Foundational Elements of German Cuisine

German cooking is much like cooking in the United States — each region has its own specialty and variation of a particular German recipe.  From the southern area of Germany being influenced by Austria and Switzerland to the southwestern region being influenced by the French, Germany is a melting pot of European cooking traditions.  There are some dishes shared by all of the regions in Germany, but each of those shared recipes is prepared with the distinct flare of the region.

One common misconception about German cuisine is that all of the German dishes out there are hearty and hot.  While this is true in the northern region, especially during the cold winters, there are plenty of light dishes that are as delicious as they are healthy.

Food and German Culture

Food has always played a large role in German history.  Potatoes have been a staple in Germany’s diets since King Frederick II introduced them to the region in the 1700s.  Because of food shortages, the country relied on growing and eating potatoes, especially during the 20th Century.  During both World Wars, Germany went through a dramatic food shortage, but after World War II, the United States helped feed and restore the country.  In 1949, Germany divided itself into West and East Germany, which is why there are distinct differences in their cooking styles between the two areas.  While there is no longer a wall blocking the west and east, the cooking traditions have stayed the same.

Germans tend to have hearty, heavy meals that include a lot of meat and a lot of bread.  While potatoes are the staple of most German recipes, each region still has its own way to prepare them.  Some use them only in stews, while others combine them with fruit or bacon.  Fruit is commonly used in German cooking instead of vegetables to add sweetness and when it comes to German dessert, apples are the go-to fruit.

Understanding the Different Regions and How They Influence German Cuisine

Each region of Germany has its own variation or specialty.  These regions are often influenced by neighboring countries too.

Southwestern Germany

This area is heavily influenced by French cuisine.  From using French wines in their Sauerkraut to embracing Baden and Saarland cooking techniques, you’ll notice a distinct French flare to dishes prepared in this region.  These dishes are also a lot lighter, following the lead of their French influence.

Hessen Region

Hessen, a state within Germany, is known for its Apple Wein and has its own unique culinary traditions.  The region thrives on local ingredients; therefore, most of their traditional recipes include what is grown and found locally in the area.  The Hessen region recipes are similar the rest of Germany, but often include fewer ingredients and are more simplistic.

Franconia and Bavaria

Bavaria recipes are heavily influenced by Austria.  The dishes are hearty, rustic and use very simple ingredients.  Most dishes include one-pot meals.  Franconia focuses on meat dishes — with vegetables only served as side dishes.  Pork is a popular meat item in Franconia as well.

Northwestern Germany

This region is close to the Baltic Sea, which is why you will see a predominant amount of seafood dishes in this area.  They still have their hearty sausage meals, potato and cabbage-based dishes, as well as casseroles.

Rhineland

Rhineland cuisine gets its influence from the Netherlands and Belgium.  Because the area is predominantly wine vineyards, many of their dishes, including classic German recipes, use local wines for their preparation.  The area includes many of Germany’s most popular dishes, including potato pancakes.

Northeastern Germany

This region is known for their extremely hearty dishes.  This is primarily because of their cooler temperatures.  A lot of Eastern European recipes are found in this area as well and because they are still close to the sea, you’ll find a lot more seafood dishes than meat.

Eastern Germany

Eastern Germany offers hearty cuisine with fresh vegetables and locally grown ingredients.  They are known for their beer, potato dishes and even sweet, delicate cakes.

Common Ingredients Found in German Cuisine

German cooking, regardless of the region, does have some distinct ingredients.  These can be broken down into categories, including pasta and sides, meats and seafood, soups/stews, bread, vegetables, and herbs and spices.

Pasta and Common Side Dish Ingredients

Side dishes are common in German cuisine.  Pasta is popular in Germany, but nothing is more popular than potato-based side dishes.  In addition to potato and pasta, there are flour-based foods that include rice, semolina, breadcrumbs, and strudels.  These can be sweet or savory and served for all three meals.  Dough-based side dishes are also common in Germany.  These often consist of specialty noodles made from flour, eggs and water.

Meats and Seafood

Germany’s cuisine is mostly known for its hearty meat dishes.  Meat is a primary staple just as much as potatoes in the country.  The fertile lands have given Germany an abundance of meat and seafood.  The most common meats used in Germany are pork, veal, poultry, beef and wild game.  Lamb and goat are available, but not as popular in German cuisine as they are in other European countries.  During hunting season, wild boar, rabbit and goose show up in local stores, restaurants and homes.

On the coast, you will find a lot of dishes including trout, herring, tuna and mackerel.  Seafood in Germany is served raw, pickled or smoked.  It can be purchased canned as well.

Soups and Stews

Soups and stews are hearty, warm dishes you’ll find throughout Germany.  In German cuisine, there are two types of soups: broth-based soups and thick soups.  Broth based soups focus on the flavors of the meat, while thick soups focus on purees and binding agents — such as cream or pureed peas.

Stews are typically served as a main meal in German cuisine.  They’re typically made with meat, potatoes, vegetables and possibly fruit (depending on the region).  A traditional stew is cooked in a single pot and often uses up leftover ingredients or cheaper cuts of meat.

Casseroles

Casseroles are surprisingly popular in German cuisine, and are served savory or sweet.  In Germany, casseroles consist of meat, vegetables, noodles, potatoes, or rice along with a binding ingredient, such as cheese, egg or milk.

Vegetables

Because Germany has a lot of local farming, vegetables are popular in most regions.  They’re typically served in stews, soups, casseroles or as side dishes.  Some of the most common vegetables you’ll find in German cuisine include:

  • Cabbage
  • Tomatoes
  • Beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Peas
  • Asparagus
  • Salads

Onions are not typically served as vegetables; instead, they are used to enhance the flavors of meat.

Potatoes are the most important type of vegetable in German cuisine.  It is used as a side dish, filler and even a main dish.  They can be boiled, pan-fried, turned into dumplings, deep-fried and even mashed.

Breads

Germany uses breads in equal proportions to meats.  In the area, bread is more than just a filler and it makes up a large portion of German cuisine.  The most common types of breads you will find include:

  • Pretzels
  • Pumpernickel
  • Rye
  • Farmer’s Bread
  • Brezel
  • Semmel
  • Weck
  • Yeast Braid
  • Wasserweck
  • Laugenstange
  • Sourdough

Bread is commonly used for butterbrot, which is a slice of bread smeared with butter or cheese and topped with a vegetable or meat.

Common Herbs and Spices

While German cuisine is hearty, it can be rather bland.  Spices are not heavily used in German recipes and even those that call for spices use a small amount.  Instead, recipes focus on the natural flavors of the ingredients.  There are some herbs and spices, however that you will find in German recipes, which include:

  • Bay leaves
  • Borage
  • Caraway
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Juniper berries
  • Parsley
  • Marjoram
  • Thyme
  • White Pepper

What are the Most Popular German Dishes?

Germany is known for a lot of different food items, but there are some recipes that are more popular than others.  The top dishes include:

Eintopf – A hearty stew made from a natural meat broth, potatoes, vegetables and sometimes includes fish.
Kasespatzle – Also known as spatzle, this dish is made from flour and egg and is often served with cheese or roasted onions.
Kartoffelpuffer – These pan-fried potato pancakes are mixed with eggs, seasonings and onion and then fried until crisp and golden brown.
Rote Grutze – A red fruit pudding-like dessert that is popular in the northern regions of Germany.  It is made using red and black currants, strawberries, raspberries and sometimes cherries.  It is served with fresh cream or milk.
Sauerbraten – This pickled roast dish is a national favorite often served with braised cabbage or sauerkraut.
Brezel – Brezels are soft, white pretzels made from yeast and wheat flour that are sprinkled with salt.  They’re served as a side dish with beer and are sold in just about every bakery in Germany.
Schnitzel – Schnitzel is a thin, skinless, boneless cut of meat that has been coated in flour or breadcrumbs, then fried and served with lemon.
Wurst – There are literally over 1500 different types of wurst in Germany.  Each has a distinct taste based on the region it is made in. Some of the more popular include bratwurst, currywurst, and Weisswurst.  They’re often served with a side of sauerkraut or shredded cabbage.

German cuisine is all about the region.  When making German recipes at home or looking for quality recipes, you want those that use the ingredients, influences and flare of their region.  While the ingredients may be the same, it is all about the preparation that makes it a true, German dish.