Love the salty tang of a good pickle? Give this naturally fermented, sour cabbage a try.
What is Sauerkraut?
You’ve likely had it topping a hot dog or sandwiched between slices of rye in a Reuben. If you’ve visited Germany, where it’s most famous, you’ve probably tried it alongside a variety of salty meats. In fact, the word sauerkraut means “sour cabbage” in German, and that’s precisely what it is. Traditionally, the German variety of sauerkraut is made by dry curing cabbage—sprinkling the shredded leaves with salt, which draws out the juices, and left to ferment for anywhere between a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
Even though the Germans have appropriated the condiment/side dish, it was reportedly invented in China (though there, it's cured in rice wine) and brought over by Genghis Khan. It allowed our ancestors access to fresh veggies—and some powerful health benefits—without the convenience of modern refrigeration.
What Does Sauerkraut Taste Like?
Think of it as kimchi without the fiery spice. Sauerkraut is a sort of gateway preserve to the world of fermented foods. It’s salty and sour (more so the longer it ferments), but not funky, fishy, spicy, or super sweet. Sure, some recipes call for the addition of spices like juniper berries and caraway seeds, or celery seed and onion powder. But overall, the subtle sourness acts as a perfect complement to salty meats like sausages or succulent, tender pork.
The Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
In the case of sauerkraut, bacteria are your friends. The fermentation process turns it into a vegetable probiotic — in the same way yogurt is a dairy probiotic — that has been linked to healthy digestion and lower obesity, cancer risk, and cholesterol, as well as improved skin, brain, and immune system health.
How to Make Sauerkraut
To make your own sauerkraut, you’ll need cabbage and salt (this recipe recommends a ratio of 50 pounds of cabbage to 1 pound of salt, though you needn’t make so much). Wash, drain, and trim the outer leaves off your cabbage. Cut each head into halves or quarters to remove the core, then use a mandolin or food processor to shred the cabbage—you can, of course, do this step by hand, though it will take far longer and you’ll likely have less uniform results. In a large bowl, salt about a quarter of your cabbage (unless you’re going big with the 50 pounds, in which case you’ll want to start with about 5 pounds of cabbage) and let stand for a few minutes before adding another layer of salt and cabbage. Repeat until none remains. Put salted cabbage in a large container; if cabbage is not covered by juice—the salt will draw water out of the cabbage—make your own brine by adding salted water to cover. Cover with a breathable fabric like cheesecloth and let sit at room temp for three to six weeks. Don’t be scared by the bubbles! That just shows you fermentation is taking place. You will want to check your ‘kraut daily to skim off any scum that forms on top. (Don’t have weeks to wait? This recipe for a quick-and-easy sauerkraut takes less than 30 minutes and uses vinegar to emulate the sour flavor made by fermentation.)
Though it’s not hard to make, sauerkraut is time consuming. You you have to plan ahead of time so it has time to ferment. If you need it immediately — as you may when you’re planning a hot dog cookout — head to the store and pick up a jar or a can. Read the labels to make sure you know what you're getting. The main difference: Many supermarket brands are cabbage pickled in vinegar, which (though still delicious) doesn’t offer the same health benefits as the long-fermented version. You'll often find the fermented versions in refrigerated cases. The live cultures in true sauerkraut keep longer in the fridge.
Cooking with Sauerkraut
You needn’t stay with the cured meats (though the classic combo is delicious). Try this pickled cabbage in a variety of dishes, from salads and soups to desserts. Yes, desserts.
Make this refreshing salad ahead of time to give the flavors a chance to marry in the fridge.
This is a hearty one-bowl meal that’s a great way to use up a bunch of leftover sauerkraut.
Surprise your guests by revealing this dense cake’s secret ingredient—but only after they’d tried it!
How to Make a Reuben
Give your ‘kraut an important role to play as the veggie component of this all-star sandwich. Watch this short video on how to create the corned beef classic.
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