Austrian food = comfort food. I think anyone who’s tasted Wiener schnitzel, Käsespätzle, or Kaiserschmarrn can attest to that. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said the Wiener schnitzel is one of the things he misses most about his country of birth. However, traditional Austrian food is about much more than this famous meat cutlet in its golden breadcrumb coating.
Austrian Food Is High In Calories!
Austrian food traditions have been influenced over centuries by its many neighbours. Once the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, the small and landlocked central European country of today is bordered by Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia.
There is nothing pretentious about Austrian food. It’s simple and hearty. Think dumplings, pancakes, pastries, potatoes, bread, cheese and sausages.
It’s no wonder that figures on world food consumption show that Austrians consume more calories than any other nation in the world. The average Austrian consumes a whopping 3,800 calories per day.
Even so, very few Austrians are overweight or obese compared to the US who is 2nd on the list of high-calorie consumers. The reason can be that despite Austrian foods being high in calories, Austrians are generally more active. It’s evident in the high numbers of people taking to the country whenever they can to ski, hike, or cycle.
Viennese Cuisine – The Most Popular Austrian Food?
Wiener Schnitzel – The National Dish Of Austria
The Wiener schnitzel tops the menu of almost every Austrian restaurant that holds its reputation dearly. With its golden breadcrumb coating and juicy veal inner, the term Wiener schnitzel is a protected geographical indication.
A real Wiener schnitzel is made with nothing other than veal, dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, and pan-fried in clarified butter (butterschmalz). Schnitzel from other meat prepared in the same way must be called Wiener schnitzel from pork (or turkey or chicken) or Schnitzel nach Wiener Art (schnitzel Viennese style).
Here’s where to go looking for the best schnitzel in Vienna.
Conflicting stories exist on where the national dish of Austria gets its name. The most popular is that it has its origins in the 1800s in Milan, Italy where the Austrian General Joseph Radetzky (immortalized by Johann Strauss I’s famous Radetzky March) ate a veal cutlet covered in breadcrumbs and fried in butter. He reported his culinary “discovery” to the Austrian imperial rulers who had the recipe and technique “perfected” in Vienna.
Many versions of the original Wiener schnitzel exist today. So, if you’re not sure what to eat in Vienna besides a Wiener schnitzel, remember these next time you’re in the city (or anywhere in Austria).
- Jägerschnitzel (Hunter’s schnitzel) – This cutlet of veal or pork surprisingly has no flour, egg and breadcrumb coating. Instead, it’s topped with either a tomato or cream based mushroom sauce, often with a hint of sweet paprika.
- Zigeunerschnitzel (Gypsy schnitzel) – A schnitzel from mostly pork, but also veal, chicken or turkey, covered in a tomato based sauce with sliced bell peppers, onions and sweet paprika. The recipe probably dates back to the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when peppers from Hungary became well-known.
- Rahmschnitzel (cream schnitzel) – This one also comes without the flour, egg and crumbs. It lies in a thin, cream sauce and is often served with spätzle, a soft egg noodle or dumpling.
- Milanese Schnitzel – Probably the one General Radetzky had over 100 years ago. It’s prepared in the same way as the Wiener schnitzel, but the veal cutlet is thicker and the bone left in.
- Cordon-Bleu – Even this well-known Swiss dish is family of the schnitzel. The meat is stuffed with ham and cheese before it gets its coating of flour, egg and breadcrumbs. After the Wiener schnitzel, it’s the second most popular schnitzel dish in Austria.
Basic Wiener Schnitzel Recipe
I’m not giving myself out as a champion schnitzel maker. However, after trying and failing (the batter either made huge bubbles or fell off) a few times, I think I can agree the secret to a great schnitzel lies in the clarified butter (butterschmalz). My gratitude for this tip goes to the friendly Austrian lady at our local supermarket. She was horrified to learn I used canola oil instead of clarified butter to fry my schnitzel to perfection.
4 veal cutlets (thickness of about 1 cm) from the rump or shoulder
100 g all-purpose flour
100 g fresh breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
Slice of lemon
- Heat the butter in a pan to an ideal heat of between 160-170°C.
- Beat the cutlets with a meat pounder until they are much thinner.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Cover in flour, dip in beaten egg and cover with fresh breadcrumbs.
- Now comes the tricky part. Take care not to handle the schnitzel too much to ensure a “fluffy” crumbing when fried.
- Gently slip the schnitzel into the pan. It should swim in the fat to cook evenly. Once golden brown all around, remove and place on a paper towel to absorb excess fat.
The national dish of Austria is traditionally served with parsley and butter potatoes, but most restaurants now also serve it with French fries or potato salad. An authentic Austrian touch is a serving of lingonberry jam on the side. And don’t forget a wedge of lemon to squeeze over.
The drink most commonly consumed with Austria’s national dish? Well, beer, of course!
More Popular Austrian Meat Dishes
Once you’ve had your fill of schnitzel, there are more equally simple but tasty traditional Austrian foods to try. They include:
Schweinsbraten (roast pork) – A traditional Sunday lunch dish from Eastern Austria. The crackling is spiced with cumin, and the meat served with gravy, sauerkraut (fermented white cabbage) and bread dumplings.
Tafelspitz (boiled beef) – A lean meat cut boiled in broth with carrots, leeks and turnips. The thinly sliced meat is served with roast potatoes, creamed spinach and horseradish sauce.
Gulash (goulash) – A hearty beef stew that the Austrians share with the Hungarians. Of course, sweet paprika from Hungary is a key ingredient. It’s often served as a thick soup with bread, rolls and dumplings. If you’re looking for an affordable but filling Austrian dish while out sightseeing, hiking or skiing, Gulashsuppe is a great choice.
Tiroler Gröstl – A one-pan dish with fried slices of potatoes as the main ingredient. Flavour is provided by fried onion, bits of bacon and roast beef, caraway seeds and chives. And the “cherry on top” is a fried egg. No wonder it reminds people of bubble and squeak. This traditional Austrian dish is very popular in mountain hut restaurants (called Alms) after a nice long hike.
Game – With hunting in the Austrian woods still a popular pastime, many restaurants specialize in game dishes during the hunting season in the fall. It can range from deer and wild boar to brown hare and duck.
Many of the 3,800 calories the average Austrian consume every day, most probably come from the range of pastries, bread and cakes available from the thousands of bakeries spread across cities and towns. Who can blame them for not resisting?
Restaurants also serve a variety of strudels and sweet dumplings as dessert. The most popular Austrian desserts are:
Kaiserschmarrn (thick, fluffy pancake) – This is one of the favourite Austrian desserts among local families, who even give it to their children as their main meal. Kaiserschmarrn is a thick pancake cut into bite-sized pieces and fried until golden brown. Raisins are sometimes added (although we like it without). Applesauce or plum stew is traditionally served on the side, while the pancake pieces are dusted with powdered sugar.
Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) – It is said this Austrian dessert made its way to Austria from Arabia via the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. The coffee-time treat consists of a spicy filling of apples and raisins wrapped in puff pastry. It’s often served hot with a vanilla custard sauce for dessert.
Sachertorte – The well-known chocolate cake of the Café Sacher in Vienna, with almost every other café making their own version of it. I’m sorry to say I’m not such a big fan of this two-layered chocolate cake with the apricot jam in the middle and topped with chocolate glaze. Most café versions I’ve had have been on the dry side. I much rather prefer my friend Petra’s homemade Sachertorte!
Krapfen – This is a favourite bakery treat among Austrian children. It’s a doughnut-like pastry, but instead of a hole in the middle, it’s filled with either jam or custard. The traditional Marillenkrapfen or apricot krapfen is especially popular around carnival time in February.
Germknödel (yeast dough dumpling) – This dumpling is filled with plum jam and served either with melted butter or vanilla custard sauce. Poppy seeds are sprinkled over with a dusting of powdered sugar. You’ll find this Austrian dessert in many self-service restaurants in ski resorts.
Vegetarian Austrian Food
It’s a fact that hardly any traditional Austrian foods are vegan-friendly. However, vegetarians will find a slightly larger selection of foods to choose from.
Just don’t expect vitamin bombs in the form of salads or vegetable dishes. Rather think dumplings (Knödel) and unique Austrian “pasta” called Spätzle or Schlutzkrapfen. Or fried “cheese pies” called Zillertaler krapfen.
Knödel – These are bread dumplings mixed with compatible ingredients like spinach for Spinatknödel or cheese for Kaspressknödel. They are either served as a soup in beef broth or with a salad on the side. Potato dumplings are served with Schweinsbraten.
Schlutzkrapfen – This Austrian dish is half-moon shaped Ravioli like paste pockets which are mostly filled with spinach and ricotta cheese or Tiroler Graukäse (grey cheese). Browned butter and grated parmesan cheese top the dish off.
Käsespätzle – The Ultimate Austrian Comfort Food
Käsespätzle is the Austrian version of macaroni and cheese. It’s a big favourite on cold winter days in the Alps. Why don’t you try to make your own with this recipe from the Austrian national tourist office:
250g (9 oz) flour
5 eggs + 1 egg yolk
a good pinch of salt
2-3 tbsp water (if necessary)
2 tbsp butter
150-200g (5-7 oz) cheese, grated (Emmental or Gruyere works well)
To prepare the onions:
75g (3 oz) butter
2 medium onions cut in rings
- Combine the flour, eggs and a generous pinch of salt. Blend well and add water, little by little, if necessary. The dough should not be runny, but soft enough to slowly fall off a spoon.
- Set the dough aside and allow to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Once rested, roll the dough out roughly and cut into bite-sized pieces (or press through a colander).
- Meanwhile, heat the butter in a frying pan over low to medium heat, and fry the onions until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add a pinch of salt and reduce the heat for the water to gently simmer. Add the spätzle and cook for about 2-3 minutes until they float back to the surface.
- When done, drain the water, melt 1-2 tbsp of butter in the pot before returning the spätzle. Shake the pot a few times to evenly distribute the butter, add the grated cheese and mix well.
- Add the browned onions and chopped chives on top and serve.
There you have it, the pick of traditional Austrian foods. Have you tried any and which ones are your favourite?