Burger in a Bun: Bierocks, Runzas, and Runsas (Whitecastle, Eat Your Heart Out)

by Jason Roth on March 2, 2010

I like to live vicariously through my future self. It goes back to the endless page-turning of the Sears catalog, microanalyzing my Christmas list possibilities until I arrived at a a perfectly balanced grouping of gift possibilities, probabilities, and long shots. (Even if I never did get the magic set I kept asking for.) Now, I enjoy planning trips. I feel like I’m extending the experience from the future and at the same time, making for a greater vacation. This weekend, Karen and I experienced a little bit of two very different upcoming trips. And the trip to Kansas City, Missouri translated into some damn good grub.

I can almost taste Paris.

I can almost taste Paris.

“Preparing” for our vacation to France and Spain consisted of a couple Blockbuster rentals, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Paris, je t’aime, and a bottle of La Goudale beer. The Kansas City connection was a bit more obscure. Initially looking for some barbecue, I opened up my copy of America’s Best Lost Recipes. The somewhat Chinese sounding “runsas” looked interesting. Chinese, that is, not for the name but for the ingredients: buns filled with ground beef and cabbage. Their ethnic heritage actually derives from Volga Germans, Germans who lived in Russia for a century and a half. The Volga Germans brought bierocks to the United States in the late 1800s, having developed the recipe, most likely, from the Russian pirozhki.

Turns out that runsas go by several other names, depending on whether you’re talking about the ones with a history in Nebraska (runsas and runzas), Argentina (pirok), or Kansas (bierocks). We’re going to Kansas, so ours are called bierocks. There seems to be exactly one restaurant that serves them in Kansas City (more to be found in Wichita), so lunch at You Say Tomato is on our list. It will be interesting to see how our versions compare, given that we’re basically cooking them in a vacuum.

Conveniently, Cook’s Country, the editors of America’s Best Lost Recipes, have posted the recipe. (The recipe is a winning contest entry by Pam Patterson from Leon, Kansas.) We split the recipe in half and ate one bierock each on the first night, saving two for lunch the next day. The first glaring thing you’ll notice about the recipe is the complete lack of seasoning other than salt and pepper. It was tempting to mess with this, but given how the editors raved about the recipe as it was plus our desire to make a “true” Midwestern dish, we held back on modifications. Besides, in the back of my mind, I knew there was a bottle of sriracha in the fridge.

Rocking out the bierock.

The bierock contains two of my favorite things. Bier. And rock.

For the stuffing, we browned some hamburger meat. Separately, we softened some chopped onion and then added chopped cabbage. (I saw no reason to chop the onion finely as called for in the recipe. For the same reason the recipe wisely recommends keeping the cabbage slightly crispy to add a nice crunch, we thought it made sense for the onion to have some substance.) After combining these three ingredients, we added salt and pepper, and we were done. What you don’t see underneath the filling is a slice of American cheese (evidently a nontraditional ingredient). At first, we thought adding American cheese was a goofy idea, but pushing this thing closer to a calzone was the right move. Besides, I love American cheese.

The secret ingredient in the dough was a little sweetened condensed milk. I’m no baker and I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but it’s probably good for my clothing budget that I promptly deposited the rest of the can in the trash after using it. That stuff is good. In the bierock, though, I’m not so sure. I think it added a little too much sweetness, which Karen agreed with me about. Given its viscosity, it must help hold the dough together, which is a good thing. (Maybe we’ll try unsweetened next time and just add a little sugar.) The Cook’s Country editors recommended putting the rolled-out dough in a bowl to help keep the filling together, a helpful suggestion.

Sealing up the runsa. I mean bierock.

Sealing up the runsa. I mean bierock.

Sealing up the bottom of the bierock, I had flashbacks of my in-laws making fun of my dumpling-making technique. Nevertheless, the recipe’s suggestion was to stretch and pinch the dough, and we accomplished that. I’d say the final result was nearly perfect, but the bottom middle portion was a bit too dough-heavy. I’m thinking it’s just something that needs practice. The good news is: you turn them upside-down to cook and serve them, so who’s going to know?

Bierocks looking good. All we have to do now is s not burn 'em.

Bierocks looking good. All we have to do now is s not burn 'em.

The 20-minute suggested cooking time was nearly dead-on. Since our dough might have been slightly thicker than the professionals’ versions, we tacked on maybe another five. The filling, of course, is already cooked, so you’re taking them out of the (350°) oven as soon as the dough is golden brown.

Stuffed cabbage, in bread.

Stuffed cabbage, in bread.

Color looked good, the bun felt hot, so we were ready to roll. And yes, we grabbed the sriracha from the fridge, along with some Japanese mayo, ketchup, and the recommended whole-grain mustard.

Wishing we hadn't split the recipe right about now.

Wishing we hadn't split the recipe right about now.

The winning dipping sauces were, indeed, the sriracha and the Japanese mayo. The Russian-German-Americans who invented this thing might be turning over in their graves, but we needed a little more spice and a little more flavor. That being said, bierocks are awesome!

Next time, we won’t hold off from adding kimchi (Karen’s idea) or chopped scotch bonnets, garlic, and more and different cheeses (mine). Definitely something worth playing with, and also something that could be made in advance for a group of people, since they could be fully assembled and simply baked when ready to serve. Thumbs-up on the bierock. Now, we’ll see how the Kansans do it.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna March 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

In my mother’s ongoing attempt to push her children outside the narrow scope of Kansas, she used to take us here: http://www.runza.com

Needless to say, yours look a thousand times better.

Jason Roth March 7, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Well, they say their meat is never frozen. Then again, knowing the Big Meat industry, maybe it’s better if it were frozen?

dixie burch December 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Made bierocks yesterday and added a dash of nutmeg, a TBS each
of brown sugar and red wine vinegar, plus a tsp of caraway seeds.
Used a hot roll mix.
slightly undercooked cabbage and onion. They were delicious.

Jason Roth December 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Love your additions, Dixie. I’ve been wanting to revisit these again and might follow your lead.

susie harris December 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm

i ate these in Russia and they are amazing.

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