What makes a kugel a kugel?

A kugel is a baked pudding or casserole that is traditionally made from egg noodles or potato. It is a staple dish in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine and can come in sweet or savory varieties. But what exactly makes a kugel a kugel? Let’s explore the history, ingredients, and preparation methods that define this classic Jewish food.

The History and Origin of Kugel

Kugels have been around for centuries, with some sources tracing them as far back as medieval Europe. However, they became most closely associated with Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. The word “kugel” comes from the German word “kugelhopf,” referring to a type of yeast cake. Among Eastern European Jews, kugels became a traditional dish often served on Shabbat and other holidays.

Some of the earliest kugel recipes emerged from Germany and Poland. But when waves of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought kugels to the United States. Immigrants adapted old world recipes to work with new world ingredients, leading to creative riffs like noodle kugel made with egg noodles. Kugels grew in popularity across North America throughout the 1900s and became a nostalgic food closely tied to Jewish culture and tradition.

Common Ingredients

The base of a kugel can vary greatly. Some of the most common bases include:

  • Egg noodles or other pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Bread or matzoh
  • Vegetables like zucchini, carrots, or spinach
  • Rice or other grains

In addition to the starchy base, kugels typically contain eggs as a binder. Milk, cream, butter, or sour cream are usually added too. This gives kugels their signature creamy, pudding-like texture.

For flavoring, sweet kugels may have sugar, raisins, dried fruits, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate. Savory kugels often include onions, garlic, black pepper, or cheese. Other add-ins like nuts, apples, or dried fruits are common in both sweet and savory versions.

Preparation Methods

While ingredients vary, the basic preparation method for kugels is similar:

  1. The base starch is cooked, either boiling noodles or potatoes, baking bread cubes, etc.
  2. The base is mixed with eggs, dairy, and other wet ingredients to create a thick batter.
  3. Spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, or other mix-ins are added to the batter.
  4. The batter is greased and transferred to a baking pan, casserole dish, or loaf pan.
  5. The kugel bakes in the oven until set and lightly browned on top.

This base method can produce endless kugel varieties. The dish may be refrigerated overnight and baked the next day too. While traditional kugels used lower oven temperatures for gradual baking, some modern recipes call for baking at 350-375°F for about an hour.

Common Types of Kugels

Some kugels are closely tied to Jewish holidays or events. Here are some of the most iconic:

Noodle Kugel

Made with egg noodles, this is likely the most popular and recognizable kugel today. It often contains raisins or apples and makes frequent holiday appearances.

Potato Kugel

Potato kugels have long been served for Shabbat and Passover Seders. The potatoes may be mixed with onions for flavor.

Yerushalmi Kugel

This Jerusalem kugel has caramelized noodles and black pepper for a sweet, spicy kick. Pine nuts, raisins, or caramelized onions are sometimes added too.

Lokshen Kugel

Lokshen noodles give this dairy-rich kugel an extra creamy texture. Cinnamon, lemon, and sugar provide sweetness.

Matzoh Kugel

A Passover staple, matzoh kugel swaps traditional noodles for crushed matzoh. Eggs and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) bring rich flavor.

Kartoffel Kugel

Kartoffel is Yiddish for potato, and this kugel is made entirely of potatoes, onions, eggs, and matzoh meal. It’s a comforting holiday side dish.

Distinct Cooking Styles

Like many cultural foods, kugels evolved distinct regional styles based on available ingredients and local tastes:

Austrian Kugels

Tend to use bread cubes or matzoh as the base and have lots of sugar for sweetness. They are often baked in loaf pans too.

Hungarian Kugels

Are denser and cheesier versions, with ingredients like cottage cheese, farmer cheese, or grated cheddar. Sweet and savory Hungarian kugels exist.

Polish Kugels

Often made from potatoes or wide noodles. These crispy, caramelized kugels may have raisins or apples added.

German Kugels

German-style kugels use white flour for extra tenderness. They are moist and lightly sweetened, often with apple, cranberries, or blueberries.

Unique Sweet Kugel Variations

While many sweet kugels contain apples, raisins, or cinnamon, some adventurous cooks came up with surprising flavor twists over the years:

Chocolate Kugel

Cocoa powder and chocolate chips turn this into a rich, brownie-like dessert.

Banana Kugel

Mashed bananas lend moisture and sweetness to this pudding kugel.

Pumpkin Kugel

Pumpkin puree gives this fall-flavored kugel a boost of vitamins and warmth.

Guava Kugel

Tropical guava addes unique tangy-sweetness to this noodle kugel.

Lemon Kugel

Bright lemon zest and juice cut through the richness of eggy, buttery noodles.

Unique Savory Kugel Variations

Savory kugels often contain cheese or herbs, but some cooks branched out with these contemporary riffs:

Broccoli Kugel

Shredded broccoli gives this baked casserole extra veggie appeal.

Corn and Zucchini Kugel

The summery combo of corn and zucchini makes a nice alternative to heavy potato kugels.

Spicy Southwestern Kugel

Jalapeños, peppers, chili powder, and cheddar create a fiesta of flavors.

Greek Spinach Kugel

Feta cheese and spinach turn this into a lighter Greek-inspired bake.

Smoked Salmon Kugel

Bits of smoked salmon add delightful savory-salty pops throughout the creamy noodles.

Defining Traits of Kugels

With so much variation between recipes, what qualities define a true kugel? Here are some of the key features that kugel experts agree on:

  • A starch base like noodles, potatoes, or bread.
  • Eggs for structure and richness.
  • Dairy products like milk, sour cream, or cream cheese for moisture.
  • Baked in the oven until set.
  • Sweet or savory seasonings to flavor the custardy interior.
  • A crispy, browned top layer with a creamy interior when baked.
  • Served as a side dish, appetizer, or dessert.
  • Jewish cultural roots and traditions.

As long as a baked pudding or casserole meets most of these criteria, it can rightly be considered a kugel.

Kugel Cooking Tips

After learning what comprises an authentic kugel, try whipping one up yourself. Here are some helpful cooking tips:

  • Grease the pan well to prevent sticking on the bottom and sides.
  • Allow thick noodle or potato bases to cool slightly before mixing with eggs.
  • If making a sweet kugel, gradually add sugar to taste.
  • For creamy results, use full fat dairy products like whole milk and cream.
  • Prevent a soggy top crust by not overpacking the kugel batter.
  • Let kugels rest at least 15 minutes before slicing for clean cuts.
  • Refrigerate and reheat leftovers to serve throughout the week.

Popular Kugel Accompaniments

Kugels work nicely alongside other traditional Jewish foods. Here are some favorite pairings:

Brisket or Pot Roast

A hearty beef main complements a sweet noodle or potato kugel.

Chicken Soup

Matzoh balls in chicken broth makes a nice prelude to a creamy, cheesy kugel.


The fruit-and-veggie mélange of tzimmes balances the richness of lokshen kugel.

Green Salad

A fresh, acidic salad prevents an all-carb overload when enjoying slices of kugel.


Tart, chilled applesauce cools the mouth after a piping hot spoonful of kugel.

The Meaning of Kugel in Jewish Culture

So why has this baked pudding become so ingrained in Jewish cuisine? A few reasons stand out:

  • Kugels can be made from affordable, shelf-stable ingredients like noodles and potatoes.
  • They serve well at room temperature, making them practical for Shabbat and holiday meals.
  • Their flexibility allows creative tweaking with available ingredients.
  • They provide nourishing carbohydrates to accompany leaner proteins.
  • Their sweet flavors and pillowy textures offer comfort and joy.

Beyond convenience and taste, kugels also carry great cultural meaning. Passing down heirloom kugel recipes and gathering around the table to enjoy kugel creates connection. Each bite conjures memories of holidays with family full of stories, laughter, and love. Like many dishes with long histories, kugels remind Jewish people of shared roots and traditions.

Kugel Continues Evolving

One sign of a great cultural dish is its ability to adapt over time. This certainly rings true for kugels. While traditional recipes maintain popularity, cooks keep innovating to make kugels their own.

New generations of Jewish cooks are putting modern spins on kugels while staying true to their essence. Some current trends include:

  • Vegan kugels made with plant-based milks and egg substitutes
  • Gluten-free kugels made with spelt or quinoa instead of wheat noodles
  • Kale, sweet potato, and other vegetable-centric versions
  • Middle Eastern flavors like tahini, figs, dates, and pistachios
  • Smoked or cured salmon instead of beef in savory kugels

From classic to contemporary, kugels in all forms tie Jewish people together through food, family, and tradition. That rich heritage continues to be passed down, one satisfying spoonful at a time.


Kugels have graced Jewish holiday tables for centuries, becoming an enduring staple in Ashkenazi cuisine. While ingredients and types vary widely, kugels are united by their general method of baking a starch, egg, and dairy base into a sweet or savory pudding. Traditional kugels provide comfort and connection to heritage, but modern kugel innovations keep this nostalgic dish relevant.

At its heart, kugel is about bringing people together in the most nourishing way possible. Its flexibility is a strength that ensures kugels remain a distinctive Jewish food tradition even as culture evolves across generations. So as long as families gather to enjoy each other’s company and the satisfying bite of a homemade kugel, this humble but beloved dish will continue koshering kitchens for years to come.

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