When my baby Sis posted she was making her Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks) I became inspired. She (and her family) fell in love with them during her years in the Cornhusker State and my Sis knows her Runza. If you’ve never had a Runza, you’re in for a treat. It’s a beautiful, light fluffy bun wrapped around a filling of ground beef, cabbage, and onion. They’re good old-fashioned cooking with the emphasis on good!
Originally “peasant” food, the Runza (Bierock) was brought to settlements in the Midwest by immigrants that came from originally from Germany, by way of Russia where they had settled into the lower Volga region. They brought their Bierock with them. And eventually, the Runza restaurant was opened in 1949, franchised and the name Runza was copy writed. The rest is history.
About Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks):
While the exact history of the Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks) may never be known and is still under debate, I read that the early Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks) were made out of various kinds leftover meat, minced and saved up until there was enough filling and combined with either cabbage or sour kraut. Today, most Runzas are made with ground beef and cabbage, but just like the history, everything else seems to be up for debate.
Should Runzas have spices other than salt and pepper? Should the dough be sweet or plain? Should the filling be cabbage or sauerkraut? Should there be cheese, and if so, what kind? Does the cheese go in before or after baking? How thin/thick should the dough be? Should they be small or large? Should the shape be a half-moon, a bun, a square or a rectangle? Should the Runza be allowed to rise before baking? Should the tops be brushed with butter or oil or nothing, and if so, before or after baking? And on & on it goes…
When I finally hit on the exact combination of filling and dough for my Runza that my son and I both loved (he and his friends say they taste like White Castle Burgers, which may or may not be a compliment) it was my sister that told me about the cheese. She’s of the opinion that no Runza is complete if it’s not opened up before eating so a piece of American cheese (like the singles) is jammed in to melt in the hot Runza. Some Volgan grandmother must be rolling in her grave (but I have to admit it’s good!)
Making The Filling For Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks):
My sister uses salt and pepper only and hotly denied any other spices should be used. Don’t tell my sis, but I think they’re a bit bland (but are saved by that cheese!) Some insist on white pepper as a “secret ingredient” so I figured, why not and used a little of both peppers along with the salt, shunning all other spices. It still didn’t do it for me.
Then I saw a mention of allspice in one of my old cookbooks, so in went 1/4 teaspoon of allspice. It also seems very obvious from the photo of the Runza on (right below) that the commercial version contains allspice and/or clove – the color is a dead give away and may very well be the “elusive” taste that many bloggers say can’t be duplicated.
The third batch, I added a bit of clove along with the allspice – about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon, I tasted as I went along. Perfection! I chose not to use Sauerkraut but came across a blog post from the Nebraska Grandmother that sounded very interesting. I’m linking to her because: Maybe next time!
When you make the filling, be sure to cool it, drain it well and make sure your filling is very well seasoned with the pepper. Add what you think you need, then maybe even add a little more. Cabbage loves pepper! Then add the other spices as you wish to taste.
Making The Bread For Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks):
First of all, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a store brought bread dough or frozen rolls; frozen rolls are probably the easiest and you can use a method where you put a hole in the dough, stuff it and then seal it. I weighed my homemade Runza dough and it came out at 2.6 pounds and it made a dozen Runzas for me, so you might need more than a pound of bread dough.
That being said, the homemade dough for your Nebraska Runzas (Bieroks) tastes like a dream. The bread is very distinctive, light and fluffy, with a slightly sweet taste, kind of like a Hawaiin Roll. Now that slightly sweet roll is just perfect with the filling that had the allspice and clove, but took a bit of getting used to with my Runzas that were made without. (At least until that cheese was added.)
I’ve tried making my Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks) with varying amounts of sugar. Two tablespoons will take forever to rise and bakes up a little dry and crusty, not a perfectly soft roll. More than a half a cup was just too much. With a half a cup, the dough not only tastes amazing but rises quickly so making Runzas isn’t an all-day project. Even if you haven’t made much bread, this is the recipe to try! You’ll look like a hero – plus, any imperfections are charming, amirite? They just scream out “homemade!”
The dough is so easy it can be made by mixer or by hand.
Making The Filling For Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks):
No one seems to make their Runzas (Bierocks) the same size or shape. The closest I could figure to a standard size is a dozen Runzas (Bierocks) to a dough recipe, so that’s how I made mine. My sis says my Brother-in-law likes his larger, she likes her’s smaller. I thought a dozen with this dough worked out perfectly for the amount of filling.
The commercial Runza are rectangular, but Runzas are much easier to make in a square shape, and a square is easier than a bun or a half-moon. I settled on a square, about 5 x 5 after trying them larger. The larger ones rose a bit better, the smaller were denser, and I used about the same amount of filling in each.
Now most people, it seems, just like to grab a bit of dough, roll it in a ball, spread it out and stuff it. I tried that and it was messy and there were always a couple of leakers no matter how well I thought I had it sealed. Some of the sizes were larger or smaller and some had more or less filling and they were just *gasp* ugly, lol! At least mine were. I just found it easiest to roll the dough off, mark it out and add a scoop of filling to each square assembly line style. Then I just sealed them up tightly.
I let the Runza rise right on the baking tray, covered with a towel for about 20 while my oven preheated, although that time can vary depending on how warm your kitchen is. They don’t have to “double” in size because they’ll have some oven “spring” (rise a bit after the Runzas (Bierocks) are in the oven.) When you take your Runzas (Bierocks) out and while they are still piping hot, brush the tops with butter. Just open up a stick of butter and run it across the tops of the buns and it will melt right onto them. Note added: When I baked these in the winter, I found I had to add a little oil to the top before leaving them to rise or they dried out in the low humidity and didn’t rise properly. Ii just sprayed them lightly.
Trouble Shooting: Other than a filling that is too wet or a seam that isn’t sealed, there are two main issues, a dough that’s too dry or one that’s too wet. Luckily, neither affects taste, and I’m sure they were delicious. Do wait too let your Runzas (Bierocks) cool a bit so you don’t squish that soft bun like I did on some of mine!
A Few Final Notes on Nebraska Runzas (Bierocks):
Normally, I end my posts with some money saving hints. But it’s sooo long already! Shop well for ground beef and buy at a low. Chuck it in the freezer so you have it when you want it. Use the yeast in the jar and you’ll pay less than for the packets. Keep it in your freezer. The plain Runza ran about $3.17 for the filling and $1.03 for the dough. Now that’s a bargain!
Runzas (Bierocks) reheat in the microwave perfectly, about 2 minutes, loosely wrapped in a paper napkin or paper towel. If you’d rather reheat in the oven, wrap in foil and heat for about 20 minutes in a 350 degree F. oven. Many people double the recipe and freeze half, simply because if they’re making 12, why not make 24 and get the mess over with and have them on hand for quick lunches, dinners or snacks.
In my mind, this recipe cries out for tinkering, additions, and variations. Heresy? Maybe! I can think of a zillion fillings that would be absolutely delicious – keeping in mind that a saucy or gravy like filling wouldn’t work for these. How about ground beef, bacon, and cheese? Ham and cheese, of course, immediately comes to mind. Maybe mushrooms cooked in a little butter and wine, flavored with tarragon or marjoram and paired with Gruyere or Swiss? I’m imagining a chicken, artichoke basil Runza, served with a little Alfredo sauce. Substituting sausage for some of the ground beef would add a little zing. A barbecue/cheese Runza sounds wonderful.
Bierocks or Runza
This dough mixes up a little differently from a standard dough. First you mix the ingredients into a kind of slurry, then add the remaining flour.
- 4 1/2 cups of flour, divided into 1 3/4 cups and 2 3/4 cups
- 2 packages of yeast or four and 1/2 teaspoons yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup of water
- 3/4 cup of milk
- 1/2 cup of shortening or butter
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
In a large mixing bowl, place the 1 3/4 cup of flour, yeast, salt, and sugar. Whisk together and set aside.
In a saucepan, heat the milk, water and shortening to 120 degrees. (Note: between 110 to 120 is the standard temperature to heat liquid when adding it to a flour mixture that already contains the yeast, but make certain the temperature is not over 120.) Pour over the flour/yeast/sugar/salt mixture and stir to combine. Add eggs. Mix by hand or by mixer. Beat for about three minutes or so.
Stir in remaining flour, turn out and knead for a short time, three or four minutes, adding in a little extra flour if it’s too tacky. Your dough should be smooth and elastic when done, but still quite soft, and slightly tacky to the touch…this dough does not require the amount of kneading a regular loaf of white bread does. It’s actually more like a sweet dough (like one would use for cinnamon rolls.)
If your dough is not soft – has too much flour or is overly kneaded, your Runza won’t rise properly and will be lumpy, so err on the side of too little flour over too much. If your dough is dry, knead in a little more water, but it is always easier to add more flour than water.
Place in an oiled pan, then turn the dough over (so all is coated with oil) cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap and allow to rise for about an hour until doubled in size. Meanwhile, make your filling (below) and allow to cool, and then proceed to Fill and Bake.
- 1 pound ground beef ( for more authentic flavor, do not use a lean ground beef)
- 2 small or one large onion, chopped finely
- 1 small head of cabbage or 1/2 a large, chopped fairly finely. Coleslaw mix is a bit too fine, but large chunks of cabbage tend to be unattractive.
- salt and pepper – season generously after the filling is cooked, to taste; these should be quite peppery, I used about 1/2 teaspoon total of white and black pepper and a teaspoon of salt.
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice (optional but highly recommended)
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon clove (optional but highly recommended)
In a good-sized pan, cook hamburger and onion until hamburger is cooked through and onion is fairly translucent. Add in chopped cabbage and cook until tender and wilted. Excess moisture can cause soggy bottoms in a Runza, so make sure your filling isn’t too wet.
Place the filling in a colander and allow to drain for about 15 minutes as it cools. Return to pan and add salt, peppers, clove, and allspice to taste. Adjust seasoning if needed.
Note: Some people don’t strain before adding the spices and just portion out their filling using a slotted spoon. The issue with this method is the spices drain out, too.
Proceed to Fill and Bake, below.
Fill and Bake:
Gently punch down and divide the dough into two portions, covering one part with a towel or plastic wrap. Lightly flour your counter and rolling pin and roll dough into a rectangle about 10″ by 15″.
If dough is properly made, very little flour should be necessary. If it sticks, work a bit more flour as you roll by dusting under the dough and on the rolling pin. If the dough doesn’t roll out smoothly, cover and let it sit there for about 15 minutes to see if a rest helps it “relax.” If that doesn’t work, it may be possible it is too dry. Lightly sprinkle the faintest amount of water on it as you roll out and see if that helps.
Using a pizza cutter, trim the edges and divide into six 5″ by 5″ squares.
Using a slotted spoon or filling is already drained in a colander, a scoop, and transfer about a half of a cup of the filling to each square. Unless you’re interested in figuring out the exact weight of cabbage and onion, there will always be some variance in the amount of filling. Divide the filling roughly in half, and it’s easier to eyeball exactly how much filling to put in, a little more or a little less in each Runza to use up all the filling or make it stretch.
Pull up two adjacent corners toward the middle and seal the seams, repeat with the next corner and so on, as shown below. Make certain seams are sealed well – if the dough has become too dry to easily stick easily, run a slightly wet finger next to the edges and proceed. Edges that are not properly sealed will leak.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the Runza on a lightly oiled baking sheet, seam side down. Cover with a clean tea towel. If working at a time of year with low humidity, lightly spray the tops of each Runza with oil so they won’t dry. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Let rise about 20 minutes or so. and perhaps a bit longer in cooler weather (the tops should be smooth.) Note added: Pick up each runza very gently before baking and turn over, making certain all seams are still sealed, then replace on baking sheet. Bake 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from baking sheet and place on a wire rack.
While still warm, brush tops with butter. This is most easily done by opening the end of a stick of butter and running the end over the tops of the rolls.
The filling technique is pretty straightforward and much easier than it seems it would be. Warning: It can be a little messy, but things will turn out just fine in the end!
Are you a Runza fan? Do you have a traditional filling your family used, secret spices and believe the Runza shouldn’t be tinkered with? Or are you up for cheese and other “new-fangled” combinations?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Runza and any suggestions!