In elementary school every Jan. 29, we sang songs and celebrated the founding of the sunflower state. I always remember Kansas’ birthday, and the occasion also makes me ponder the foods and recipes that are quintessentially Kansas. In my “deep dive” research in this matter, one food kept surfacing that is a Kansas fave with a regional history — bierocks.
For a lot of the country, “bierock” is not a common word (as evidenced by the fact that my “autocorrect” keeps changing it to “bedrock”), but around Kansas (and much of the Midwest), if you say “bierock,” you get immediate recognition —and enthusiasm.
Bierocks (pronounced, depending on your region, as B’ROCK, BEE-rok or BEER-rok) those warm, golden-brown buns of soft yeast dough filled with, at their most basic, a delicious steamy meld of cooked ground beef, cabbage and onion (and can include cheese in some variations) are found everywhere from Kansas restaurants and cafes (and even a food truck) to cafeteria lunch trays. In my day, the bierock was cause for cheers when it landed on our high school’s menu.
Known also as “runzas,” “bierochen,” “cabbage busters,” “German rocks,” “kraut Bierocks” or “kraut Runzas,” according to the “The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink” (Oxford University Press, Inc.; 2007), the meaty pockets were brought to the Midwest by Germans from Russia who settled in the prairie states in the mid- to late-1800s. “Bierocks” is a Germanized pronunciation of the Russian word “pirog,” a name for “pie.” The convenient, meal-in-one bierock was a portable, hearty, handheld (and likely hand-warming) lunch that could be carried into the field or workplace.
Popularity of bierocks inspired the Runza fast food chain that began in 1949 (serving the beefy cabbage buns with hamburger-esque condiments) and still thrives in enough Midwestern locations that a good friend of mine uses them to chart many of her road trips.
A number of other Kansas eateries and grocery stores feature bierocks, and although they have a seasonal fall/winter (and football season) appeal, are popular all year long. Over the summer, I could not help but be lured to lunch at Becky’s Bierocks, a food truck and concession trailer that was stationed at a food festival in Manhattan. Becky Roberson, who founded the company in 1991, was a fan of bierocks and began making them in large batches and freezing them for her family. Eventually, her bierocks ended up on a friend’s restaurant menu and when people began buying them in bulk, her business expanded. Based in St. Francis, Becky’s Bierocks sells fully cooked frozen bierocks to retail and wholesale markets, including grocery stores, meat processing plants, convenience stores, hospitals, restaurants, coffee houses, and to schools and organizations for concessions and/or fundraising events, even shipping to the East and West coasts. She said via email that on production days her company turns out 75 to 100 dozen bierocks.
“A bierock is a complete balanced meal — just add your drink!” Roberson said of their appeal. She recommended home cooks who want to make their own bierocks use the freshest ingredients, and said she thinks her bierocks’ popularity is due to them being as close to homemade as anything that can be purchased.
Despite having eaten many bierocks over the years, I had never made them. In California, with nary a bierock in sight, this means being deprived for most of my days. I have always been a little intimidated in making a bierock. Even though it is a seemingly simple food, it does involve bread dough and a process of both cooking and baking. Recipes offer variations on the filling, including using sauerkraut, sausage, mushrooms and different cheeses. So many delicious possibilities. Yet even Roberson admitted it’s a “labor-intensive” process.
But I was encouraged by a recipe and instructions (shared here) from my cousins Janice (who gifted my parents homemade bierocks) and Sheryl. Both make the buns regularly for family, and made me aware that one can use thawed frozen bread dough and already shredded cabbage (or even coleslaw mix) to streamline the work.
Making bierocks, I discovered on a wintry afternoon recently, is a fun cooking project, and for those who love the buns but have never made them, is well-worth giving it a go. I made my first bierocks, stretching and flattening yeast dough into six-inch circles and placing a mound of cooked ground beef, onions, and shredded cabbage and carrots into the center, as well as a cube of mozzarella cheese. The most enjoyable part was gathering up the dough to surround the filling, like wrapping a gift, pinching it together into a little bundle that, when turned over, created a perfect round. The bierocks baked off to a beautiful golden brown. With a warm, waiting treasure inside.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”