Túró, not paprika, is the secret to Hungarian food

Hungarians have a long-running love affair with túró, a fresh curd cheese essential to many local classics. This tasty and endlessly versatile source of protein deserves more credit.

For a good couple of years after I moved back to Budapest from New York in 2012, I'd start most days with something that’s not available in the US: a túrós batyu. It’s a morning pastry stuffed with túró, a snow-white fresh curd cheese with a beguiling sweet-tart brightness. Chowing down contentedly, I’d occasionally wonder why the túró wasn't more popular globally.

Because outside of Hungary, túró doesn’t enjoy the attention lavished on Hungary’s paprika-spiked favorites like the goulash and the chicken paprikash. This is despite the fact that túró is the backbone of countless Hungarian foods, both sweet and savory. Mirroring my experience, in a recent survey of Hungarian expats in the United States, respondents lamented the absence of túró-based dishes in America.

So, what even is túró? The short answer: a fresh, unripened, soft cheese, made from skimmed cow’s milk. Túró is often translated to English as cottage cheese or farmer's cheese, but, although similar, it’s neither of those (more on that later). Its name has a Turkic origin, indicating that Hungarian tribes first encountered túró when they lived alongside Turkic people in the Eurasian Steppe around the 6th century AD, before migrating to the Carpathian Basin a few centuries later.

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The crumbly rögös túró.

Túró stirred with vanilla sugar and often also spiked with raisins is a mixture that forms the basis of many pastries and desserts in Hungary. Apart from my favorite, the túrós batyu, there’s túrós palacsinta — a crepe rolled with túró — and even the strudels come with the stuff (as does the vargabéles, a similar pastry). Also popular is túrógombóc: boiled túró-dumplings rolled in breadcrumbs and smothered in sour cream and powdered sugar. And let’s not forget about the Túró Rudi, Hungary’s national candy bar covered in a brittle chocolate.

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Túrógombóc: a túró dumpling smothered in sour cream and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Hungary’s love of túró may seem surprising if you consider how little cheese people eat: while the average French person polished off more than 27 kilos (60 pounds) in 2016, Hungarians managed a paltry 13 kilos. This makes Hungary’s cheese consumption one of the lowest in the EU (the country's milk production is also below the EU average). This is nothing new: documents from the 17th century already show a major gap in Hungary’s dairy consumption compared to most of Europe. There are two main reasons for this. First, there is a shortage of fertile mountain pastures for cows to graze on, unlike in cheese-capitals like France and Switzerland. Second, Hungary historically hasn’t had dairy cattles — like the Jersey and the Guernsey — that produce the type of fat-rich milk that lends itself to creams and cheeses. The native breed, the Hungarian Grey (szürkemarha), was a beef cattle, yielding little milk and instead prized as a draft animal. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Hungarian breeders developed the “magyar tarka,” which had a higher milk yield.

But you shouldn’t think the túró is any less important. True, being a fresh cheese means it doesn't acquire the complex flavors that characterizes ripened varieties like Camembert or Comté. But rather than overwhelming a dish, the túró prefers to stay in the background. Case in point is a medieval Hungarian dish, the túrós csusza, baked noodles layered with túró, sour cream, and a topping of pork cracklings. Though the túró’s distinctly clean and pleasantly tart taste is barely perceptible, the dish would hardly be the same without it. And this is true for almost all túró-based foods.

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Noodles layered with sour cream, túró, and pork cracklings.

The traditional túró-making process is straightforward. First, people would separate the cream from the milk — to make sour cream or butter — and let the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria curdle the skimmed milk into a solid mass. (Unlike rennet-induced curdling, as with most cheeses, coagulation through lactic acid takes longer, about a day, and yields higher acidity.) Then the curdled lump was tied in a cheesecloth bag and drained of its watery whey. Túró was the fresh, crumbly mass that remained (some places made a ricotta-like cheese called orda from the whey). People would usually eat the túró fresh — by itself or mixed with sour cream into noodles and porridges. High in protein and low in fat, it was, and is, a very healthy product.

While túró generally refers to fresh cheese made from cow’s milk, historically people also made túró from sheep’s milk in the northern and eastern parts of Hungary thanks to Slavic and Romanian influences, respectively (there, they used rennet to solidify the milk). Körözött, also known as Liptauer, is a beloved paprika-layered spread across Central Europe and made from sheep’s milk túró (juhtúró). In line with global taste preferences, it also contains cow’s túró these days.

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Open-faced sandwiches spread with sour cream and túró (left) and Liptauer (right).

Most túró today is industrially made, resulting in a consistent but more limited taste profile than of homemade túró. For example, dairy companies use pasteurized milk for safety and specific starter cultures and enzymes to jumpstart and accelerate the curdling process. Apart from the classic crumbly (rögös) túró, supermarkets also sell pressed cakes of túró with varying levels of fat content ranging from low-fat (sovány) to rich (zsíros). In 2019, the EU granted the Hungarian crumbly túró a “specialties guarantee” designation, saying it “differs from other types of fresh cheese sold on the market.” This distinction is helpful, especially when exploring other fresh cheeses in the region.

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Strudels stuffed with túró and chocolate cream.

“There are fresh curd cheeses similar to the túró elsewhere in Central Europe, especially in the northern Slavic countries,” said Gergely Ofella, the manager of Sajtangyal, a specialty cheese store chain with three locations in Budapest. Poland’s twaróg comes closest to the túró, also being highly versatile (a twaróg-like fresh cheese is popular across the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora, much of which originated from Poland). Germany’s quark is also similar, though a bit thicker than túró, containing more liquid whey. “But neither are the same; túró has a distinct flavor,” said Ofella.

Foreigners new to túró seem open to it. “Sometimes a customer who sees a túrós csusza being delivered to another table would point to it and ask for the same thing,” said Balázs Török, manager of Gettó Gulyás, a traditional Hungarian restaurant in Budapest. “Our Italian patrons can get a little confused by túró because they’re expecting a ricotta-like flavor,” he added.

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Túrós palacsinta: crepes rolled with a túró-based sweet mixture.

Even if you don’t have access to a Hungarian restaurant where you live, you can approximate a túró dish at home using supermarket-sold cottage cheese (though unlike túró, cottage cheese usually contains some added cream to boost its richness). Easiest of all to prepare is the Liptauer spread, layered with paprika, butter, onion, and caraway seeds. All you need for this satisfying snack is a thick slice of bread to slather it on, and perhaps a glass of beer.

Speaking of paprika, few people know that it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that this crimson-hued spice became an all-around staple in Hungary, displacing most other seasonings. Not so with the túró, which was already featured in Hungary’s first cookbook, “Szakács Tudomány,” published in 1580.