took. That’s because MomMom thought she had to pulverize the gingersnaps to use them in the sauce.
But Grandmom learned an easier way: cover whole gingersnaps with warm water, which melts the cookies. Then, we poured the mixture into the pots to make a vinegar and gingersnap sauce, which thickens because of the flour in the cookies. The process is kind of cool to see, and the sauce is quite good: sour and sweet and slightly spicy.
While Grandmom and I made the sour beef, my parents were at home making the dumplings using an East German recipe. When my Dad looked over the ingredient list - potatoes, cream of wheat, potato starch – he said, “This is a starch lover’s dream.” Despite the extra ingredients though, they taste just like mashed potatoes.
There may be many ways to make sour beef and dumplings. But here’s the way my grandmother makes hers.
5 pounds Russet potatoes, unpeeled
3 teaspoons salt
8 ounces potato starch
¾ cup instant cream of wheat
Optional: ½ tsp thyme
Boil the potatoes in the skin until soft. Peel and mash the potatoes. Stir in the potato starch, salt, and cream of wheat. When the mixture has cooled slightly, stir in the eggs. (The eggs will scramble if the potatoes are too hot.)
Then, roll handfuls of the potato dough into balls. (No need for flour – the dumplings shouldn’t be sticky.) If you want perfect dumplings, you can do what my Dad did: first measure your potatoes to three ounces.
Then, drop the dumplings in a pot of salted boiling water, a few at a time. When the dumplings float to the top of the pot, they are done.
2 beef rounds, trimmed of most visible fat
4 onions, sliced into half moons
½ container of allspice
1 14 oz box of gingersnaps
About 1 ¼ cup of sugar
Cut the beef rounds into large chunks, then combine it with the onions and allspice in a large bowl. Pour white vinegar into the bowl – enough to cover the beef – and marinate in the refrigerator for two days. (Interesting note: the vinegar turns the beef brown on the outside while the inside remains red.)
Pull the beef chunks out of the bowl one-by-one, carefully cleaning each chunk of any allspice. (The spice tends to stick to the beef.) Place the chunks in a large stockpot along with some of the sliced onions. Strain the vinegar mixture into another bowl to remove the remaining onions and allspice.
Then pour the vinegar into the pot with the beef. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the beef. Cook over medium heat until the beef falls apart when poked with a fork, about 1 hour.
To make the gingersnap sauce, place the gingersnaps in a bowl and cover with warm water. (Note: They’ll be a stomach-turning mushy in the beginning.) Stir occasionally, until the gingersnaps melt into the water. Pour the sauce into the pot with the beef and vinegar, and stir. Then let the sauce thicken, about five to ten minutes.
To serve, generously ladle the sour beef on top of the dumplings. Baltimoreans – or my family, at least – like a nice puddle of gingersnap sauce on their plate.
So now I’m curious – if you’re from Baltimore, does your family make sour beef and dumplings? If not, have you ever heard of this dish? I’d love to hear your thoughts!