The Remix: Cholent
Make cholent not because it’s traditional and easy, but because it’s delicious.
In 'The Remix' series we seek to gently rework the more challenging dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. With a little bit of love, we’re convinced we can make any dish delicious, even ones that seem a bit bizarre to the modern palate.
Theoretically, cholent doesn’t need remixing at all. The slow simmered stew of beef, root vegetables and beans is typically started pre-Shabbat, and finished 12-15 hours later in time for a warm meal. Well played, ancestors. The only problem is that often, the meal isn’t worth waiting for. Cholent meat can be chewy and dry, and the broth flavorless. How to unlock the secrets of this ancient stew?
Making this task more confusing, there are nearly as many ways to cook cholent as there are ways to spell Hanukkah. As in, a lot. Depending on your background and preferences, it can be sweet or savory, thick or brothy. What kind of beans? Potatoes, yay or nay? Carrots? Barley? Eggs? What spices?
Perhaps the variations aren’t so surprising, considering how old cholent is. Cholent originated in the late 12th century in France, the name most likely derived from the old French word for warm, chalt, according to Jewish historian Gil Marks in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Makes sense. Back then, the stew cooked in large ceramic pots over fires.
Women would schlep their prepped cholent to bakers and cook the stew in their large brick ovens. Even those with wood-burning stoves at home could not maintain the heat for the up to 18 hours it took to cook the cholent. Some even sealed their pots with dough that baked with the stew. I’d like to bring that tradition back, maybe in a future Remix column. In the meantime, here’s a handy list of cholent dos and don’ts to ensure you can reliably produce a savory, silken version of this beloved Shabbat stew.
1. No slow cooker. The caramelization you get from oven cooking can’t be mimicked, and it adds much-needed flavor.
2. Don’t skip browning the meat. Take your time; it adds so much flavor.
3. Resist the temptation to add a lot of liquid. You don’t have to fill the pot to the top! Just barely cover the veggies and your broth will reduce as you look into a thick, silky stew.
4. Don’t chop your vegetables carelessly; make the pieces about the same size so they cook evenly. That way, you won’t have mush carrots and raw potatoes.
5. Never let the broth come to a boil. This is a recipe for tough meat.
6. Canned beans are a no-no. Soak dried beans instead; it’s worth the extra step.
1. Use chuck roast; it’s affordable and flavorful.
3. To give the meat that appetizing color, brown it in batches.
4. Cook the roast in a mixture of wine and water instead of just water, for more flavor.
5. If possible, use the marrow bones for extra beefy flavor and a rich mouth-feel to the broth.
6. Consider adopting the Sephardic tradition of cooking eggs in the cholent; they turn a pale caramel color and are tasty all on their own.
7. Customize your cholent. Switch up the beans; add in traditional barley; throw in a kishke to kick it old school.
8. It may seem weird in today’s fast food world to cook anything for over 12 hours. Relax and enjoy the process.
9. If your oven is unreliable, you can cook your cholent on the stovetop on a very low flame for about four hours, or until the meat is tender.
Amy Kritzer is a food writer and recipe developer in Austin, Texas. She blogs at What Jews Wanna Eat.