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Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine

The people called “Pennsylvania Dutch” are descendants of German-speaking settlers; the word “Dutch” is a corruption by English-speakers of the word “Deutsch,” meaning German. Colonial Pennsylvania, with its strong Quaker influence, was known for religious tolerance, a fact that attracted immigrants who faced religious persecution in their home areas, particularly Mennonites and the Amish. The simple-living Amish, with their black horse-drawn buggies, traditional farms, and archaic modes of dress, tend to represent the region in the popular imagination; in fact, the Amish (who, ironically, because of their “plain dress” tend to stand out all the more) represent only a small portion of Pennsylvania’s German heritage.

Pennsylvania Dutch food is hearty and filling. The cuisine often mixes sweet and savory or sweet and sour foods all in the same dish under the rubric that “seven sweets and seven sours” should be represented. The traditional “sweets” are primarily based on locally-grown fruits—apple, quince, berries, candied watermelon rind—the “sours” are pickled onion, beets, cauliflower, tomato relish, spiced cucumbers and other specialties that reveal definite German influences. Corn, a New World native food, comes up in much of the cuisine: in cereals, as filler for meat products, fish cakes, omelets and waffles, even in desserts and baked goods. Amish corn pudding is a rich egg-based custard made from dried preserved corn kernels. Chicken corn soup, a combination of chicken, white and yellow corn cut from the cob, and vegetables, often with egg noodles, is a perennial dish. Potatoes are used similarly, particularly in the filling Schwingfelder (potato cakes), potato biscuits, even potato bread. “Apple butter” is an area specialty, a reduction of apple with spices and sugar into a butter-like paste, which may be enjoyed spread on bread or toast or used as a filling for baked goods.

Preferred Pennsylvania Dutch meats reflect traditions of frugality and economy. Scrapple, a concoction of pork and spices stretched with grains like corn or oats, would often be made in great quantities, stored, then cut into slices and fried to serve as a filling and well-balanced farm food. Hams, and in fact ever part of the pig down to its knuckles, may be lovingly roasted and served with local variations of German sauerkraut. Egg noodles, enjoyed all over America, have a particular association with the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The crowning glory of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is certainly its wide range of cakes, pies and other baked goods; these often mix fruits, raisins, nuts and other crunchy ingredients to make particularly hardy foods. Like much of the cooking, these baked goods tend to be well spiced. A wide range of grains in addition to traditional wheat flour may be used.

This is a vital cuisine, the ancestral food that many people in the region treasure as a link to both the American and European aspects of their history. People of the region, whether they adhere to the conservative culture of the Amish or Mennonites or are simply Americans of Pennsylvania German descent, follow these traditions in their home kitchens on a daily basis. At the same time, the colorful region is a popular tourist destination; the name “Pennsylvania Dutch” may be often affixed to imitations and mass-produced goods that do not accurately reflect the true glory of the cuisine.