“All the crazy techniques of doing something with nothing come from very poor people,” chef Gabriel Kreuther reflects. His case in point is baeckeoffe (“baker’s oven”), the traditional meat-and-potatoes casserole he grew up eating in Alsace.
The story goes that, once upon a time, Alsatian village women would marinate pork, beef and lamb in white wine the day before laundry day. The next morning, they’d throw the meat and its marinade into a lidded terrine along with potatoes, onions and spices, sealing the pot with a ribbon of dough to ensure that no steam could escape. En route to the washbasin, they’d drop off their dishes with the village baker, whose massive stone oven would by then be cooling slowly after the morning bake. The baker would set the pots inside.
Over the course of the day, the oven’s residual warmth would melt the meat to buttery tenderness, simmer the sliced onion into sweet, translucent threads of gold, and release the potatoes’ starch to thicken the broth. Come evening, each woman would pick up her hot casserole and bring it home for dinner. The dough seal, once broken at the dinner table, would shatter into bolts of crunchy crust—perfect for soaking up the steaming broth.
Today, of course, this all sounds terribly quaint. What would these women have given for an Instant Pot, or even a standard-issue home oven? (To say nothing of takeout menus, or a partner whom they could reasonably expect to perform a share of the domestic work.)
Nonetheless, the origin story of baeckeoffe suggests that multitasking is nothing new. Certainly today, a dinner that more or less cooks itself while you tend to other parts of life has not lost its appeal.
Kreuther is quick to note that, paradoxically, one of the most traditional aspects of the dish is that it varies from kitchen to kitchen. “Every single town, every single village has a slightly different way of doing it,” he explains. “Some places will say, ‘Oh, you’re putting carrots in? I’m not [putting] carrots in mine.’”
In your own kitchen, feel free to tweak the recipe to suit. You might swap out some of the pork shoulder for thick-cut bacon, Kreuther suggests, or use a single type of meat rather than three.
Given that it’s so variable, what makes for a successful baeckeoffe? “It’s good potatoes, the seasoning and a good dry wine,” he says. Many recipes call for a splash or two of vino; here, you’ll need a bottle and a half. In that quantity, the wine’s quality will be apparent. “At the end of the day, I’m not saying you should use a $600 bottle of wine for cooking, but if you buy a $3 bottle of wine, if the cork already costs $1.75, what’s the wine worth?” he implores. So spring for something decent. “And if you really want to extend the whole thing to perfection,” he adds, “then you should just use the same wine as you [plan to] drink.”
Aim to be equally discerning in your choice of potato. “For this, you should use a potato that, when it’s fully cooked, doesn’t finish up in mush,” Kreuther says. He also suggests seeking out a variety whose color leans more yellow than white. “The whiter it is, the more starchy it gets.” Waxy—i.e., not starchy—potatoes such as German Butterball hold up the best, but middle-of-the-road, lightly starchy Yukon Golds are a great choice, because while they’re sturdy enough not to break down in liquid, the little bit of starch helps thicken the broth. By not washing the potatoes after they’re sliced, “you preserve the starch from the potato, so when everything cooks together, the wine gets slurpy, almost soupy.”
Though it may seem precious, “The [dough] seal is actually important, because when it’s not sealed at all, the risk that you’re having, depending on what kind of pot you’re using, is that all the vapor goes away and your dish is dry,” Kreuther explains. The dough is a quick mixture of flour and water, but if you’d rather not go there, he notes, you can buy packages of frozen puff pastry and use those instead. Aside from keeping the moisture in, the crust makes for a dramatic presentation as you open the dish and it shatters apart—and it’s great for dunking. But if you choose to forgo the seal entirely, be sure to use a good quality pot with a very tight, heavy lid, and resist the urge to check on the casserole before time’s up, lest you release all that nice steam.
At home, Kreuther garnishes his baeckeoffe with fresh chives and serves it alongside a salad of Bibb lettuce with Dijon vinaigrette. He occasionally cooks versions of it at his self-named New York fine-dining temple, a winner of Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence. One such treatment showcases a high-low mix of black truffles and beans in a mason jar. But he loves his home-style version too. It ain’t fancy, he concedes, but so much the better: “That simple thing is what makes people happy.”
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Gabriel Kreuther’s inspiration, read the companion article, "Baeckeoffe With Riesling," in the Jan. 31–Feb. 28, 2019, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other Alsatian Rieslings or German Silvaners in our Wine Ratings Search.
For the casserole
For the dough seal (optional)
1. Season the meat with salt and pepper and place it in a very large plastic or glass container. Slice 1 onion 1/8-inch thick. Add the carrot, leek and sliced onion, followed by the thyme, bay leaf, parsley and cloves. Pour the wine over. Cover and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
2. Preheat the oven to 300° F with a rack in the bottom-third position. Butter the bottom and sides of a large Dutch oven. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8-inch thick. Place in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper.
3. Slice the remaining onions 1/8-inch thick. Remove the meat and vegetables from the refrigerator. Set a colander with a bowl underneath and strain the solids, reserving the liquid. Separate the meat from the vegetables and set the meat aside. Add the vegetables to the potatoes, followed by the garlic, remaining onions, marjoram and coriander, and stir to combine. Discard the parsley.
4. Spread half the vegetable mixture evenly on the bottom of the pot. Next, add all of the meat. Spread the rest of the vegetable mixture evenly on top, pressing down gently. Pour the reserved marinade over so that it is almost level with the top of the ingredients. If necessary, add a bit of water or chicken stock. Cover with a tight-fitting lid.
5. Optional: To make the dough seal, in a small bowl, combine the flour with 1/2 cup water, mixing thoroughly. Transfer to a floured surface and knead briefly. Roll into a rope long enough to tightly encircle the pot. (Alternatively, thaw frozen puff pastry and form it into a roll in the same way.) Brush egg wash onto the rim where the pot and the lid meet, then press the dough into the egg wash to seal the pot. Brush the dough seal with more egg wash and, if desired, sprinkle with salt and poppy seeds.
5. Place the pot in the oven and bake for about 4 hours. Let rest 10 minutes. Discard bay leaves and marjoram. Serve family-style, garnished with chives. If you made the dough seal, serve pieces of the baked crust alongside. Serves 8 to 10.