Three Cheers for Sauerbraten – the Sweet and Sour German Potroast


Another great comfort food the German immigrants gave to Cincinnati is sauerbraten – the German Potroast.    Well cooked sauerbraten is a delicacy second to none for the Teutonic palate.     And, like our most loved signature dish, goetta, it evolved from a peasant dish.   It’s goal was to tenderize off cuts of meat.   Around the time of World War II, those off cuts of meat included ‘pferd’ or horsemeat. Literally translated, it means “sour roast.”    It’s the German version of sweet and sour chicken.

With a lot of tang from being marinated several days in vinegar, red or white wine, or both, it usually also has flavors of gingerbread, and sometimes, depending on the variety, has raisins or plums added.   Some modern American recipes call for Coca-Cola as a marinade.    With the tougher cuts of meat,  like rump roast,  bottom beef round, cross cut rib roast, or eye of round, commonly used for sauerbraten, the longer marinating of the meat acts to tenderize it, resulting in a tender, soft, and juicy dish.   The ingredients of the marinade vary based on regional styles and traditions throughout Germany.

Our version is probably closest to the Rhineland version, without the raisins or plums typical in that region’s version.     But, as most German-American foods, it has been sort of dumbed-down for the American palate.   My maternal grandmother used her mother’s now 150 year old sauerbraten recipe. It was probably adapted from a Rhineland recipe, which is where my grandmother’s family was from in Germany.   But what is interesting is that it notes a Depression-era substitute for allspice if it’s too expensive or not available.    Many of these ‘from-the-homeland’ recipes that came with families were adapated like that to make due with local ingredients and became the sauerbraten we see today at restaurants around town.

In Greater Cincinnati, Ron’s Roost on the West Side serves it Cincinnati-German style – over flat noodles with two potato pancakes and their hot bacon slaw.   Mecklenburg Gardens in Corryville serves it authentically with rotkuhl or red cabbage slaw, and spaetzle.   Germania Park in Colerain Township serves a particularly good version in their clubhouse basement during their annual Oktoberfest.   Hofbrauhaus in Newport,  and Lazlo’s Iron Skillet in Newtown serve the tangy treat.  For those who like the sauce, but like an update on this classic – the President’s Room at the Phoenix serves a sauerbraten-style short rib.  Kreimer’s Bier Haus in Cleves, Ohio, serves a sauerbraten style Ribeye steak.     The now gone Habigs, Black Forest, and Forest View Gardens all served it in their heydays/

In Germany today, sauerbraten is regarded as the national dish, even though its origin is credited to the Romans, who typically preserved their meats in their native red wines.    Caesar sent his army over the Alps to Cologne from Italy and they carried meat in earthen-ware pots, preserved with red wine. There’s an Italian wine roasted meat dish similar to sauerbraten called “Peposo”.  The dish’s invention is credited to the tile makers who built Brunelleschi’s famous Cathedral Dome in the 15th century in Florence, Italy. They put tough joint meats in earthenware pots with the red wine and spices and let it simmer all day in the same ovens that they made their tiles – very frugal!

It makes sense that the dish that became known as sauerbraten was imported into Germany – Germans make very few red wines.   It has regional variations in Swabia, Rhineland, Saarland, Silesia, Franconia and Thuringia.   It is typically served with red cabbage, potato dumplings, spaetzle , and boiled potatoes.  The serving with potato pancakes, the modus operandi of most America restaurants who serve it, is only done in a small area in Germany.

The marinade also typically includes earthy aromatic spices like peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, nutmeg and bay leaves or a bag of pickling spices.       Less commonly coriander, mustard seed, cinnamon, ginger or thyme are used.   Other vegetable aromatics like onions, celery and carrots can also be used.   Other regional variants include buttermilk for a creamier sauce.  After the meat has been cooked, the sauce is strained and then thickened with regional spiced cakes like gingerbread, lebkuken,  ginger snaps, Westphalian pumpernickel or other regional brown breads, sossenkucken, and Aachner Printen.

Rhinelandisher Sauerbraten uses red wine, vinegar, and spices and is thickened with lebkucken.   It also adds sweet golden raisins and sometimes chopped apple  to the sauce to offset the sourness of the marinade.   Sometimes, they’ll even add sugar beet juice to add more sweetness to the Rhinelander version.

A version in Thurgau, Switzerland, bordering Germany uses apples and applewine in its sauerbraten.

And for a time horsemeat was the preferred meat for sauerbraten.  Eschweiler, a district in Aachen in the Rhineland still prefers their sauerbraten this way, and the sauce is thickened with Aachen printen, a local style of lebkuken.  It’s served with potato dumplings, rotkohl and apple compote with lingonberries.

The Westphalian variety tends to be less sweet and sour and often uses Westphalian pumpernickel bread to thicken the sauce.

In the area of Baden Wurtemburg, they use the traditional style marinade, but it’s always served with spaetzli and rotkohl.

The Franconian area of Bavaria uses cranberries or small cherries instead of raisins, like the Rhineland version.    They also mellow the gravy with cream or sour cream, and sometimes beer and lemon is used in the marinade.

Sauerbraten in the region of Saxony uses beer for the marinating liquid.

In Silesia, the marinade is done with vinegar, and the sauce is thickend with flour instead of a spiced cake.

In Dresden, they use buttermilk for the marinade, and the gravy is thickend with sossenkucken, a spiced cake made specifically for sauces.

While it’s most traditionally washed down with beer, sauerbraten also pairs with several wines: Burgundy, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurtzaminer, Pinot noir, Riesling, and Syrah.   But whatever drink you pair with your sauerbraten, it’s a delicious, carefully prepared dish that’s worthy of celebration.


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