A Nebraska Tradition gone Wild

Posted by J. Nesbitt on Sep 19th 2020

A Nebraska Tradition gone Wild

I cannot believe it took us so long to get “Wild Wednesday” (as our kids say) on one of our favorite Nebraska traditions.  We have heard them called bierocks, krautburgers and a long German word I am not even going to attempt to spell, but in Nebraska they are RUNZAS.  Generically these gems are yeast bread pockets filled with seasoned ground meat, onions, and cabbage.  And while they are a simple, inexpensive, and filling part of mealtime all year, the fall especially thrusts these savory stuffed sandwiches to the front of the recipe box.  Maybe it is their obligatory inclusion for any Husker football party or maybe it is the need to use up the last few cabbage heads plucked from the garden before a freeze.  Whatever the case, instinctively this week it was time for runzas.  And since Nexgen family member Reese had already tagged out on an early cow elk hunt, we had the perfect way to make ‘em wild!

Fresh Runza Bread Dough

A person could turn to old great grandma Rhodes recipe (from the frozen aisle) or even long-lost Aunt Rose’s easy & crusty bread dough (marked Krusteaz in the next aisle over) and do fine.  But I am part bread geek and part bread snob so of course I made my own dough.  I was going to need something richer and more dense than an easy French bread, but not as sweet or dense as a favorite Brioche or sweet roll consistency.  A geeky approach with not much sugar but some milk and eggs for richness and a decent amount of fat to hold everything together without spilling any stuffing during baking.

Here is the verdict:

~ 2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup sugar

1 tsp salt

1 heaping Tbsp Yeast (probably same as about 4 tsp or 2 envelopes)

Mix that all together quickly in a large bowl

Either on the stove top or in the microwave mix:

~1 cup water

~ ½ cup milk

½ cup butter flavored shortening (in this case, I felt like this is the perfect mix of flavor and fat)

Warming Wet Runza Ingredients

Mix in a small pot or glass container until the shortening melts (at least mostly), then add this mixture to the flour mixture and mix until smooth.

Add 2 eggs and mix again until smooth.

Now start incorporating flour until you get a moderately stiff dough, probably between 2 and 3 more cups, but you really must feel out the right amount as you go in my opinion.  The dough should not be sticky, but also not kneaded a long time like a chewy bagel or pizza crust.  When it is hard to stir by hand, turn out onto a floured counter and work it to your desired consistency.  About 4-5 minutes.

Clean out the mixing bowl and apply a light coating of oil, then put your dough back in and let raise 45 – 60mins while setting near the stove.  I like to preheat the oven to 350 degrees during this step, which along with the heat from preparing the filling will give a boost to this bread proofing step.  While your yeast is feasting on the sugars allowing the dough to rise, work on the runza stuffing.

2lbs ground wild game (we used elk)

~1/4 lb. mild ground pork sausage

Salt and Pepper to taste, although let your creativity come through.  Chili powder, taco seasoning, Italian blend or even your favorite BBQ rub are just the tip of the flavorberg.

Break apart and cook in a skillet until everything is cooked through, then remove the meat from the skillet.

Our ground elk is ONLY lean cuts with no additional fat, so I combined a little ground pork to prevent burning the lean meat.  If you have blended some pork fat with your ground wild game, then it should be fine to exclude the pork listed here.

Nexgen Outfitters Saute Runza Veggies

Add to your skillet

~3 Tbsp Oil

1 Large yellow onion chopped to your desired size pieces (we were somewhere between a fine dice and a rough chop)

1 Small head of green cabbage also chopped or shredded to your desired size (we like the onions and cabbage similar in size)

Salt and Pepper to Taste

Keep in mind that the vegetables will cook down significantly, so if it feels like there is no way all this onion and cabbage will fit, just be patient.  Our blend of veggies was probably ~6cups when we started, and the picture here is about half way through cooking.  Sauté over medium heat until everything is getting soft and the sugars are browning.

Turn off the heat and add the meat mixture back to the veggies.  This is your basic runza guts, but much like the seasoning a couple steps ago, prepare whatever other fillings “fit your fancy”.  The only caution here is to make sure there is not too much moisture in any supplemental veggies or things could get soggy (gross!).  Just drain the extras on a sheet of paper towel for a few minutes to pull some water off.  I made half plain and added sliced jalapeños with shredded Monterey Jack to the other half.

Once the dough has about doubled in size, punch it down and divide into 12 equal sized balls.

Nexgen Outfitters Runza Construction

Now it is time to start construction! 

Dust the counter with flour and roll a dough ball into about an 8” circle or oval shape.  Spoon about 3/4 cup of filling mixture into the middle of the circle along with any of the kickin’ extras that you have decided to include.  Fold opposite edges into the middle and pinch the dough shut along the whole length, making sure to also pinch the ends shut.  Transfer to a greased sheet pan with the seam that was just made down.  Work quickly to repeat construction with the remaining dough.

As a sheet pan is filled, put the runzas right into the oven without a second proof period.  This will make sure you get all the yummy goodness from a yeast dough but not let the shell swell to any amount of volume.  You sure do not want the end product to seem like a little meat filling inside a big loaf of bread, instead let your filling flavor shine through.

Bake at 350 for about 20min to a perfect golden color.  The outside will seem a little crispy when you first remove them from the oven, but a quick brush of melted butter will soften them right up.  They also keep in the freezer really well, so once you decide to attack wild runzas make a few batches at once.

With a little practice, creative seasonings, and a few of your favorite add-ins these meat pillows will quickly become a recipe that stays at the front of the box.  Plus, these are an excellent way to get doubters to jump in and try wild game for the first time.  Just make sure to channel the Nebraska spirit and call them RUNZAS.