What to Eat when in Germany
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Meat and potatoes are pretty much regular staples in Germany. That is due to the country’s location - they need more calories and nutritious food to sustain their health during winter times, and potatoes and meat pretty much serve that purpose. At least that's my opinion. With an abundance of meat (pork, beef, chicken and game) - due to the country’s fertile land and ample water supply - you will find a lot of hearty foods and meat dishes in their cuisine.
Being married to a German, I'm familiar with some of the popular German foods, but that's just like scratching the surface of German cuisine. There are more delicious dishes than the popular schnitzel, sauerkraut, cabbage rolls and sausages. Here are some of the foods we had while exploring Bavaria. I'll start with cold cuts and sausages which Germans are famous for.
COLD CUTS & SAUSAGES
You will probably get overwhelmed when you see the varieties of cold cuts and sausages at the deli shops in Germany. Goodness! I wouldn't even know which ones to choose if had to buy some. Germany has over 50 varieties of bratwurst alone, and each region has its own version – size, seasonings and texture - many of the well-known varieties come from Bavaria.
Because of Germany's ample supply of meat, they learned early on how to preserve it. They became the world’s leading producer of the Wurst (cold cuts and sausages) that we love today. There are over 1,500 different kinds of wurst – from blutwurst to weisswurst, frankfurters to salami.
Cold cuts are usually eaten cold with bread, while sausages are often eaten by themselves accompanied by sauerkraut, potato salad, bread rolls (Brötchen) and mustard or horseradish. There are several kinds of sausages - smoked, grilled, boiled, and the well-known, Bratwurst - derived from the word “Brat” - referring to the fact that the sausages are fried.
Almost everyone loves sausage (with the exception of vegetarians), but there is one dish that we discovered while traveling in Germany. It's called sausage salad (wurstsalat in German), also called Bavarian Sausage Salad. This dish is made out of cold cooked sausage (fleischwurst, lyoner, etc.) with onions and pickles, all cut julienne style and mixed with vinaigrette.
This is a traditional snack in southern Germany, but I had it for lunch in a mountain restaurant while hiking in Oberstdorf. I had a first taste and I was hooked! It is very refreshing, light, satisfying and delicious, usually served with brown bread. I have made this several times since after our trip - thanks to the internet you can find recipes of this dish pretty easily. However, to find the right sausages, you have to go a German deli - the main ingredient is important for this dish.
I bet few people know (with the exception of Europeans) about white sausage, or Weisswurst. It's not very common, but German deli stores usually have them. This sausage is light, not salty and has a mild taste. It is white because it has no preservatives and is not smoked. It is also called “morning sausage” because traditionally, it is served only before noon - that was before refrigerators were invented.
Weisswurst, which is popular at local festivals in Germany, is made of minced veal and pork with mild seasonings. It was first created in Munich (München) in 1857, by accident (as is the case with many foods). As the story goes, the butcher, which was making his usual sausages, realized that he didn’t have all the ingredients required. So he used what he had on hand, just to please the demanding customers. But, instead of grilling them, he boiled them because he was afraid that the sausages might split open if grilled. As it turned out, the customers loved them and so the Weisswurst was born.
Blutwurst, or blood sausage, is a popular dish in Germany as well. It is made from fresh pig’s blood, diced pork and pork fat, and seasonings. It comes in varying sizes, traditionally warmed in hot (not boiling) water served with fried potatoes and onions.
Blood sausage is the oldest known type of sausage. In ancient times it was prepared and eaten by warriors. It was also eaten during festivals. Because of the sausage’s connection to pagan festivals, it was forbidden during the early middle ages. However, the ban was lifted because of the peoples' love for the sausage.
Blood sausage is one sausage that I don't care for much, because of its "minerally" taste. I guess it is an acquired taste. But don't let me put you off if you haven't had it. You have to try it since every palate is different and you might find out that you like it.
- MEAT & POTATOES -
Pork schnitzel is a well-known German dish. It is breaded pork, pounded thin, dipped in flour, egg and bread crumbs then fried in butter or oil until it’s golden brown. It’s a pork version of the original Wiener Schnitzel which is made of veal, but is cooked the same way.
In Germany we had it both pan fried and with gravy - Germans love their gravy. Also a combination of three meats - chicken, pork and beef. Pan fried schnitzel is a regular dish in our house, easy to cook and delicious. Good with apple sauce or lemon. In Germany they pair it with Spätzle or fried potatoes, and fresh salad.
Cooking with hunters' game such as deer is popular in Germany, unlike in the United States where specialty meat can only be found in certain, usually upscale, restaurants. Hunting contributes significantly toward maintaining a healthy population of wild game and serving wild meats in restaurants in Germany is common. It is widely available all year round. They serve this dish with red cabbage and croquettes.
Roasted duck is a substitute for the traditional roasted goose usually served on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in Germany, depending on the region. It’s a Catholic tradition that began during the period of advent, which ends on the 24th of December, and is followed by celebration. I didn't eat duck before, but I do now since I had it in Germany. It is really good.
Ham is made two ways in Germany; home-cured or "wet-cured" (Kochschinken), which is a fresh ham for cooking. The other is dry, salt-cured and smoked which produces deep-red meat.
Either way, ham is an important item in Germany cuisine. It has been produced since the middle ages (though mostly for the upper class) because pigs were numerous and inexpensive to raise - they are omnivores and can find food everywhere.
The Black Forest region in Germany is famous for its ham. Traditionally, they coated the ham with beef blood which gives it its black exterior. Today the blackened exterior of the ham is caused by the spices and from the smoking process.
Did I mention that Germans love their gravy?
Goulash is another dish that you have to eat when in Germany. We had it for lunch after touring the Neuschwanstein Castle. It's like comfort food, it warms and satisfies the belly.
This dish, which originated in Hungary and was called "gulyas" – meaning, "herdsman". It is usually cooked with beef. The name "gulyas" changed over time and became "gulyashus" (goulash meat), which loosely translated means "meat prepared by herdsmen". Goulash is prepared in many ways all over Europe and with a variety of meats.
In Germany, the dish is cooked using beef, venison or wild boar and served with potatoes or dumplings. We had it with a baguette.
- FISH -
The way I talk about meat you would think that fish is not popular in Germany. There are plenty of fishing areas in the country - lakes, rivers, streams and the sea, with several varieties of fish species such as brown, brook, lake and rainbow trout, and lake char, taimen, grayling, pike, walleye, perch and carp.
- SOUPS & BROWN BREAD -
If you are craving for something warm and light, such as soup, while traveling in Germany, rest assured that you will find it at most restaurants. Germans eat soup at least once a week. Legumes and lentils are significant ingredients in some of the soups. They have potato soup, cheese soup, bread soup, chicken soup, to name a few.
Brown bread or black bread (Schwarzbrot), made of whole grain rye or wheat, used to be poor man's bread, until after the discovery of its health benefits when it became popular with everyone, at least in Europe.
- SIDE DISHES -
Sauerkraut or "sour cabbage" is a well-known side dish and is used as a condiment for sausages among German people. The fresh cabbage is shredded and fermented - the fermenting process gives the cabbage a sour flavor - and eaten as is or cooked. The dish is said to contain vitamin C and other beneficial vitamins, which helps prevent vitamin deficiency. In fact, in the 18th century, sauerkraut was discovered as an effective cure for scurvy. Even captain Cook took it on his long voyages.
Knödel is a German style potato dumpling. It is basically boiled potato, mashed with some seasoning, then shaped into a small dumpling and cooked in boiling water. Really good. But not as good as Hermann’s version which he cooked it at home after our trip. It’s his mom’s recipe, which has crusty bread cubes fried in butter and placed in the middle of the dumpling. It’s best with gravy poured on top.
Red cabbage (Rotkohl or Blaukraut)
Red cabbage on the other hand is made fresh (not fermented like sauerkraut), shredded and cooked with vinegar, sugar and some spices. It has a sweet-and-sour taste. But again, not as good as Hermann’s recipe; the difference is the cloves and balsamic vinegar he uses.
Spätzle, which means "little sparrows" in German, are soft egg noodles or little dumplings. Not the typical egg noodles we have here in the states or even the Asian dumplings. They are much different, both in shape, size and texture. They are similar to Italian gnocchi but smaller and irregular in shape. Spätzle are considered a "Swabian" specialty, associated with the German state of Baden-Württemberg.
In Germany, meat is often accompanied by potatoes in hearty dishes such as stew (Eintopf, which means "cooked in one pot"), casserole (Auflauf) and soup (Suppe). But the main use of potatoes (Kartoffel or Erdapfel) is of course as a side dish. They are in fact the most important side dish in German cuisine – I found that out myself on this trip. The country is one of the top potato consumers in the world. Though the much-loved spud did not originate in Germany (it came from Peru and Chile), it makes up a large part of the German diet.
I should say that the freshest and most delicious salad I had in a restaurant was in Germany. It was simply made, but delicious.
- DESSERT -
Cakes & Pastries
Germany is well known for its cakes (Kuchen) and tortes (Torten). Kuchen are basic single-layer cakes with glazes, fillings or toppings, while Torten are multiple-layer cakes, often decorated with whipped cream, topped with fruits, nuts, marzipan and chocolate pieces.
To have coffee and cake (Kaffee und Kuchen) with family or friends in the afternoon – mostly on Sundays or special days - is a well-loved tradition, either at home or in cafes. Even though stores are all closed on Sundays, cafes and bakeries remain open. Although coffee is mostly chosen to accompany the cake, tea is preferred in Northern Germany, either plain, with lemon, with milk or with liquor.
You will drool looking at the cakes and pastries at tea/coffee shops in Germany. I'm glad afternoon tea was invented, it's a good excuse to have this decadence in between meals, so good with tea, coffee or espresso.
- CHEESE & SNACKS -
Pretzels are another well-known German staple. It is an important food at festivals and holidays in Germany, especially Bavaria. It comes in many forms (shapes vary between regions, but only slightly), tastes and variations; pretzel roll (Laugenbrötchen), cheese pretzel (Käse-Brezel), pretzel bread sticks (Laugenstangen). Its texture, taste and color depends on the occasion or place where it was made. The Laugenbrezel, a well-known pretzel with a dark brown, salty and crispy outside, but soft on the inside, was invented in Bavaria accidentally.
Just to give some facts on statistics and quality, Bavaria produces 75% of Germany's cheeses. It's made from the milk of the "soft brown" Allgäu cattle. These cattle graze on alpine flowers all spring and summer, which makes a lot of difference in the quality of their cheese. And with plenty of healthy green grass, they are one bunch of very "happy cows".
The region produces very high quality and great quantity, which is why Bavaria is the most important milk and cheese region in Germany. They produce more than 400 varieties of hard and soft cheeses such as mountain cheese, brie, butter cheese, camembert, gouda, smoked cheese, etc. Overall, Germany produces over 1.8 million tons of cheese every year! Tons!... It's crazy, but the world loves cheese, the stinkier the better.
- DRINKS -
Beer is a major part of Germany’s culture, it is ingrained in them. Germany has over 1,200 breweries, producing the largest variety of beer styles in the world.
The leading producer is of course the state of Bavaria. In 1487, they created the purity law (Reinheitsgebot) or “Bavarian Beer Purity Law” for making beer. The law specifies that only three ingredients are allowed in brewing beer – water, barley and hops. But that was before yeast was discovered, which became the fourth legal ingredient after its discovery.
Munich is also home to the famous Oktoberfest, which actually takes place in September. The event was first held in honor of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (grandparents to King Ludwig II who build Neuschwanstein castle in Hohenschwangau).
New Wine (Federweisser)
Federweisser (meaning feather-white) wine is a fall season drink that you will only find from early September to late October. And you can only find in Germany. Hermann did not even know about this wine until he had it when we dined out with his cousin.
New wine is the product of fermented, freshly pressed grape juice known as "Must", which after reaching its 4% alcohol content, can be sold. But this kind of wine should be consumed within a few days, as it does not keep for long and cannot be kept in an airtight bottle either, otherwise it will explode.
Obstler (a spirit distilled from fruits such as apples, pears, plums or cherries). The best translation in English would be Schnapps. It has an alcohol content of 40% - it's so strong that you only need one shot of it. Hermann says that its good to have it after a big meal to settle the stomach.
Germany is the eighth largest wine-producing country in the world, with most vineyards on the west side of the country. Heilbronn, which is known for its wine industry, is pleasantly located at the center of one of these regions.
In Heilbronn, the tradition of wine growing goes back to Roman times, during which the first mention was found on a document in 1146. The variety, types and high quality of grapes around Heilbronn established its reputation as Germany’s No.1 red wine region. Over six million liters of local wine are produced every year, drunk at various festivals. Every September, the central town squares are full of wine tasting stalls representing wines from all the local vineyards.
Hermann had wines that are produced only for local consumption, by small wineries. They are the best, according to him ( I don't drink alcohol), and the ones you should drink while there.