What Is a Kugel and How Do You Make One?
It is the Jewish High Holidays season, which means that there are going to be plenty of kugel recipes out there. Whether sweet or savory, traditional or new-fangled, every food outlet is going to be whipping out some serious kugel coverage. Which is awesome if you are a fan of kugel, and probably strange if you have no kugel experience.
But I am here to demystify the whole kugel situation for you, because kugel is a wonderful thing to cook and eat and should have much more widespread appeal.
What is it?
Kugel is quite simply a baked casserole of either noodles or potato, mixed with eggs and curd cheese like cottage cheese or farmers cheese, and made either sweet with sugar and spices, or savory with salt and onion and herbs. Potato kugel tends to be served mostly around Passover when noodles aren’t allowed and is often combined with other vegetables like zucchini or broccoli. The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah are definitely noodle kugel territory, which is why you are going to see a lot of them shortly, but many of us break out a noodle kugel for pretty much any brunch. So, for our purposes, we are going to focus on noodle kugel, which is the most common and most versatile.
Why is it?
Many Jewish dishes came about because of the need to prepare foods ahead of the sabbath or holidays, and then either be quickly reheated, or served cold or at room temp. So, this casserole is great, because it can be made up to two days in advance, freezes well, and is delicious hot, warm, room temp or even cold. This makes it super flexible, depending on your schedule.
Many kugel recipes are handed down from grandmother to mother, or aunt to nephew, usually scrawled on an index card, and often with the most basic description of ingredients and techniques. Which is great if you have been able to actually watch someone make one. But there are some tips and tricks that some of the recipes leave out that will definitely up your kugel game.
Noodle kugel is made with egg noodles, which tend to be lighter and less dense than Italian pastas. If you are baking in a casserole dish, use extra-wide egg noodles, if you are baking in smaller portions, like muffin tins, use wide or medium width noodles. Don’t use thin noodles because they will make your kugel super dense and claggy, you want the wiggly wider noodles to help create spaces for the custard to flow and keep the kugel light. Cook the noodles to al dente in well-salted water according to package directions, then rinse with cold water until no longer warm to the touch. This rinsing helps stop the cooking so that the noodles don’t get mushy.
Whether sweet or savory the custard is usually a combination of beaten eggs, some sort of curd cheese, and other dairy like melted butter, cream cheese, sour cream or the like. From there you will either be directed to add sweet things like sugar, cinnamon, apples, crushed pineapple or raisins, or to add salt and pepper, sautéed onions, and herbs like parsley or thyme or dill. Whichever recipe you use, be sure that the custard is getting mixed into noodles that are properly chilled, or you risk scrambling the eggs.
Kugels can be made in everything from loaf pans to ring molds, but traditionally they are most often made in 9 inch by 13 inch casserole dishes. This makes for easy slice and serve squares. I started making my kugels in muffin tins about a dozen years ago, because I think it makes for prettier portions, and I like the ratio of browned edges to tender middles. Any vessel you use should be given a generous spray with cooking spray or be well-buttered before filling.
Kugels of all sorts want a crispy topping. For sweet kugels that can mean anything from crushed cornflakes to buttered cinnamon sugar breadcrumbs, to toasted chopped nuts, and for savory kugels it might mean your famous French’s fried onions. It is great to have the balance of crispy top to tender insides for a dish that is so simple.
To Cook and Serve
You usually bake a kugel uncovered at medium heat like 325 or 350 to allow the custard to set slowly and stay creamy, higher heat can make it split or dry out. This can take as little as 20 minutes for muffin tins to an hour for larger casseroles or deeper baking pans. You should let your kugel rest for at least 15 minutes to tighten up before slicing or removing from the muffin tins. If you are making ahead, skip the topping until you reheat in a 300-degree oven uncovered to warm through and crisp the topping.
You can freeze whole kugels, well-wrapped in layers of plastic wrap and foil and store for up to two months. Kugel muffins can be frozen in a single layer on a sheet pan and then transferred to a zip-top bag. Thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.