Monday, June 18th, 2012

My Attempt To Make The Perfect Nebraska Runza

A series about foods we miss and our quests to recreate them.

I grew up in western Nebraska, not a part of the country known as a culinary paradise. While there were plenty of perfectly fine meals growing up, many others just involved beef put on a grill or recipes from the side of a box, like homemade Bisquick pizzas staight from Betty Crocker. I also remember a type of taco salad, popular at potlucks, which was made up of iceberg lettuce strips, fake cheese, browned meat, some salsa and sour cream, and a large smattering of crunched-up Doritos. (When I tried the Doritos "Locos" Taco from Taco Bell when it arrived in May, I was struck by its similarity to these salads; my new theory is that the Taco Bell division of Yum! Brands is hiring homesick Midwest and Great Plains stoners to come up with new product ideas.)

So it’s not often that I succumb to nostalgia for the food I ate as a kid. But there is a particular fast-food place (mostly) endemic to Nebraska whose food I still get terrible cravings for, called Runza, and while no one I’ve ever met outside its footprint has ever heard of it, it's one of the most successful state franchises (75 locations in 36 Nebraska towns and six more in Iowa, Kansas and Colorado). The name is derived from the runza, a sandwich-type food that also goes by the names bierock, beerock, the Kraut Pirok and, the best, fleischkuche. As you might surmise from that smattering, the dish arrived here from Eastern Europe by way of Germany. It’s so popular in Nebraska that it’s the Runza chain’s signature dish.

But unlike the nominally German peasant fare served up at my family reunions (sausage stretched with oatmeal and a few bland spices known as "knip," a casserole with sauerkraut, beef, beans and some other salvage ingredients called Shipwreck, but colliquially referred to as "shitwreck," etc.), freshly baked bierock is a sight to behold: A doughy pastry shell, stuffed with ground beef, cabbage and onion. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and delicious in its execution. The rectangular sandwich-ish contraption might call to mind a stromboli or an attempt at a homemade Hot Pocket. As Runza's radio commercials used to say, "Food just like grandma used to make," which is true, if your grandmother was a German peasant who once lived in Russia under Catherine the Great.

Germans account for 42% of Nebraska’s population (fourth in the nation by percentage), and a goodly portion of these Germans are the group known as the Volga Germans, otherwise known as the "Germans from Russia," an ethnic group with its own museum in Lincoln. Though my family genealogy isn’t deeply known, my last name, Wenz, comes up a few times in Volga German history, mostly as early settlers who became farmers.

The first Runza restaurant was opened by siblings Sally Everett and Alex Brening in 1949. In my hometown of North Platte, there were at least two Runzas. It was a cheap place to drive through for my parents; my cafeteria-less Catholic grade school did hot lunches on Thursdays, and about once a month it was Runza. Though a homemade one wasn’t overly frequent coming from my parents, occasionally my older sister would whip up a batch. They were good, but true to Nebraska style, the dough was often from a famous baker named Pillsbury Doughboy. At the restaurant, you can order your sandwich along with some "frings," which sounds like a wild combination of a fry and an onion ring, but is actually just the two dumped together in a fry box. The sandwich is delicious and unique and a must-visit when I’m back in Nebraska. (I went to Runza twice the last time I was back home.)

Now I live in Philadelphia, and if you Google “bierock” and “philadelphia” you get, “Did you mean: pierogi philadelphia, which I most certainly did not. True, the dishes bear some similarities, and the bierock itself is remarkably like the Russian pirozhki. However, while the pierogis available in Philly can be stuffed with meat and cabbage (to name but a few ingredient varieties), their shells are more pasta-like, wrapped more as a dumpling than as a sandwich—delicious, but from neighboring Poland and certainly not a bierock. While some parts of Philly have a high concentration of Germans—for instance, the Germantown neighborhood (of course) in Northwest and some pockets in the Northeast—they seem to largely come from the Pennsylvania Dutch communities and traditions, rather than the Prussian Russians populating Nebraska and the Great Plains.

So while many foods are at my disposal in Philadelphia—Italian and Vietnamese in South Philly, Ethiopian in West Philly, Polish in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Northeast Philly—I recently decided that if what I wanted was a particularly weirdly primitive sandwich called the Bierock my best bet was to make it myself.

For the dough, I wanted something less Pillsbury and closer to the restaurant version I grew up on, which was thick enough to support being stuffed with beef, cabbage and onion. I pulled the dough recipe straight from a vegan Runza recipe found on the Post Punk Kitchen site of Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who in addition to being a vegan cookbook author is also a Nebraska transplant. Hers was the easiest recipe for me to adapt, as "vegan" translates pretty easily into "ingredients for the lactose intolerant," which I am. With my modifications marked, here’s what she lists:

For the dough:
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup sugar
2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup non-hydrogenated shortening (I used olive oil, and not near these amounts – but enough to make the dough not as sticky to the touch)
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk, at room temperature (or your favorite non-dairy milk)
1/2 cup water, room temperature
1/2 cup unsweetened plain soy yogurt, at room temperature (I used goat yogurt because I had it on hand)

For the stuffing:
I made two batches, one seitan and one beef. Whichever you choose, it should be about:

3 cups finely chopped cabbage (or use sauerkraut if you’re into that)
1 lb. meat or “meat”
1 onion
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine two packets of yeast with a half cup of sugar (though I found this to be a bit much sugar, giving the dough a bit too sweet a taste, so you might want to shoot for a quarter cup instead, or a quarter and a half.)

2. Proof the yeast in a half cup of warm / hot water (I just use the hot side of the tap) and a half cup of room temperature soy milk. (Or real milk, if your body produces that magic lactose enzyme.) Stir until dissolved and then wait for it to foam a bit.

Add in 4 and a half cups of flour (I did one cup pastry flour / 3.5 cups all purpose), 1 teaspoon of salt (though two won't hurt) and a half cup of yogurt (use soy if you're vegan or lactose intolerant, regular if you're not. I used goat here).

Add in oil or shortening (Moskowitz’s recipe called for a half cup which, no, gross, so I probably hewed closer to a quarter cup olive oil, maybe a bit less.) Gently knead until you make a ball of dough with no visible flour. Cover bowl with a towel, let rise for an hour or until it doubles in size.

At about 40-45 minutes into said hour, chop up one onion, three cups of cabbage and one pound of ground beef or seitan (as you can see, I'm doing both here.) If you want, you can preheat the oven to 350 degrees now. I mean, you're gonna have to do it sometime anyway, might as well be now.

Saute up that cabbage and onion in a bit of oil, add salt and pepper to taste.

Add in the seitan or the ground beef. Brown the beef. Let the seitan sit there or whatever.

See that browned beef? Yeah, you're gonna wanna drain it a little. I very unscientifically did it with a turkey baster.

Flour down your assembly surface, add in a half cup of filling to each approximately six inch deal of dough. Tuck in the sides first then roll up the ends.

Place stuffed pockets of meaty goodness on a well-greased cookie sheet. Flouring your dough will also help in the not-sticking-to-the-stupid-pan equation.

At about 20-25 minutes in, check the bierocks. Take them out of the oven when they're golden brown.

Ultimately, my hopes for the perfect Runza were… not quite where I wanted them to be. And the problem wasn’t the replacement of the meat with seitan or the lactose-free ingredients, either. It had more to do with the need for more salt and spices into the filling—I’ll increase the amounts of both next time. The dough, too, due to the amount of sugar and the addition of soy milk, was a bit sweet for my tastes. But the texture of the dough was just right, so with a little work and a little less sugar and a little more salt, I still have hope of resurrecting my bierock dreams even though I’m far from the nearest Runza drive-through.

John Wenz is a Runzaniac.

12 Comments / Post A Comment

culmifitol (#234,905)

looks so yummy!!!

barnhouse (#1,326)

This was so super fun, thank you. It has a Cornish pasty vibe, which is like, my husband's people, more or less, so I have been trying to perfect those for years. So I was thinking, maybe you ought to do the onion by itself for a good long time until you get a little caramelization going (ask Tom Scocca! lol.) Not a ton, just going golden-edged. Because the moisture from the cabbage is liable to make your onion flabby?? I bet it could use a ton of black pepper, too. Or red pepper, what the hell. And then, the cabbage… I have no idea how this thing is supposed to go, but I'm wondering whether you don't want the cabbage cooked a lot farther down, as well. Maybe that is just me but I love cabbage sauteed until it has given up every sign of a struggle and has gone completely limp. With a little hot sesame oil and soy sauce, over rice… anyhoodle.

goodiesfirst (#3,448)

I love the idea of runzas and even the sound of the word. I never thought of Nebraska as a rich source of regional food.

Sadly, that taco salad was not confined to Nebraska. In Oregon we ate it with canned kidney beans and neon orange Catalina dressing. It showed up on my dinner table weekly during grade school and I've barely recovered.

NorieY (#232,373)

I've been to NP! I lived in Kearney for a while, and I have eaten a Runza – although I wasn't super impressed. Maybe it's because I was not a native Nebraskan. Maybe I'd like the home made version better.

Pants (#10,516)

I love bierocks with rinsed sauerkraut instead of cabbage. It could probably solve the under-seasoned filling issue as well.

abbyh (#174,613)

I just had one of the mushroom/swiss ones for lunch!!!

Heyyyyy, listen, Runza will not ship officially due to USDA regulations, but they will sell frozen Runzas at any of their locations and I would love to send you some! If you want to pony up for some dry ice (I am familiar with packing on dry ice, all of the special waybills and UN paperwork associated with shipping dry ice :D) and shipping, I will overnight them post hastey. My mom did this for me after I called her crying over my thesis work, and it was a slice of home. :)

agpan (#234,956)

As a fellow native Nebraskan, I've been attempting to recreate the Runza in Seattle for years. I've found that the secret to proper seasoning is all about the pepper – fresh-ground and approximately one cubic ton per batch.

Baumer (#234,964)

Oh man, this made me super homesick. Runzas are definitely a pick-it-up-on-the-way-back-from-the-airport food when I'm back in Nebraska.

sheistolerable (#180,103)

I found this link helpful, because she explains how to freeze and reheat them. If you're going to go to this much work, may as well make a ton. I added cheese, which is how the Runza restaurant makes them, and also tried some with Swiss and Mushroom. I didn't notice a lack of seasoning, but that's probably down to the cheese.

I made these for my Nebraska-born boyfriend. He is now my husband.

Sam Brungardt (#235,210)

I'm of 100% Volga German descent (my great-grandparents settled in
Ellis County, Kansas, so let me expound on this.

You don't need to create a recipe for Runza, or as we call them, Bierock; there are many in cookbooks and even on the Internet. If the bread is too sweet, reduce the sugar to 1/4 cup and use 1 tsp salt. As far as the filling is concerned, traditionally it is meat, cabbage or sauerkraut, onion, salt, and ground black pepper, and I sometimes make Bierock that way.

But then, this turnover lends itself well to innovation. I'm not fond of cheese in them, as the Runza restaurants offer, but I sometimes use all ground beef, 2/3 ground beef and 1/3 ground pork; fresh, mildly seasoned country sausage; or even chopped ham. The cabbage is best finely shredded (like sauerkraut). Saute the cabbage with the meat until the cabbage is no longer crisp (if using sauerkraut, drain it well before adding to the sauteed meat and saute until most of the moisture is cooked off). Add a lot of chopped onion and even some finely minced garlic onion if you prefer toward the end of the cooking period. Sometimes I add a generous pinch or two of caraway seed with the onion. Season with more salt if needed and lots of ground black pepper.

Now for a shameless plug: For a great cookbook of German Russian (Volga German, Black Sea and Bessarabian German, and Russian Mennonite) recipes, Sei Unser Gast (Be Our Guest) go to .

MermaidSarah (#235,464)

Oh, this can be improved upon. You should use shredded cabbage and chop up that seitan! And use a softer dough. (sorry.)

This is my mother's Runza recipe (including her favorite ingredient, 'spray butter', ha):
Brown 1- 1 1/2 pounds hamburger (or seitan!)
1 chopped onion
1 bag shredded cabbage
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper
3 or 4 shakes of hot sauce
Cook until onions and cabbage look done
2 cups warm water (not too hot, it would kill yeast)
2 pkg. yeast (I use quick rise yeast)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 egg
1 stick margarine (melted and cooled)
6 1/2 cups flour
Mix water and yeast, sugar & salt & stir well until dissolved. Add egg & melted margarine. Stir in flour.
You can stir and kneed this until all the flour is mixed in instead of a big mixer.
Put in refrigerator for 1-2 hours.
Divide dough into 16 equal balls and roll each one into oblong shape. Fill with cooled hamburger/cabbage mixture.
Bake at 350* 15-20 minutes or until brown on top and bottom. Spray with spray butter. These freeze well in ziplocks.

As a Nebraska transplant as well as one of those official Volga Germans, I am slightly in love with this post. Two thumbs up for authenticity and accuracy.

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