12 August 2009

Hasenfeffer (Hasenpfeffer) or Sour Rabbit Stew

As far as I can tell, hasenfeffer shouldn’t have a “p” in it because when it’s spelled hasenpfeffer it leads people to believe that pepper plays a role in this German stew with a well known name and unfamiliar taste. Hasenfeffer is a sour rabbit stew that gets its flavor from a heavily seasoned marinade in which the rabbit soaks for two to three days before cooking. The rabbit is then slow-cooked in a reduction of the strained marinade and served with something to soak up the remarkable juices – that’s the heart of this dish.

I think the recipe originated with a vinegar/wine marinade seasoned with juniper berries and bay leaves, and the likes of garlic, onion and carrots. Black peppercorns, clove, and cinnamon add considerable flavor and complexity to the dish, but if hasenfeffer started as an old German farm and hunting recipe, as I think it did, the poor farmers who made it wouldn’t have been able to afford such exotic spices. However, they’re widely available today and nearly all current recipes call for a medley of spices, herbs and other aromatics ranging from allspice and pickling spices to lemon peel and currant jelly.

Current recipes use either flour or sour cream as a thickener, but the dish traditionally used fresh blood to thicken the dish in the same way that jugged hare – a classic English preparation – does. The blood is added at the very end of the cooking and it isn’t allowed to boil (it could curdle.) Some recipes call for a little shaved, unsweetened chocolate, and others call for toasting the flour the rabbit is dredged in, but whether you use blood, flour, or sour cream the aim is to thicken the cooking liquid and add a little more flavor.

I found a few references on the internet claiming that feffer specifically refers to the use of blood in the dish, but I can’t find any confirmation of the word having that meaning. I spoke with one German professor who agreed that pfeffer doesn’t make sense for the dish, but he added that he doesn’t know of the word feffer used by itself, either.

With an abundance of rabbit meat in my freezer, I expect this recipe to evolve over time.

Good beer, skin-on mashed potatoes and braised kale are the perfect accompaniments for hasenfeffer.

Patrick’s Duck Fat and Politics Hasenfeffer

1-2 rabbits, cut into pieces. I like to use the meaty parts of two rabbits, reserving the bonier parts for soup stock.
1 ½ cups vinegar
1 cup wine
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, cut into chunks
1 stalk celery, cut
3-4 cloves garlic
8-10 juniper berries
8-10 whole cloves
6 whole allspice berries
1 tsp mustard seed
2 bay leaves
1 piece cinnamon or 1 tsp ground
2 springs fresh thyme
Either ¼ cup fresh blood or ¼ cup sour cream
flour for dredging

Combine all ingredients except blood, sour cream, and flour and marinate for 2-3 days in refrigerator. Mix daily.

When ready to cook, strain marinade and reserve liquid. Discard solids.

Add a little duck fat to dutch oven and turn burner on medium high.

Dredge rabbit pieces in flour and brown.

Turn burner on high and slowly add reserved marinade; reduce liquid almost completely before adding more. Continue until total liquid in dutch oven is 1 – 1 ¼ cups.

Reduce burner to very low, cover, and cook for 1 – 1 ½ hours or until meat is tender. Add a little water if necessary.

When meat is done, turn off the burner, let it cool, and refrigerate overnight.

Next day, before serving, reheat slowly. Taste for saltiness and add salt if needed. Just before serving, add either blood or sour cream and stir to mix, being careful not to let stew boil.

After the stew has been chilled and reheated, the meat begins to fall off the bone and shred like an old Brunswick stew or barbeque. I like it this way, but if you don’t want the meat pieces to fall apart, stir with care.


  1. I can't believe no one has made reference to the 1962 Looney Tunes short "Shishka Bugs," in which Yosemite Sam plays a lowly royal cook for a very foul-tempered monarch who demands hasenfeffer for dinner.

    OR, the Laverne and Shirley theme song ("Schlemiel, schlimazel, Hasenfeffer Incorporated!")

  2. The use of vinegar in cooking goes back to the earliest days before refrigeration. One is to mask the "gamy" taste of wild meat but the other is to diguise old meat that has started to turn and kill the bacteria that accompany spoilage so as to make the meat edible.
    Vinegar also has a tenderizing effect on tough meat. In the case of hassenfeffer it's an oustanding recipe for a tough old rabbit. Young fryers should really not be used in this recipe.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I agree that a lot of our older recipes, like hasenpfeffer and coq au vin call for old, tough animals, and the use of young, store-bought birds and beasts aren't ideal for such preparations.
    Considering that game was often hung for several days or longer to improve flavor, I think our current sensibilities about "gaminess" may not accurately reflect taste preferences of the past, but vinegar is certainly a significant tenderizer.
    If you have any old recipes that use vinegar to assist with preservation and retard spoilage, I'd love to read them.