Cholent Receipe

    May Shavuot 2001            
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Shabbat Cholent Recipe

© by G. Erdosh, 2001

As a child before the black hole of German concentration camps, I loved Saturday mid-day meals the times my mother served her great, almost weekly cholent. It was a little bit of a Sabbath ritual for our small Hungarian Jewish family, my father still with us before he was dragged to be in the German labor force to dig trenches and soon perish on the Russian front.

The cholent ritual always started with the eggs. Each of us fished out one of the whole eggs my mother often buried shell and all in the bean-barley cholent to bake very slowly in that heady stew. Those heavenly ritual eggs were our first course, with their shells that had turned the color of a New York water bagel, and the egg white within tinted light caramel beige. The flavors and color pigments of the cholent had penetrated the egg shells over the slow overnight baking creating hard-cooked eggs with a complex, truly delicious flavor nothing like your average hard-boiled egg. We peeled and ate them as is it needed nothing to embellish, not even salt.

Egg plates gone, we dug into the deep, ancient cast-iron that held the cholent. Sometimes my mother served it with her naturally brine-fermented garlic pickles, sometimes with fresh sauerkraut sold by the kilo from a huge barrel in the corner grocery store and in the summer simply with fresh uncooked market vegetables of the season.


Cholent is the most ancient and best-preserved of all traditional Jewish foods. It survived for several thousand years, dating back to times when Jews buried the cholent in hot embers in cooking pottery and let the flavors slowly meld and marry overnight for the Sabbath meal.

Even though this is an old tradition evolved in the kitchens of many generations of Jewish women to restrain from cooking on the Sabbath day, slow bean cookery appears in most cuisines of the world. Some scholars argue that they all evolved from the ancient cholent but that is a self-centered view. Dried legumes are ideally suited for long, slow cooking with all sort of flavorings, creating superb taste, yet in spite of the long cooking, nearly all legumes retain their distinct identities if the cooking liquid is slightly acidic

they remain attractive on the plate with all the good flavors borrowed from the liquid. Such easy-to-cook and well-received dishes must have evolved in many cuisines over time, each one adding its favorite flavoring ingredient. Just think of concoctions as the French cassoulet, Boston baked beans, chili con carne. Legumes are very economical and even the poorest families could afford serving it once a week, often preparing a vegetarian version when meat is beyond their pocketbooks. And, fortunately, legumes are very nutritious, nearly as high in protein as meats and offer complete proteins if eaten along with grain or bread. The ancient cholent hardly differed from today's beans and barley (the two oldest foods cultivated in the Middle East), meat and flavorings. As Jews migrated to every corner of the world, they wisely adopted their host country's available foods and modified their cholent. As a result, today we have dozens and scores of ethnic-influenced cholent recipes.

Today's trend is to create new and alter old recipes partly to reflect our more refined tastes and also to adopt them to our new, soft lifestyle. In 1998 they held the first National Cholent Competition in Jerusalem with 131 entries, all different, not unlike the chili con carne cooking contests in the U.S. Southwest and West. The prize for the best Jerusalem cholent went to Esther Israel for a Tripolitanian spinach cholent that included stuffed vegetables, chicken and beef, semolina dumplings, onion, garlic and a mélange of herbs and spices. The various entries included every imaginable ingredients. Only pork, horse meat, shellfish and any other seafood not having fins and scales were fortunate enough to escape the cooking pot - the foods forbidden to observing Jews.

Today's Jewish cooks favor shortcuts open a can of beans, dump it into a pressure cooker or a crockpot with the rest of the ingredients. Shortcuts in life, and particularly in the kitchen, rarely benefit the final result. Instant coffee, prepared foods, bread machines and microwaved meals are shortcuts but the results shortchange your taste buds. The long, slow process of cholent cooking is a key for the best result.

Although I have not yet tested cholent cooked the traditional way against crockpot, I have yet to taste crockpot-cooked food I enjoy as much as the equivalent oven-cooked dish. Same with pressure cooker. Both tend to homogenize ingredients with baby food results. Based on years of professional experience, I know you sacrifice if you choose the easy ways. It hardly takes any more work to pop the dish in the slow oven as our foremothers did. And never, ever open a can of beans for cholent. When the word "quick" appears in the recipe title for cholent, give it a pass. Quick and good are contradictions in cooking.


In the traditional cholent beans and barley are two key ingredients. Back in ancient Middle East garbanzo beans and barley gave the body to cholent. Garbanzo beans and barley were domesticated about 5000 years ago. Today in a good cholent two, sometimes three different kinds of meat provides the complex flavor, but in ancient time it was probably simply mutton or goat, shortly before natives in the Middle East attempted the first true agriculture.

In a contemporary cholent it is beef or lamb, possible a piece of smoked meat, that provide protein and substance but a meatless dish is also excellent if found a good recipe. In older cookbooks flanken is the preferred meat which is better known today as short rib, in some butcher shops as seven-bone roast. For today's Jewish life style, short rib is a little too fatty and in this cut the meat is interlayered with strips of fat that is hard to trim off. I would suggest another equally flavorful but leaner cut such as beef brisket, flank steak or skirt steak. They are all cut from the same part of the beef as the short rib, all lend a good flavor to your cholent. If you can find a piece of smoked beef, smoked tongue or bone, your cholent's flavor rises to a new level.

Choose whatever beans you like or have on hand what kind you cook makes little difference in flavor. Navy beans, lima beans are common but there is no law against using black beans, red beans or even fava beans. Your cholent will gain in eye-appeal if you use two or three kinds of beans with different sizes and color. (The only kind you should not use is canned beans.) If your recipe includes acidic ingredient, such as tomato sauce, stir in those ingredients only after the beans are fully cooked. In acidic liquid beans will not soften and you may end up with a wonderful cholent but your family will crack or break their crowns while attempting to bite through the beans.

Grains, the beans partner, should be barley or buckwheat. You also see recipes with kasha which is simply toasted buckwheat. If you choose buckwheat, make it kasha as toasting provides still another wonderful layer of flavor. The best potato for cholent is a low-starch waxy potato that stays firm over the long, slow baking, not the high-starch russet or Idaho baking potato. Choose red or white (round or long) potato or yellow Finns (most popular in Israel), peel and cut them into large chunks. Leave the onion coarsely chopped, too. Never use sugar or any sweetener but be generous with garlic that you can leave whole. Both garlic and onion have high enough sugar content to provide a slight sweetness to cholent.

Traditional liquid in our foremothers' cholent was probably water but for a better cholent use beef stock or red wine or a combination of both. Cooking dumpling (knaidel in Yiddish) in cholent is optional it provides another filling food substance and introduces more starch into the meal. The dumpling impregnates the flavorful liquid and it is almost a course by itself.


The very slow baking process was a necessity in our foremothers' days. The Torah clearly stated: "You shall not burn fire in your dwelling places on the day of the Shabbat." Small groups of Jews interpreted this ban literally and they ate cold foods after the Sabbath service. Lucky for us, Rabbis re- interpreted the law allowing fires to burn as long as not kindled after Friday's sunset. This permitted Jewish women to create their sumptuous, slow-baking Sabbath meal that became the tradition for over two milleniums. Lucky for us, too, that the slow cooking process marries and melds flavors of fastidiously- chosen ingredients that results in flavors layered like a Bach orchestral suite.

Not so long ago central European Jewish women carried their heavy baking dishes to the local baker on Friday afternoon instead of baking at home. The back recesses of the bakers' huge brick ovens provided low, even heat for the absolutely perfect cholent, heat that women with wood burning stoves could not maintain for 18 or 19 hours. Some women covered their dishes with a fresh dough that sealed the content in. The dough became a crusty, chewy, golden brown bread that people would fight over.

My mother did not use dough cover, it was not part of her tradition from her mother and grandmother. Before we had a gas oven, it was my duty to take the dish to the baker two blocks away but it was my sister who picked it up. We waited for her on Saturday mornings like waiting for the Messiah.


Old Jewish tradition calls for a brisk, long walk or an extended snooze after a cholent meal the combination of beans, potatoes, barley and meat add a heavy burden on the smoothest-functioning digestive system. Both bean and barley break down slowly in the stomach and if you had a good size meat as well, you are likely to suffer. The secret? Eat small portions. A good cholent can turn irresistible but you must defy large servings or seconds.

People who eat beans regularly develop digestive enzymes and resident bacteria to break down the tough legumes but those that eat it infrequently suffer. What causes the problem are some starches in legumes for which our guts don't have microorganisms and enzymes for complete breakdown. You can attack the problem with a commercial product called Beano. It is an enzyme that breaks down the problem starches completely in your digestion. It works for most people but not for all. In 1995, research at the University of California at San Diego showed that Beano reduces "flatulent events" in most stomachs by about a quarter. Too bad, but Beano is only available in United States pharmacies. It also helps to eat legumes often to establish the friendly little bacteria.


Here is a traditional cholent updated to reflect today' more sophisticated taste and using easily available ingredients.

  • 1 ¼ cups dry mixed beans
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 200 g (8 oz or one large) onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ Tbsp Hungarian paprika
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 ½ tsp pepper
  • ¾ cup barley
  • 1 ½ lb (700 g) potatoes, peeled, cut into large chunks
  • 1 chunk (about ½ kg or 1 lb) beef brisket
  • 1 smoked beef bone or marrow bone
  • 6 eggs in shell, washed
  1. . You may use one kind of beans or mix several kinds. For eye-appeal, I like to mix small white navy beans and large red kidney beans or black beans. Rinse beans then soak for 5 to 8 hours in enough water to have three finger-deep water over top of beans. When soaked, drain.
  2. Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté onion until transparent. Add garlic, stir for several minutes over heat then add paprika, salt and pepper, and continue to cook for a minute. Remove from heat.
  3. Combine beans, onion mixture, barley, potatoes, brisket and bone in a large baking dish or dutch oven with a tightly-fitting lid. Carefully slip in raw unshelled eggs and bury them under cholent mix. Add water to cover.
  4. Place tightly covered pot in oven (seal lid with aluminum foil if not absolutely tight) and bake at 100 degrees C (200 degrees F) for at least 6 hours and up to 18 hours. Check liquid level occasionally to prevent cholent from drying out and replenish if needed.

When ready to serve, dig out eggs, shell them and serve in quarters as first course with fresh raw vegetables or crackers. Remove brisket and slice. Serve brisket and cholent family style on serving dish. The best accompaniment with cholent is an assortment of good pickles and sauerkraut. Yields 6 to 7 generous servings.


© G. Erdosh, 2001


from the May Shavuot 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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