A savory stew of cabbage and meat, there is no standard recipe, as recipes vary considerably from region to region and from family to family. Typical ingredients include fresh and fermented white cabbage (sauerkraut, kapusta kiszona in Polish), various cuts of meat and sausages, often whole or puréed tomatoes, honey and mushrooms. The meats may include pork (often smoked), ham, bacon, beef, veal, kielbasa, and, as bigos is considered a hunters' stew, venison or other game; leftover cuts find their way into the pot as well. It may be seasoned with pepper, caraway, juniper berries, bay leaf, marjoram, pimento, dried or smoked plums, red wine, and other ingredients.
Bigos is usually eaten with rye bread and potatoes, often accompanied by vodka or dry white wine. As with many stews, bigos can be kept in a cool place or refrigerated then reheated later—its taste actually intensifies when reheated. A common practice is to keep a pot of bigos going for a week or more, replenishing ingredients as necessary (cf. perpetual stew). This, the seasonal availability of cabbage and its richness in vitamin C made bigos a traditional part of the winter diet in Poland and elsewhere. In Poland, it was a traditional dish to be served on the Second Day of Christmas.
Bigos is said by some to have been introduced to Poland by Wladislaus II, a Lithuanian prince who became king in 1385 and who supposedly served it to his hunting-party guests. However, Polish linguists trace the word bigos to a German rather than Lithuanian origin, even though no word with which it can be identified is extant in modern German. The PWN Dictionary of Foreign Words speculates that it derives from the past participle of the German verb begossen, for "to douse", as bigos was doused with wine in earlier periods.
Metaphorically, bigos means "confusion","big mess" or "trouble" in Polish.
The original dish on which sauerkraut, bigos, and related dishes are based is thought to have originated in Asia (cf. kimchi), from which it was introduced to Europe by invading Asiatic tribes. Variations of the basic recipe abound. A similar dish served in the Alsace region of France is choucroute garnie. Polish cooks sometimes refer to choucroute as "bigos alzacki, and Alsatian cooks sometimes refer to bigos as "choucroute à la polonaise.
Recipes for bigos vary widely. According to some, the amount of meat should equal the amount of cabbage. Some prefer to use only fermented cabbage, as in German sauerkraut; others combine cabbage and sauerkraut in equal proportion. The sauerkraut may be washed or unwashed. Most recipes have a few things in common:
The following recipe gives a representative example of bigos. Because preparation varies so widely, many variations have their adherents.
Prepare the ingredients as listed above. Simmer the cabbage until soft (1/2 to 1 hour), then drain. Meanwhile, cook the bacon and set aside, preserving the fat. In the bacon fat sauté the onions and garlic, and brown the remaining meat except the kielbasa. Combine all ingredients in a pot and cook: in a slow cooker, set on "low" for 5-10 hours; on the stove, cook briefly on medium and then simmer 2-3 hours.
Refrigerate any leftovers and reheat for serving. The flavor improves each time, peaking around the third day.