Legendary Dishes | Leberkäse / Leberkäs (meatloaf)


The red colour that distinquishes leberkäse (leberkäs in southern Germany) in a German artisanal butcher shop comes from pökelsalz (nitrite salt), and the true success of a liver meatloaf are the various agents known as kutterhilfsmittel that keep it solid.

German food specialist Tim Schneider and author of My German Table describes the science.

‘The nitrogen reacts with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides. The nitrogen oxides then bind the myoglobin molecule which is responsible for the color of meat to form nitrosomyoglobin. Nitrosomyoglobin is the stable red coloring agent. Without the pökelsalz, it’s impossible to get a red colored loaf like at the butcher.’

Kutterhilfsmittel is a citrate-based chopping agent that typically contains emulsifiers. It contains sodiumdiphosphate, sodiumtriphosphate, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, citric acid, and dextrose. These sodium salts are known as emulsifying salts and these are the ones that are also used in American process cheese. They give a very good meltability to cheese and prevent it very effectively from separating in the oven.’

Without the kutterhilfsmittel the home cook is faced with a challenge, that is not unsurmountable, says Tim. ‘I think there’s no reason not to recommend adding an egg or emulsifying salts to leberkäse for home cooks. Especially if you want a very fine leberkäs, this eliminates the risk of overprocessing the meat paste.’

This is crucial. ‘If you don’t use kutterhilfsmittel the water separates from the loaf. Then when you bake it in the oven the meat proteins can’t hold onto the water and you end up with a dry and crumbly loaf and a water bath at the bottom of your loaf pan.’

The mixing process does require knowledge and skill, which is gained from experience. ‘If the mass has been mixed well,’ explains Tim, ‘it will be very smooth and a bit sticky. It’s easy to see if you have gone too far with mixing because the fat will separate from the water. If you’ve under mixed the mass, the final product will be crumbly and have a little chewiness. You have to look at the meat fibers to judge the mixing process. They will become very smooth. At the beginning of the mixing process, the mass is a bit rough.’

‘In the old days,’ says Tim, ‘people used phosphate-rich warm meat directly after the animal has been slaughtered to produce leberkäs. This binds much better because the natural-occurring phosphates in muscle fibers serve as an emulsifier. In stored meat, the binding capacity of the meat proteins is worse (because the phosphates get broken down within a few hours after the death of the animal). If you’re a butcher, it is possible that you can get pork meat from a pig that has been recently slaughtered, but this is no option for a home cook.’

In Bavaria the leberkäse is actually fleischkäse, a meatloaf without the liver. ‘The naming issue is very complicated,’ says Tim. ‘There was never any liver in the dish in Bavaria. In most places outside of Bavaria we say fleischkäse if we refer to the Bayerischer Leberkäse without liver. There’s a food law that allows fleischkäse to be sold under the name Bayrischer Leberkäse in Germany. Outside of Bavaria, in the rest of Germany, you can distinguish fleischkäse and leberkäse by their liver content.’

Ostheimer Leberkäse

While the good people of Baden and Bavaria argue over who makes the best leberkäse, in Ostheim vor der Rhön in north-western Bavaria their leberkäse is a terrine packed with pork. A butcher who fought during the Franco-German war of 1870-71 returned home to Ostheim determined to replicate the farmhouse terrines he had tasted in France. Using local pork he developed a recipe that is now an integral aspect of traditional Ostheimer gastronomy.

  • 200 g pork shoulder, minced
  • 150 g pork belly, minced
  • 100 g pork cheek, minced
  • 50 g pork liver, minced
  • 2 pork caul sheets
  • 10 g nitrite salt / table salt
  • 5 g nutmeg, grated
  • 1 tsp white pepper

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Combine the meat and seasonings, wrap tightly in a sheet of caul, then again.

Place in a greased earthenware dish, bake for an hour.

Leave to cool, slice and serve with pickles and salad.

Stuttgarter Leberkäs

In Baden-Württemberg their liver cheese contains liver. If it does not contain liver it is called fleischkäse. The Stuttgart version is also more aromatic than the versions made in other areas of Germany, where rivalries over the authentic product can be comical. This recipe will produce an authentic leberkäs.

  • 300 g beef shoulder, minced
  • 300 g pork shoulder, minced
  • 300 g pork belly, minced
  • 200 g ice, crushed
  • 100 g pork liver, chopped small
  • 1 egg (optional)
  • 50 g onions, chopped small
  • 20 g nitrite salt / table salt
  • 10 g white pepper, freshly ground
  • Nutmeg, grated, large pinch
  • 1 lemon, zest
  • 1 tsp allspice, ground
  • 5 g marjoram
  • Butter, for greasing

Put the meat through the grinder twice.

Combine the liver with the meat, mix in the ice, onions and seasonings, place in freezer for an hour.

Preheat oven to 150°C.

Traditionally the mixture was bound with an egg, then baked in a greased loaf tin in a low oven.

Modern versions call for the cold ingredients to be blended in a food processor to produce a smooth homogeneous mass, which should be no warmer than 12°C.

Pour into greased loaf tin, bake for 90 minutes.

Bayerischer Leberkäse

The 4000 Bavarian butchers who specialise in leberkäse cannot afford to deviate from tried and tested recipes. Attempts to introduce an ingredient they believe will improve the quality of the finished product are usually rejected. 

More often than not that ingredient is an egg, because the Bavarian leberkäse is made with an emulsion that can fall apart during baking. Butchers prevent this by freezing the meat, adding ice and keeping air bubbles out of the emulsion, so that when it bakes in a low oven it holds both its shape and texture. An egg would achieve that end. 

A Bavarian leberkäse should not be grey, it should be a pale pink with a reddish brown crust. This is achieved with nitrite salt.

The end slice, called scherzel, is coveted because it combines the crunchiness of the crust and the melt-in-the-mouth softness of the loaf. 

Leberkäse should taste delicious hot and cold. Hot it is cut into thick slices and served with potato salad or two fried eggs, and with sweet mustard. Cold it is eaten as a snack, usually with gherkins and a bread roll.

  • 600 g pork shoulder, lean, fat, sinew and tendon removed, chopped small
  • 400 g pork belly (without rind), chopped small
  • 300 g ice, crushed small
  • 125 g onion, chopped small
  • 20 g nitrite salt / table salt
  • 10 g marjoram
  • 10 g white pepper, freshly ground
  • Butter, for greasing

Freeze meat for an hour.

Preheat oven to 160°C.

Blitz ice into snow, combine with meat, onion and seasonings.

Blend smooth in a food processor, pour into a greased loaf tin, pushing the mixture into the corners.

Bake at the bottom of the oven for 90 minutes.

Remove from tin and brown under the grill, about four minutes each side.

Österreich Leberkäse (Fleischkäse)

The traditional meatloaf in Austria is a throwback to the days when bread was a bulk ingredient, the egg was a binding and the stock was a liquid medium to enhance the flavour. This is Austrian coarse to German smooth.

  • 500 g beef, minced
  • 500 g pork, minced
  • 250 ml cream
  • 240 g (3) white rolls soaked in 250ml milk, squeezed
  • 125 ml meat stock
  • 125 g onions, chopped small, fried
  • 60 g bacon, chopped small
  • 1 egg
  • 30 g breadcrumbs
  • 30 ml sunflower oil
  • 15 g parsley, chopped
  • 5 g white pepper
  • Salt, large pinch
  • Butter, for greasing

Preheat oven to 160°C.

Work the minced meat into the soaked bread until the fat starts to separate.

Add the bacon, egg, fried onions, parsley and seasonings.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs around the bottom and sides of a large greased tin, add the meat mixture, pressing it into the corners. Top with oil.

After 15 minutes pour the stock over the loaf.

After 30 minutes baste the loaf with the liquid that seeps out, repeat every 15 minutes until it has been baking for 90 minutes.

Pour the liquid from the loaf tin into a saucepan, add the cream and bring to the boil. Simmer and reduce until it thickens into a sauce.

Serve sliced in the sauce.

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