When you think of German food, there are probably a few dishes that come to mind. Sauerkraut, soft pretzels, sausages, black forest cake, and the dish at hand: spaetzle.
While spaetzle might seem a bit out of reach for a home cook, like making homemade pasta, both are more than doable at home. You don’t need any specialized equipment to make spaetzle, and the results are more than worth it.
What is Spaetzle?
Spaetzle (traditionally spelled spätzle), or “little sparrows,” is a type of pasta or small dumpling made with flour, water, and eggs. A specific technique is used to give the dumplings their distinctive, irregular shape that’s said to resemble sparrows—hence the name.
Spaetzle likely originated in southwest Germany, specifically in a region called Swabia. The dish is popular in parts of France, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, and even Slovenia.
Spaetzle is most often served simply doused in butter as it tends to share plates with heavier, meatier dishes that have plenty of sauce or gravy to spare.
Tools for Making Spaetzle
There are many different ways one can make spaetzle, but they’re not all created equal. Here are some of the top tools with pros and cons for each:
- Spätzle maker: It’s common in Germany for families to have a spätzle maker tucked away amongst their kitchen tools. There are a few different types of these tools, but they usually consist of a flat metal piece with holes and a small box or hopper for holding the dough. You then set the contraption over a pot of boiling water, move the box over the holes, and little dough pieces drop into the water. They’re handy and easy to use. That being said, they’re a single-use kitchen tool that isn’t 100% necessary for making homemade spaetzle.
- Flat cheese grater: In my opinion, the easiest tool is one you may already have at home: a flat stainless steel cheese grater with large holes (about 1/4 inch). If you place the cheese grater grating side down over a pot of water, it resembles a spätzle maker without the dough box. It’s then easy to spoon the sticky dough onto the cheese grater and use a spoon or even a pastry cutter to push the dough back and forth through the holes and into the water below.
- Metal colander: A metal colander with holes about 1/4 inch wide will also work, but may be more cumbersome to work with depending on the size of your colander and the pot you’re cooking the spaetzle in. It’s best if the colander can sit on the rim of the pot without touching the water; this way you can focus on pressing the dough through the holes and don’t have to worry about keeping the colander from dipping into the water.
- Potato ricer: Another great option is a potato ricer with holes about 1/4 inch wide. The dough is sticky, so it will take some pressure to press it through the ricer and into the pot. The spaetzle made with a potato ricer may be a bit longer in shape, but they will still have the characteristic taste and texture of classic spaetzle.
- Cutting board and knife: This manual, “hand-scraped” method is common in Germany (especially in Swabia) but it’s also the most difficult. It involves rubbing a thin layer of dough over a cutting board (ideally one that you can hold up and steady with just one hand) and then using a knife to “cut” and push thin strands of dough into the pot. It takes quite a bit of practice to get the thickness and shape right, and the texture of the dough has to be perfect—not too thick and sticky and not too thin as to run off the cutting board. I wouldn’t recommend this method to spaetzle-making novices.
Tips for Homemade Spaetzle
Before you start making spaetzle at home, read these tips:
- Rinse any tools used for spaetzle making in cold water only! This is very important and will save you so much scrubbing and frustration. The dough is already very sticky, so if you rinse any of your späztle making tools with hot water right away, you will cause the dough to cling to the tools and make it incredibly hard to get off. Rinsing with cold water will still mean you have to do a bit of light scrubbing, but the dough should come off relatively easily.
- There are as many recipes for spaetzle as families in Germany, and one key factor is the flour they use. This recipe calls for some semolina flour which adds a bit more bounce and chew to the spaetzle. You could also try mixing in a bit of whole wheat flour or spelt flour for a different taste and texture.
- If you’re cooking a large batch of spaetzle that won’t be eaten all at once, transfer the cooked spaetzle into a cold water bath after cooking to stop the cooking process and keep them from sticking together. Once all the spaetzle are cooked, drain them well and portion them out as desired for eating right away, storing, and/or freezing.
- It’s very easy to make smaller amounts of spaetzle, just use this ratio: 3/4 cup (100 grams) of flour to one large egg and a pinch of salt. Add water until you achieve the proper sticky consistency.
How to Serve Spaetzle
Spaetzle are quite versatile and can be treated just like your favorite pasta. Here are some of my favorite ways to serve it:
- Tossed with garlic herb butter or butter and caraway seeds.
- Crisped up in a frying pan with salted butter or olive oil.
- Käsespätzle or “cheese spätzle.” Layer the cooked spaetzle with shredded Emmental or Gruyère cheese and caramelized onions and bake until the cheese is melted. Top with crispy fried onions and enjoy.
- With your favorite ragu.
- In a soup with chicken, beef, or vegetable broth.
- With your favorite pasta sauce. Try a simple tomato sauce or even pesto.
- Or go sweet with some brown butter, a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, and some fresh cherries, plums, or stewed apples.
How to Store Leftover Spaetzle
I highly recommend making the recipe below as written whether or not you plan to feed that many people. Spaetzle is really easy to store for later or freeze.
After it’s cooked, the spaetzle will keep in the fridge for 5 days in an airtight container and can be reheated with a brief boil in a pot of water on the stove, in a frying pan, or even in the microwave. To microwave, add a teaspoon of water and a little butter before covering and heating.
To freeze leftover spaetzle, I recommend portioning it out into individual freezer bags. Then you can grab a bag whenever you’re ready for some spaetzle and reheat in a pot of boiling water. Once they float, they’re ready to go!
Make It a German-Style Feast
- Sweet and Sour German Red Cabbage
- Venison Sauerbraten
- Pork Schnitzel
- Veal Goulash with Sauerkraut
- Bee Sting Cake (Bienenstich)
Mix the dry ingredients:
Add the flour, semolina, and salt to a large bowl and mix to combine with a wooden spoon.
Add the wet ingredients and form the dough:
Make a well in the center and crack in the eggs. Use the spoon to break up each yolk. Start to incorporate the flour slowly, stirring it in from the edges.
Add the water and mix everything together really well, using as much force as you can, until you form a thick, sticky dough. When you stir it really hard, you should see the dough ripping near the sides of the bowl and the dough should start to fall and break as you pull the spoon up out of the bowl. If needed, add a bit more flour or water to achieve the right consistency.
Cover with a clean towel and set aside while you prepare to boil the spaetzle.
Cook the spaetzle:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Season generously with salt (as you would for cooking pasta). If you don’t plan on eating all of the spaetzle right away, fill a large bowl with very cold water and set it next to the pot.
Place a cheese grater (smooth side up, grating side down towards the water) over the pot. Once the water is boiling, spoon some of the sticky dough (about 1/2 cup) on top of the grater. Use a wooden spoon or a pastry scraper to rub the dough through the holes and into the water. You will likely have to rub the spoon over the surface many times to get all the dough through, so take your time and keep the dough pushing through the holes.
Once the spaetzle are cooked, they will float; this will only take about a minute. Remove them using a slotted spoon or fine sieve. Transfer to the bowl of cold water if you’re planning to save or store them, or to a separate empty large bowl if you’re planning to eat them right away. Repeat with the remaining spaetzle dough.
Finish and serve:
Once all the spaetzle are cooked, add the salted butter to a large frying pan over medium heat. Once melted, add the spaetzle and toss to coat. If desired, sauté the spaetzle in the pan until they start to get a bit crisp, about 8 minutes. Season with black pepper and sprinkle with parsley before serving.
Boiled spaetzle keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container. Reheat the spaetzle by boiling briefly in a pot of water or pan-frying with some butter or oil. You can also microwave the spaetzle with a little bit of water and extra butter until heated through.
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