CH, DE, OE: Spätzle, Spätzli, Spaetzli, Spaetzle: Tiny Flour Dumplings

 

So let's get the obvious questions out of the way first.

How do you spell the name of this food?

Answer: About ten different ways, and we're going to use as many of them as possible in this posting, because they're all correct.

How do you pronounce spätzle / spaetzle / spätzli / spaetzli?

Answer: More or less like this: SHPAYT-zlee. (Yes, even though it ends in an "e", which seems as if it ought to be silent. This time it's not, honest.)

What does spätzli mean?*

Answer: Good question. No one's really sure. The word may be related to a dialect word for sparrow, with the diminutive suffix "-li" tacked on, the idea being that spaetzli looked like cute little sparrows somehow. (But then that suffix gets tacked onto practically everything in some regions. We're looking at you, Switzerland.)

What are spaetzli, anyway?**

Answer: Another good question, as it's hard to find the right word to most accurately translate their German-dialect name into English. "Dumpling" isn't quite right, though spatzli do sometimes wind up in soups and stews. But in terms of how they're made and what they're made of, spaetzli are more like fresh pasta than anything else. In fact, you'll find various recipe sources that translate spätzle as "noodles."

But this works only for certain kinds of spaetzli. as there's a lot of variation in spaetzle shapes. (And methods of making them, but we'll get to that momentarily.)

This is getting complicated. Is it going to be worth the trouble?

Answer: Absolutely. These are really good once you get the hang of them.

Spaetzli are simple at heart. They're made of a batter of flour, eggs and water or milk -- sometimes other ingredients get in there as well, mostly seasonings -- dropped into boiling water until they're cooked: about three minutes, if it even takes that long. They bob up to the top of the water when they're done. Then they're scooped out and drained, and either tossed with butter and served as a side dish, or treated in other interesting and yummy ways. The shape and size and consistency of the spätzle depend on how thick the batter is and what tool or method you use to shape them when they go into the boiling water. Some of the methods are very old fashioned: some are relatively modern. But regardless, when well made, spätzli are one of the best side dishes in all of Central European cooking, and worth the effort to make -- right up there with the other great fresh pastas of the Continent. And in German, Swiss and Austrian cooking, they are also the foundation on which numerous other great dishes are built.

(Click on "Read more..." for the recipe, instructions, and more background information)

 

There are some specialized tools for making spaetzli: you don't need them, but you might as well know about them, since they call for different thicknesses of batter, and sometimes recipes won't be clear about which thickness you need. The first tool is called a spaetzlehobel. (Yes, there are eight other ways to spell the word: let's not get started with those right now.) The spaetzlehobel is like a very wide-holed grater with a little sliding hopper on top. You fill the hopper with batter and slide it back and forth over the holes, and the batter drips down through the holes into the boiling water. This calls for a moderately thin batter.

Another tool is the spaetzlebrett, a specialized board that you put your spaetzle dough onto and use the board's special tapered far edge to assist you in scraping off little bits or strips of dough into the boiling water. The spaetzlebrett is even more specialized than the spaetzlehobel, and you're not particularly likely to easily find either of these outside of Europe. (Though you can order them here and there on the Web, along with various other more modern tools like the SpaetzleWunder.)

Anyway, most of us who're making spaetzli are likely to fall back on simpler means, like putting the batter through a wide-holed colander or strainer, or pushing it through a potato ricer. (If you're using a ricer, please see our ricer-specific batter recipe, here.) Each different type of equipment calls for a different consistency of batter. It's smart to start out with a batter thicker than you need, test it, and then thin it out little by little with water until it's right.

You should also know right off the bat that there is no perfect shape for spaetzli. Sometimes you get long noodly shapes: sometimes you get little teardrops or short straightish lengths. It doesn't matter. It all depends on the thickness of the batter and the depth of the pot, the length of the spaetzli when you drop them in the water, the height you dropped them from... Don't obsess because they didn't come out like some picture you saw. The people responsible for those pictures probably had to try ten or twenty times to get them to look like that.

Now, the recipe:

  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup (or more) water
  • 1/4 cup butter
 

Sift the flour, salt and nutmeg together in a bowl. Pour eggs and 1/4 cup water into middle of flour mixture: beat with a wooden spoon.

Add enough water to make the dough slightly sticky, yet keeping it elastic and stiff.

Using a spaetzle machine or a colander with medium holes, press the noodles through into a large pot full of boiling salted water. Cook the noodles in the water for about 3 minutes. or until they rise to the surface.

Lift the noodles out and drain briefly on paper towels. Once drained, toss them in a little melted butter to keep them from sticking to each other.

They can be served like this with a main dish, or in a soup or stew. You can also brown them in more melted butter over low heat, and serve as a main dish with a green salad.

(Another method for shaping the noodles is to spread the mixture on a wooden board and cut off little pieces, dropping them in the boiling water and fishing them out quickly when they're done.)

Be prepared to write off your first few attempts at spaetzle, by the way: because they're so labor-intensive, a little miscalculation with the time in the hot water can ruin a batch or two. One joke we heard about them while in Switzerland goes like this:

Man in restaurant to chef -- "These spaetzli are terrible!"

Chef: "How dare you! I've been making them since before you were born!"

Man: "Yes, but did you have to leave them in the water that long?!"

 

 

Off to the left you can see a favorite treatment for spaetzli: kaesesplaetzle, which are spaetzle mixed with cream and grilled chopped bacon, then topped with cheese and more bacon, and baked for half an hour or so.

 

 

 

*This question is assumed to include the questions "What does spätzle mean", "What does spaetzle mean?", and "What does spaetzli mean?". Seriously, we're just doing this so people can find the recipe more easily when they search for it.

** Or "What are spätzli", or "What are spaetzle," or "What are spaetzli". Or spatzle. Whatever! It'd be great if everybody would settle on a single spelling. World Peace would be nice, too.

They're also called knöpfli in some places (mostly Switzerland): "little buttons".

The Swabians in southeastern Germany claim that only they are truly making spätzli: everybody else is making knöpfli. When EuroCuisineLady hears this kind of thing starting up, she has a tendency to head for the exit.

 

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