Know your ‘ruskie’ from your ‘uszka’ – and enjoy the world-famous Polish delicacy consciously. The dumplings most associated with Poland are indisputably pierogi – one of the biggest (somewhat guilty) pleasures of the country. And if you like these little pockets of deliciousness, you’re in luck because in Polish cuisine, they come in all shapes and sizes – and flavors. No need to get overwhelmed – we’re here to help guide you through the ins and outs.
First is the typology. The idea of dumplings extends beyond pierogi themselves, so it’s important to get it right. Pierogi are Polish dumplings served dry – meaning as a dish, not connected to any kind of soup, as opposed to uszka (literally, little ears) – which are smaller and usually accompany a soup, like borscht or, on occasion rosół, a more wholesome food.
Pierogi are made to be boiled – dough with no yeast – only eggs, flour, butter, and water, rolled flat into a two-millimeter-thick base, from which a round shape is cut. Then, the filling goes in, the dough is folded around it, and the remaining edge is stuck together with fingers, hence the wavy shape.
After they’re cooked (either boiled or fried, but we’ll get into that in a moment), they’re usually served plain or with onions and/or bacon bits fried in butter (a combo called skwarki in Polish) – and in some regions, even with sour cream.
Going from smallest to largest, we have to start with the humble uszka (sing. uszko): thumb-sized dumplings in a shape slightly reminiscent of an ear (similar to Italian tortellini). Although you can find them with meat filling, the most common types are filled with mushrooms or sauerkraut and mushrooms.
In many homes across Poland, beet soup with these little parcels of goodness is a Christmas Eve staple. Uszka dough is relatively thin, so you can fit one – or sometimes even two – on a spoon for a mouth-watering treat.
Ah, pierogi. Where to begin? First off, they’re bigger than their uszka cousins and are therefore typically served as a main course. It’s hard to describe the average size of pierogi – they’re just pierogi-sized. Many home cooks cut each piece from a rolled sheet of dough using a glass, so the diameter of the glasses in their kitchens determines the size. Typically, five should make a robust and filling main course. However, you can also bet that any good Polish host will try to offer you more, as Polish hospitality dictates that a host should take pride in providing oversized portions.
(*Handy tip: Remember that the first course or appetizer on most Polish tables is soup. So if you want a meal that packs in as many dumplings as possible, you can start with beet soup with uszka – and voilà! A two-course dumpling meal. You could even finish it off with a plate of dessert dumplings, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
It’s the vast array of fillings that makes the world of pierogi so uniquely rich, with ample choices for vegetarians and meat lovers. For a vegetarian option, go for pierogi ruskie – a wholesome combination of cottage cheese and potatoes with some onion. Take note, though – some pierogi ruskie may not be entirely vegetarian as fried bacon may be added to the filling.
(*A note regarding the name: As the Russian war against Ukraine intensified, many restaurants decided to change the name of these dumplings to pierogi ukraińskie (Eng: Ukrainian) in solidarity. However, the adjective ‘ruskie’ actually comes from Rus, or Ruthenia – the former name of Ukraine, not from Russia. Don’t worry – it’s even confusing for native Polish speakers. So no matter the name, consider these treats a bow to Poland’s neighbor, where pierogi are also a popular dish (*locally called varenyky). We’d highly recommend their mashed potato-filled variety.)
For other vegetarian options, mushrooms (the forest type, not champignons) and sauerkraut, or a combination of the two, are also very popular. Don’t worry about the sauerkraut being overpowering – boiled sauerkraut gets less sour and more umami as it cooks, so the dish tastes milder than it sounds. Spinach-style pierogi have also gained a following. In fact, the possibilities are vast, so feel free to get adventurous.
Typically, meat dumplings use a traditional zero-waste technique. First, you boil the meat for a delicious and warming rosół, and then you grind the cooked meat to make a savory filling for your pierogi. That means they are usually made from beef and/or poultry. However, restaurants (and adventurous home chefs) like to get creative, often using veal, duck, or game, to name a few.
And then there are dessert-style pierogi. Typical sweet pierogi are filled with sweet cottage cheese – so if you see cheese pierogi on a menu, this is most likely what you’re going to get, so don’t expect ruskie – or at least ask your waiter. Since the bacon and onion combo doesn’t go so well here, they are often served with a bit of sweetened cream in case they weren’t calorie-heavy enough to begin with.
However, there is also a great Polish tradition of filling them with fruit – most often with huckleberries. These tiny, wild berries grow in abundance in Poland and are greatly appreciated each summer.
We should also confess that we were mostly kidding about the “dessert” description. While these pierogi are sweet, they are still pierogi and thus quite substantial – and so are usually enough to qualify as a whole meal. But who doesn’t need dessert for dinner sometimes, right?
Boiled vs. fried pierogi
All pierogi are boiled immediately after preparation. That could be the end – boiled pierogi are certainly delicious. At this point, they can be eaten immediately, stored so that they are ready to quickly reheat (*particularly useful for feasts when you want to do as much work as possible in advance), or even frozen. But what quite often happens is that these pre-boiled pierogi are pan-fried in butter to golden perfection, which adds a rich, umami flavor. However, some cooks even like to bake them, adding yet another possible layer to your pierogi experience.
And then, there are kluski. It’s just a generic word for “dumplings” for the lack of a better word, however, these are a bit different, with the main similarity being that they are made from dough with filling inside (and can easily be a whole meal). But the dough is thicker, sometimes yeast-based, and as such, it plays more of a role, instead of just a sideshow for the filling, as in the case of pierogi. To get a glimpse of this world, check our Zeppelin-style Lithuanian dumpling story.
Meanwhile – enjoy your pierogi, as you like them.