Monday, August 11, 2014

Kochen - Cooking in Germany

It took me about one month to realize that all my old stand-by recipes that I brought from the U.S. were useless here. There's no condensed soup here (the former basis of all my sauces), cheddar cheese is too expensive, the cuts of meat are different (there's no "beef round steak", for instance), and everything - starting with the water - tastes different. Not better or worse - just different.

So not long after moving here I shoved my American cookbooks to the back of the shelf and started picking up German magazines and cookbooks. Things have gone better since then. Now when I am in the States and cook something, I have the opposite problem. There's no Quark in America, Gouda cheese is overpriced, the ground meat is not ground fresh while I wait and it's so full of fat that a ton of grease needs to be drained, Butterschmalz (ghee) costs way too much if it's available at all and making enough of it for Schnitzel takes a good hour, and I can't find the right kind of potatoes.

It's not really all that surprising that the same food isn't available in both countries, so you learn to adapt. But since moving here and getting comfortable with German recipes, I've noticed some interesting differences in the instructions.

Pan size

Almost all American recipes tell the cook what size pan, pot, and/or casserole dish to use. "Grease a 9x13-inch pan."  "In a 10-quart casserole dish..." "Use a 1 1/2-quart microwave-safe bowl..." Sometimes it just says, "In a large frying pan..." On the bottom of all or most pans, pots, and casserole dishes, you can find their size - in quarts or inches diameter.

German recipes let the cook decide for himself which pots and pans he'll use. I think he's supposed to know that based on the amount of meat (in grams or kilos) or veggies the recipe calls for. Martin laughs every time he sees the pan size specified in an American recipe. I think to him that's like telling someone what size pants to put on in the morning.

Stove burner setting

Every American recipe I've seen tells the cook which stove temperature to use when frying, boiling, etc. "Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat" is one step for making Pepper Steak Sandwiches. This instruction is for frying the meat, and it defies everything Martin has taught me about cooking meat. Heat the pan first, and on high! Then add the oil! When the oil is nice and hot, add the meat. It should sizzle straight away. Don't heat the pan only to medium-high, because when you add the meat the pan will cool down and the meat will be boiling rather than frying. Now I know why I often screwed up this recipe when I made it in Wisconsin.

German recipes don't tell the cook which temperature to use on the stove. They use verbs, for instance:
    braten = fry
    anbraten = brown or sautee
    anschwitzen = lightly sautee
    aufkochen = bring to a boil
If you don't know what setting to use on the stove to achieve those things, figure it out through trial and error or stay out of the kitchen. (That's the message I get from German recipes.)


German recipes call for tablespoons and teaspoons, but beyond that all solid ingredients are by weight in grams or kilos and liquid is by volume in liters or milliliters (ml). Every German kitchen has a metric scale onto which the cook puts a bowl or plate and resets the tare weight to zero, and then measures the ingredient. 1 1/4 cups of flour comes to 280 grams. One cup of butter is 227 grams, but one cup of crushed walnuts is 97 grams. No more "3/4 cup firmly packed" brown sugar - packed or not, you need 132 grams for Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies.

Tablespoons and teaspoons, however, can get confusing. In America, "T" means tablespoon and "t" (uncapitalized) means teaspoon. Every American cook knows that. In German all nouns are capitalized, so "TL" is Teelöffel (teaspoon) and "EL" is Esslöffel (eating spoon or tablespoon). The first few times I cooked with a German recipe, I saw "TL" and automatically thought "Tablespoon" because of the capitalization. With salt or lemon juice, for instance, that can be dangerous. I usually caught myself before mixing anything, but I do remember several times having to dig out 2 teaspoons of some herb or spice (because apparently 1T = 3t).

We have measuring utensils for both metric and cups and ounces in our kitchen, so that makes it a little easier to adapt the recipes that do work on both continents. Martin still refuses to accept "ounce" as a unit of measure, though. "What kind of ridiculously illogical system is that? What's three-fourths of a cup?! It depends on the size of the cup! There are 16 ounces in a pound? You've got to be kidding me." Sadly, the delightfully logical and mathematical metric system - which my third grade teacher assured us America was going to switch to very soon - is difficult for me. I have always sucked at math (just ask my dad; the phrase "one half of one percent" still brings me to tears), so on the occasions when I have to turn liters into fractions in the midst of preparing a meal ("Shit! I need 1/3 liter, and there's no mark for that on the measuring cup!"), I crumble. Martin always raises an eyebrow when I have to write on a recipe next to where it says "1/4 liter Milch", "250 ml".


I have become an absolute believer in buying meat from a trusted local butcher. Not a butcher in a grocery store, but a real, trained, certified butcher who does business out of a store that doesn't also sell clothing and auto parts. In Germany even the butchers in the grocery store have to be specially trained and certified through an educational program that takes several years, but I'm guessing the meat is still shipped in on trucks from heaven knows where. I can go to our local butcher (a 10-minute walk) and tell her or any of her employees what I want to cook, and she'll pick out the right meat for me if I'm unsure exactly what I need. Those working at the butcher's counter in the grocery store don't have time for that. It's true that the meat is more expensive - in some cases twice as expensive as at the grocery store - but we are convinced the quality is better. Nothing is pre-packaged or pre-cut, the ground meat is not pre-ground, and the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered in Baden-Württemberg.

When I do buy ground beef from the grocery store out of laziness, Martin can always tell. If he walks in while I'm frying beef for tacos, he sniffs the air and says, "Beef from Real?" (Real [RAY-al] is the closest grocery store to us, and it's similar to a decent grocery store plus Target.) He says it just has a funny smell, though I can't tell the difference. There's also more fat in the Real ground beef, although still not enough to have to drain it after frying like ground beef in the U.S..

In Germany I can go to any butcher and ask for "four pork Schnitzel." I have no idea what part of the pig that comes from, and "Schnitzel" just means "cutlet". I went to a butcher in Sheboygan (with a German-sounding name even!) last year and asked for ten pork Schnitzel, and got a blank stare.
Guy: "Do you mean pork chops?"
Me: "No, Schnitzel. No bones. Ok, how about ten slices of that hunk of pork?" (I pointed to what I wanted.)
Guy: "Well, we have these boneless pork chops [already cut]. What about these?"
Me: "No, this piece of pork really looks like what I need. Ten slices, about 1, about half an inch thick."
Guy: "Let me just talk to my boss. Hang on a sec."  [He disappears into the back, and reappears with boss.]
Boss: "Hi Ma'am. Are you sure you want slices of this? We have...."
Me: "No, I'm really sure. I don't want pork chops. Ten slices of this will be just perfect."
Boss: "Ok, we'll see what we can do." 
They went into the back again without the hunk of pork I'd pointed to, and one of them re-emerged after a few minutes with a plate of ten slices of pork which looked right. I'm not sure why they didn't just use the exact piece of meat I'd ask for, but I took it, and it worked perfectly. At our butcher here, they cut the meat in front of us, we know exactly what we're getting, and we've never been dissatisfied. We've had good and bad luck at the grocery store.

Cooking at home

Martin and I truly enjoy cooking together. We're a darn good team in the kitchen, and he doesn't get upset when he comes home after ten hours in the office and needs to brown the beef or pork steaks because he's better at it than I am. I don't spring this on him - we usually decide by lunch what we're cooking that evening. I do the Bratkartoffeln, he does the Rösti, he grills (yes, friends, I'm still afraid of grills and always will be), I make the casseroles, he does the sauce or gravy because I don't have the patience, he flattens the Schnitzel and I flour, egg, and bread them. He sharpens the knives, I do the dishes, and whichever one of us notices the floor needs washing washes it.

There's one drawback, though, and that is that our standards are not as low as they once were for dining out! We enjoy the meals we cook so much (though yes, we've had some duds, of course) that we question paying for a meal we'll probably like less. The obvious exception is our favorite restaurant, where we've tried almost everything on the menu and haven't yet had something we wouldn't gladly order again. There are also quite a few restaurants in Esslingen that we really like. But beyond those, I don't get excited about dining out anymore. Why dine out when your own home-cooked meals are so good (and less expensive!)? I'm not saying we're fabulous cooks - rather that we like the meals we cook.

Here are some of our favorites (I am working on the quality of my food pictures, which will hopefully improve soon.): 

Bauernfrühstück - Farmer's Breakfast
potatoes, pork tenderloin, bacon, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms...

Kartoffel-Apfel-Auflauf mit Kasseler
Potato-Apple-Casserole with Kasseler
One of my favorites; not Martin's
Züricher Geschnetzeltes mit Rösti
Zurich Ragout with hashbrowns
I could eat this at least once a week.

Rösti after flipping, which Martin does expertly

Tenderloin wraps


  1. I can totally relate to your comment about not getting excited about dining out. My German boyfriend and I love cooking at home, and the salmon we make in our own kitchen (among many other favorite meals we have) are several times cheaper and better-tasting than what we find at most restaurants.

    In the U.S., I used to eat out at least once a week, but I think that is just because there are so many decent-tasting and decently-priced restaurants. In Germany, it is just too darn expensive to regularly eat out!

    1. Hi Courtney,
      Do you cook mainly using German recipes or American (or both)? For the German ones, do you find yourself running to the computer to look up a word in the middle because you can't remember what it means and you know it's important? :-)

      One thing I find missing in the U,S. is a "dining culture." Even at nice restaurants on a special occasion, my family and I are often in and out in an hour. When we do go out here, I like taking it slowly, enjoying the experience (and the wine) as well as knowing I don't have to clean up...

  2. I cannot tell you how much this post resonated with me! I had so much trouble the first few months I was here finding food I liked, there's no salsa (the stuff you buy in jars here often has sugar as the second ingredient, gross!), no ranch dressing, we can't even find cheddar cheese here in Hamburg, we have to go a bioladen to get black beans, etc. I'm also pescitarian (vegetarian plus seafood) so all those hunks of pork are wasted on me. I get gebraten and gebacken mixed up a lot too.

    On the other hand, I've got a lot better at cooking since I've had to make more things on my own, things like sauces and soups. I spent a lot of time trying to make a queso blanco, but gave up when every cheese we tried ended up with a strange nutty taste....

    We've had so many duds dining out, a lot of thai and indian food is just missing so much flavour. I think it's to keep it from getting too spicy, and it really seems like people here aren't used to spicy food. They're missing out!!

    I've found that searching Australian and UK recipe sites will give me recipes for the foods I want in metric measurements. But it drives me crazy how many ingredients are listed by weight rather than volume, like butter.

    Sorry for such a long, discombobulated post, but I like food, and the change in cuisine was one of the bigger culture shocks for me.

    PS I read my husband the part about you making Schnitzel and he asked if he could go life with you. I think he's sick of my and vegitarian-y ways.

    1. Haha! We'd have a serious problem in our house if I were vegetarian-y. The reason the one casserole I pictured isn't one of my husband's favorites is because the "meat" in it is Kasseler (I can't tell the difference between Kasseler and ham), and he doesn't consider that meat. If a dish doesn't contain pork, beef, or lamb, I make sure the next day's meal does. :-) He has completely spoiled me with Schnitzel - I won't order it in a restaurant anymore.

      I don't enjoy spicy food, but I never realized how bland my cooking was until recently. We now grow and use fresh herbs, and I'm much more generous with all flavorings. My husband used to remind me: "Add the herbs & spices you think you need, and then add the same amount again!"

      I think food is a topic that unites us all! :-)

  3. Oh yummy! This all looks amazing! I've never made Röstil Grating potatoes just seems like too much hassle to me, although I know the end result would be worth it.

    Confession: I buy all my meat from the grocery store. With both of us working full time it's just easier!

    I've always wondered what to do with Kasseler. I see them in the shops but I'm always too chicken to buy any.

  4. What can I say? We love food! :-) Grating potatoes - no trouble, really, once you learn how to do so without scraping bits of skin off with the grater... The meat at the grocery store is often fine, and if I were working full time we'd probably be getting meat there more often as well.

    As far as Kasseler goes, my husband would recommend not buying it in the first place or just throwing it straight in the trash and putting a steak on the grill. Every time I tell him, "Oh look! Kassler is on special!" he groans, "Oh no..."

  5. I would love to visit Germany and eat their food.