Every region of the country has its big, burly stew, from gumbo to chili to cioppino. This is burgoo, a Kentucky classic, done with a menagerie of wild game: Pheasant, squirrel and venison.
Burgoo. Um, what? Yeah, I know. When I first heard the name of this stew, years ago when I was living in Virginia, I just chalked it up to one of the many odd names you see in the South. Apparently this word predates the stew, however.
The oldest references to it seem to refer to a thin, nasty-sounding breakfast of hardtack or oats and water cooked into a gruel. The theory is that the name comes from a conflation of bulghur wheat and ragout, but this seems like a stretch to me.
What has carried on since the Civil War, however, is the concept of burgoo as a very thick stew — thick enough to stand your spoon in it. How you get there is more a matter of personal taste.
There are as many versions of burgoo as cooks throughout the Greater Burgoo Diaspora, which is basically Kentucky, southern Illinois and Indiana, as well as parts of Ohio River Valley.
Having eaten dozens of versions of burgoo, and having read scores of recipes, they all seem to have the following in common:
- At least three meats, typically of different characters, i.e., venison, pheasant and squirrel, or chicken, mutton and pork.
- Some form of tomato product, whether chopped fresh tomatoes, tomato paste or whatever.
- Beans, usually lima beans or black-eyed peas
- Corn and potatoes
Beyond that, go for it. Add some bourbon, or some offal. Maybe some collards, or that groundhog that’s been sitting in your freezer…
And when you cook this stew, don’t mess around: Make enough for leftovers. A particularly grand burgoo party written up in the New York Times in 1897 included “400 pounds of beef, six dozen chickens, four dozen rabbits, thirty cans of tomatoes, twenty dozen cans of corn, fifteen bushels of potatoes, and five bushels of onions.”
My recipe is a bit more subdued, but it will still get you through a few lunches at work. Make a big ole’ bowl this weekend and you won’t be sad.
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 to 2 squirrels or rabbits, cut into serving pieces
- 2 to 3 pounds venison, 3 to 4 inches wide, cut into large pieces
- 3 to 5 pheasant legs/thighs, bone-in
- 1 green pepper, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 celery ribs, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 quart pheasant or chicken stock
- 1 quart beef or game stock
- 1 28- ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 large potatoes
- 1 bag of frozen corn, about a pound
- 1 bag of frozen lima beans or canned black-eyed peas, about 14 ounces
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
- Tabasco or other hot sauce on the side
- Pour the oil into a large Dutch oven or soup pot and set the heat to medium-high. Working in batches, brown all the meats. Do not crowd the pan or the meat will not brown well. Salt the meat as it cooks. As they brown, move the various meats to a bowl.
- Add the onions, carrots, celery and green pepper to the pot and turn the heat to high. Cook the vegetables until they are well browned; you might need to add a little more oil to the pot. When the vegetables have browned, add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add back the meats, along with the chicken and beef broths and the tomatoes. Stir to combine and add salt to taste. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 2 hours.
- Fish out the meat pieces. Strip the pheasant and squirrel off the bone. Tear the large pieces of venison into bite-sized pieces. The reason you did not do this right at the start is because venison will stay moister when it cooks in larger pieces. Return all the meat to the pot and return the stew to simmer.
- Peel and cut the potatoes into chunks about the same size as the meat pieces. Add them to the stew and simmer until they are tender. Add the Worcestershire sauce, mix well and taste for salt. Add more Worcestershire sauce to taste if needed.
- Finally, add the corn and lima beans. Mix well and cook for at least 10 minutes, or longer if you’d like. Serve with cornbread and a bottle of hot sauce on the side.
Any recommendations for modifying it for a crock pot?
I should have known I would find your site when I searched “burgoo with rabbit.” 😉
Hank Shaw says
Miriam: Sure. I’d brown all the meats in some other pan first, then add everything to the crockpot. I’d also add some water or broth to the pan you browned the meats in to loosen up the browned bits. Scrape all that off with a wooden spoon and add that to the crockpot, too. More flavor that way.
My family has used 7 wild game meats in their burgoo for decades. Probably for a century. This one sounds great. My husband usually buys a gallon or two every fall in support of local churches and/or volunteer fire departments.
Kelly Newman says
Growing up in Kentucky my dad had an old story of where burgoo originated from goes back to the civil war and because it was made of duck pheasant squirrel whatever meat they could find the old cook was calling for the soldiers to come eat while doing so he was saying bird stew however having no teeth what come out or what they understood was burgoo and that is where the name originated from I suggest if you’re ever in Kentucky visiting Old hickory in Owensboro you will not be disappointed
Old Hickory always beats out Moonlight for me!
Paul Ries says
This is a very hearty and satisfying dish. I wouldn’t change the proportion of secondary ingredients at all. I used 1 1/2 lbs. of stew beef and 3 chicken pieces and I simmered those in the crushed tomatoes and broth for 2 hours before adding the sautéed vegetables, shredding the chicken, then cooking for another 2 hours.
Very, very good. Thanks!
Chris Gavin says
The perfect recipe when you have a little of everything in the freezer. Except muskrat. Leave muskrat out.
Thanks Hank! I tried it just like recipe says and used Wild Rabbit, Fallow deer and chicken thighs. Was truly amazing ! Everyone loved it.
Made this today and it turned out great. I used chicken drumsticks instead of pheasant. Even my mother, who didn’t like the idea of eating squirrel, seemed to enjoy it.
Christie Vance says
Been doing this one past couple hunting seasons this year duck buck and beaver. Omg amazing I’m so glad I stumbled upon this web site!!!!
JOHN HENNING says
I love this recipe. I like it best with deer shanks and squirrel. I also add okra as it usually appears in burgoo in my part of ky.
This is one of the most versatile recipes that I know of for random meats in it and it still being delicious. As Mr. Shaw says in his book “they’ll all get hammered into submission”. I have used ham hock, chuck eye steak from a milk cow, venison rump roast, venison shank, squirrel, chicken, squirrel, and cottage style bacon in various recipes and they were all good.
The best way to cook your Burgoo is in 2 separate pots. You really want to cook the meat for 24 hours before combining it with the cooked vegetables in a separate pot. Then cook for another 4 hours or so. Sometimes I cheat and pressure cook the meat, then throw it all together for about 8 hours with the uncooked veggies.
I’ve been cooking burgoo for over 30 years.
Marcia Coakley says
Thanks, Hank. Went looking for a woodchuck recipe after hubs collected a small and tender one chowing down in our garden (having dug their way under the fence). Tonight’s Kentucky burgoo was that fresh meat, plus a venison quad steak, and a substantial Canada goose breast from our neighbor. Limas, and previously blanched chopped collards rounded out a scrumptious feast. Tomorrow it will unquestionably be even more delish.
Randy Curtis says
When I first found your site you had me at squirrel. Then I see that you know what burgoo is. As a native of Owensboro, KY I have eaten a fair share of Moonlight’s and Old Hickory’s burgoo and ‘que. The many Catholic churches in the county can hold their own. Finally my wife’s uncle and her father were patient unheralded slow cooking BBQ masters. I have had a fair share but I’m not through eating the good stuff.
What is that, about 5 pounds of total meat?
Hank Shaw says
Doug: More or less.
Can you get away with using hind quarter roasts for the venison in this recipe, or would you recommend just sticking with front shoulder and neck cuts? Thank you.
Hank Shaw says
Travis: Sure, you can get away with that.
william h adams says
I recall seeing old Ky. horse sale bills with the come-on
“Burgoo Served on the Grounds”
get it right says
well James, you must not be well versed in Kentucky history. Elk are actually native to Kentucky and were hunted to extinction in the mid-1880’s… however with the repopulation efforts of Ky fish and wildlife we once again have the largest heard of elk east of the Mississippi. Elk is in most, if not all, Burgoo I’ve had in the last decade.
To Ms. Gary – there were no elk in Kentucky, so elk was never an ingredient in Kentucky Burgoo. Your comment reflects ingredients more common to Brunswick Stew.
My ancestors moved to Kentucky in the early 1800s, and Burgoo is a family tradition at gatherings. My uncle Jim was the master cook of Burgoo, and I now carry the mantle using his recipe. This recipe is pretty close, as if it doesn’t contain lima beans, it’s not Burgoo. I would suggest adding half of the lima beans at the start, which allows them to melt and thicken the sauce. Also it MUST be cooked in a cast iron pot over a wood fire to pay homage the Burgoo tradition.
Mrs. Gary Gwin says
Hare, elk and an old hen thanks again