Because it's intended to be slow cooked over many hours for a hot meal on Shabbat day, cholent is among the most characteristically Jewish foods. With many different versions representing the diversity of the worldwide Jewish community, cholent is a comforting, hearty, celebratory all-in-one-pot meal.Yum
There are lots of theories about the origins of cholent. A common one suggests that the word cholent, used by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe to describe the Shabbat day stew, derives from the French chaud-lent, "hot-slow." Like many theories in Jewish food history, it's an interesting theory lacking conclusive evidence. (It's more likely to be related to Old French chalt, "warm," or chalant, "warmed.") In my family, we pronounce it chunt; Sefardi Jews call it hamin, from the Hebrew word for "hot." What is certain is that eating hot food on Shabbat day—the middday meal on Saturday—is an important and ancient aspect of observing Shabbat. And while the versions of Shabbat stew of the global Jewish community vary wonderfully, their basis is the same: tough cuts of meat that become meltingly soft with long, slow cooking; beans; grains; and root vegetables.
The cholent recipe included below is "traditional Israeli," which is to say, an amalgam of Ashkenazi and Sefardi foodways. It's got an Ashkenazi base, in that Ashkenazi cholent usually involves everything cooked together in a jumble, while Sefardi hamin carefully places the grains and beans in separate packs (made of cheesecloth or plastic) to be served individually. But the eggs, an addition my Yekke mother faithfully made to each and every cholent, are an element taken from the Sefardi tradition.
Cholent is usually lightly seasoned, deriving most of its unique flavor from the melding of the elements over time. Hamin often features bright spices, whereas cholent tends to stick to garlic and paprika.
Another star feature of cholent/hamin is the dishes baked on top of it, which range from kugel and kishke—literally, intestine, as in cow guts stuffed with flour and fat, and don't knock it till you've tried it—to the Yemenite community's famous Shabbat day bread, jachanun. Yes, well before the Instant Pot, cholent was into pot-in-pot cooking. We'll most definitely be getting to all of those on-top options, but for now, we'll concentrate on the base recipe. However: it's mandatory to have plenty of challah on hand to mop up the cholent, the one valid excuse being Passover.
Elements of cholent
The base ingredient in cholent is stew meat, which is sometimes sold labelled that way and is generally made of cubed tough cuts of meat. I recommend 1 ½ to 2 lbs. / 750 g to 1 kg for a family-sized cholent. You'll also want as many medium yellow potatoes and eggs as diners.
Though the specific varieties vary, cholent typically includes a grain and beans. Hamin favors rice and chickpeas; cholent favors barley and a combination of brown, white, and red beans. In the kosher section or a kosher mart, you may be able to find a "cholent mix" of bagged beans. Any whole grain works nicely in cholent; farro, kamut, wheat berries, and so on.
Then there's the flavoring and sauce elements: aromatics, spices, often some tomato sauce or paste, sometimes honey, and stock.
Prepping and layering cholent
Cholent starts off by browning the onion and the meat, which will form the first layer in the pot. To that, you'll add the beans and grains. The third layer consists of the peeled, but whole potatoes and scrubbed eggs. The liquid gets mixed separately and poured over everything.
How much liquid to add
On the one hand, you don't want your cholent to dry out during its long time on the heat. On the other, you want the sauce to thicken and reduce to a stewy rather than soupy consistency. Generally speaking, the amount of liquid included in the recipe below is good for the entire duration of the cooking. You want all the ingredients to be mostly submerged in the liquid at the start. That being said, always check your cholent before Shabbat, giving its a good stir and adding water or stock if it looks fairly dry.
When to start cholent before Shabbat
This is an intricate area of halakhah (Jewish law), requiring that cholent to be sufficiently cooked before Shabbat (though it needn't be cooked all the way), so please consult an authority as needed. I usually start my cholent in the range of 2-3 hours before Shabbat, whether in a Dutch oven or in the slow cooker.
Slow cooker method
I'd guess this is the most common method used today, especially since most slow cookers and multi-cookers have a sauté function that allows you to start and finish the cholent all in the cooker. It's also convenient that most cookers will switch over to "keep warm" once the cook time has elapsed. (If yours doesn't or has an automatic shut-off, keep that in mind in terms of timing Shabbat lunch.) If you're pressed for time, you can simply set-it-and-forget-it before Shabbat, selecting the longest cook time on the lowest heat. I often do it this way and all is well. However, if you have the time, I like it better when you set the slow cooker for high heat for 2 hours, then switch to 12+ hours on low right before Shabbat comes in.
This method is similar to the slow-cooker method, except that you brown the onions and meat in a Dutch oven or heavy pot on the stovetop and then transfer the layered cholent to the oven (at a moderately low heat of 325F / 160C) for 2 hours. Right before Shabbat, place the cholent on your plata (food warmer) and leave it over that low heat until the next day. I'm not sure why, but I find this method works a bit better and it's my personal favorite.
Looking for Shabbat recipes?
- Simple roasted chicken (that almost everyone likes) – another Shabbat classic that couldn't be easier but is always a hit.
- Chicken soup with matzah balls is another forever favorite for Shabbat.
- You can find all my challah recipes here.
Classic Cholent - Slow-Cooker or Stovetop/Oven (meat)
- Slow cooker, multi-cooker, or Dutch oven plus plata (food warmer)
- 1 ½ to 2 lbs stew meat - 750 g - 1 kg
- 1 large onion - diced
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ½ cup dried pinto or kidney beans
- ½ cup dried white or cranberry beans
- 1 cup pearled barley - wheat berries, or farro
- 5-6 yellow potatoes - peeled and halved if large
- 5-6 eggs - scrubbed
- ¼ cup tomato paste - 60 ml - about 1 small can
- 2 cups beef or chicken stock - or water
- 2 Tbsp honey
- 1 Tbs paprika
- salt and pepper
At least two hours before Shabbat:
- Fry the onion in olive oil over a medium flame until softened and browned, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds.
- Move the onions to the perimeter of the pan and sear the meat in the center until browned.
- Add the beans, grains, and potatoes on top of the meat. Arrange the eggs on top.
- In a measuring cup, combine the tomato paste, stock, honey, and paprika. Season well with salt and pepper and whisk to combine.
- Pour the sauce over top.
Slow cooker method:
- Optionally, you can start the cholent on "high" slow heat for 2 hours.
- Slow-cook on low for 12+ hours, stirring once before Shabbat.
- Cook in a Dutch oven or casserole at 325°F / 160°C for 2 hours, then place on plata (food warmer).