If you’ve never had a bierock (we pronounce it BEER-OCK in Kansas where I grew up), you are really missing a treat. This authentic Kansas Bierocks Recipe using ground beef comes from Ellis, Kansas, center of the Germans-from-Russia (Volga-Deutsch) settlements that sprung up all over Kansas and Nebraska in the 1870s.
I am very proud of my Volga-Deutsch heritage. Frankly, it distresses me when I run into people from Kansas or Nebraska who have lost all connection with this history. My family migrated to America in 1876 from a small village near Saratov, Russia, on the Volga river, having lived there for over 100 years. The Germans were invited to Russia by Catherine the Great – a German herself – who knew that there were plenty of landless second-sons in Germany who would jump at the chance to start a new life with their own land. Unfortunately, as Russia was still struggling throwing off the yoke of feudalism, the Germans found themselves far away from home in a land that insisted on treating them like serfs.
Maybe you’re interested in learning more about your own Volga Deutsch ancestry. If so, here are some good books that can help:
In the mid-to-late 1800s, the Volga-Deutsch began migrating to America. The Protestant branches settled mostly in Nebraska and places north, while the Catholics favored Kansas. While they brought many local customs to the region (many of which are still visible today), they also brought hard, red winter wheat. This variety was perfected on the cold steppes of the Russian heartland, and it changed everything about agriculture in Kansas. Suddenly, where you had only one harvest, you could now have two! (Today’s farmers rotate fall-planted wheat with soybeans to rebuild the nitrogen content in the soil.) This wheat has made Kansas the breadbasket of the world, to this day.
I mentioned the customs brought from Russia – and bierocks are one of these. A bierock is a soft, slightly sweet bread roll, filled with ground beef (or sausage, or whatever-you-have), onion and cabbage or sauerkraut. You can also add cheese, as I have. In fact, you can pretty much add whatever you want – this is the kind of meal a family would prepare out of anything they had on hand. The only must-haves are the cabbage and sweet dough.
Back in the 80s, I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska for about eight years, and there they have a fast-food place called Runza. A Runza is simply a different version of this – made fast-food style. I recommend them, too. If you happen to come across one, give them a try!
You can find easy bierock recipes on the internet that call for frozen Rhodes bread dough, or canned crescent roll dough. Don’t fool yourself: Those are poor imitations of the real thing. And frankly, with all the thawing and rolling and messing with super-sticky frozen dough, you’re better off just making your own dough the way you like it. Further, my recipe calls for whole wheat flour. This gives the bierocks a slightly nutty flavor that I find a bit heartier than all-purpose flour versions.
If you’re planning on adding cheese, I recommend using something that will melt well, without separating into fat and protein. You may love the flavor of an aged cheese, but the older a cheese is, the more likely you’re going to get separation and a big oil slick on your baking sheet. I tend to stick with good, young monterey jack or colby cheese – but try a gruyere or provolone sometime!
Whole Wheat Bierocks with Cheese
- 4 1/2 tsp Active Dry Yeast 2 packs
- 3/4 cup Sugar plus 1 tbsp for yeast
- 1 cup Warm Water 110F
- 1 tbsp Salt
- 2 cups Warm Milk
- 8 cups Flour I used 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 unbleached organic all-purpose flour
- 8 tbsp Melted Butter
- 2 lg Eggs plus one extra if you’d like to add a shiny egg-wash to the rolls
- 2 lbs Ground Beef I used 1 lb beef and 1 lb spicy sausage
- 2 Yellow Onions chopped
- 2 lbs Cabbage about 1/2 a large head
- 2 cups Grated Cheese your choice (I usually use a mild cheddar)
- Salt and pepper I used 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.
- 1 tsp Caraway seeds the original calls for 1 tbsp, but I only use 1 tsp in mine.
- In a small bowl, combine yeast and 1 tbsp sugar. Whisk in 1 cup warm water. In another bowl, combine salt, warm milk and 3/4 cup sugar.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine 4 cups of flour, melted butter and eggs. Mix with paddle or spoon, then add yeast mixture and the milk mixture. Mix to combine. Add remaining flour, 1 cup at a time. Switch to a dough hook when the dough gets too tough for the paddle – around 6 cups. Using the dough hook knead the dough for about 8 minutes. Or, turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Return to a large, greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- In a large pot (you’ll need ALL the room!) brown the hamburger or sausage, leaving the fat. Add the chopped onions and cook until translucent. Add the cabbage and caraway, salt and pepper to taste. Cook the cabbage al dente – not to mush, but still firm enough to resist your teeth a bit when you bite.
- Add caraway. It’s a heavy-duty spice, so I cut it back from the original 1 tablespoon, but you can give it a taste before you use it and see if it’s good for you. You can also try some red pepper flakes for a little punch.
- When the dough has risen, turn it out again onto a heavily floured board or surface. You’ll need to cut it into 24 somewhat even pieces. I cut the big lump in 1/4, then stretched those pieces out and cut them into 6 pieces. A little variation is fine. Cover your pieces with plastic wrap while you work rolling them out. (I find rolling it all out and cutting round circles just doesn’t work as well.)
- Roll a piece of dough into a ball, then with a rolling pin roll it out to about 1/8″ to 1/4″ thick. Even at 1/8″ you’ll have plenty of bread, so don’t worry about making them too thin. You should have a circle about 6″ in diameter.
- Place 1/2 cup filling in the center, then top with 1 tbsp of cheese. Pull up opposite sides of the circle and pinch them together. Pull the OTHER sides together and do the same. Pinch up the sides to seal all the way, fold all this under the roll and place that side down onto a greased sheet or baking pan. (If you like, you can brush each roll with the egg wash – just beat one egg with a little water until it’s a light yellow, then use a pastry brush to coat the top of each roll).
- Bake the rolls at 350 for 25 minutes, until the rolls are golden brown.
You can change up the ingredients to make your own favorite “Hot Pockets” at home. I find about 2 minutes in the microwave heats them up perfectly for lunch. See some variations in my post More Whole Wheat Bierocks!