During my early life, my exposure to sauerkraut was limited to the rare occasions when my dad took me to a baseball game. We’d get Dodger dogs with yellow mustard, relish, chopped onions and a dab of sauerkraut.
The next time I had sauerkraut with any regularity was in college. Every couple of weeks, the cafeteria would do a German theme night, complete with sausage, pierogi, dark brown bread, and lots of sauerkraut. I’d load my plate up with a pile of that krauty goodness.
However, it wasn’t until my twenties that I found a groove with sauerkraut. I discovered that it was a nutritional powerhouse and that when made from scratch, it could be as mild or tangy as I wanted it to be. It’s incredibly high in vitamin C, and since it’s a fermented food, it possesses all those live cultures that do such good things for your digestive system.
Historically, people made their sauerkraut in large batches after the first frost (a freeze makes cabbage sweeter and slightly more tender). It would be finely sliced, salted, packed into large crocks and pressed until it released liquid. Then it would be allowed to ferment in a cool place. It’s typically ready to be eaten after a couple of weeks, though in the old days, it would be allowed to ripen and mature all winter, as there was no other way to preserve it.
Most of us don’t have the space for large sauerkraut crocks or the desire to eat it every single day of winter (thankfully, it’s not our only way to keep away the scurvy anymore). However, for those of you who have a taste for homemade sauerkraut, it’s easy enough to make it in small batches without any special equipment (beyond a single quart jar).
I tend to keep a couple jars of kraut in various stages of progress throughout the winter, so that I have one that’s fermenting and another that’s ready to go just about all the time. Once you make a few batches, you’ll find your rhythm with it!
Basic ways to use sauerkraut include simmering a few forkfuls with sausage, or tossing it with buttered noodles (it’s a classic, comforting dish). For more ambitious nights, try cooking up a pot of soup studded with potatoes, bits of bacon, and plenty of kraut. And when you need the pure probiotic power of the ferment, try a quick slaw with a little grated carrot, shredded red cabbage (for crunch) and a drizzle of peanut oil.
Before you start packing your cabbage into a jar, here are a few things you should know:
The more thinly you shred your cabbage, the better. Sharpen your knives before getting started or use a good, serrated bread knife.
The warmer the environment, the faster the sauerkraut will progress. Find a corner of your home that stays between 60° and 70°. This means that you might need to stash your sauerkraut in a closet or near a window.
Check the sauerkraut every other day. Skim off any bloom (a fancy word for harmless mold) and press the cabbage back down if it has started to float above the surface of the liquid.
Once the sauerkraut reaches a level of pucker that you like, simply pop the jar in the fridge. This is the point at which you could start another jar, should you want to keep the kraut flowing.
1 small cabbage (approximately 2 pounds)
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
Remove core from cabbage. Cut in half and finely shred. Place cut cabbage in large bowl and sprinkle salt on top.
Using your hands, knead the salt into the cabbage, squeezing firmly to help release liquid from the cabbage.
When the volume of cabbage appears to have reduced by half, add the caraway seeds and work them in.
Pack the salted cabbage into the quart jar in layers, firmly pressing it down each time before adding more (the entire 2 pounds of cabbage should fit into a quart jar).
Press cabbage down firmly in the jar, so that liquid bubbles up over the surface of the jar. Loosely cap the jar, position it on a small saucer or plate, and place it in a cool, dark spot.
Check every other day, removing any bloom and pressing cabbage down if it has floated above the liquid (be warned, it will be a bit stinky. That’s normal).
After two weeks, taste the sauerkraut. If you like the flavor, place the jar in the refrigerator. If you want something a bit stronger, let it continue to ferment until it pleases you.
2 cups young, crunchy sauerkraut
½ cup grated carrot
½ cup shaved red cabbage
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients and toss to combine. No need for vinegar – the kraut provides all the tanginess required. This slaw is good served immediately and will also keep in the fridge for 2 to 3 days.
Potato, Bacon, and Sauerkraut Soup
8 ounces bacon
1 medium onion, diced
2 large carrots, cubed
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
4-5 new potatoes (about 1 pound)
2 cups sauerkraut
Salt and pepper to taste
Place a large soup pot over medium-high heat. While it heats, dice the bacon. Place the bacon into the pan and cook until the bacon pieces become quite crisp and they have rendered a good deal of fat. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon from the pan. Drain out most of the bacon fat from the pan, leaving just two tablespoons behind.
Add the onions and carrots to the pan and cook, stirring regularly until the onions are brown and the carrots have softened, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook until it is just fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Add two quarts of cold water to the soup pot and stir well. Use a flat wooden spatula to work up any bits of browned onion that have stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Add potatoes to the pot, along with a generous pinch of salt and 6 to 7 turns of a pepper grinder. Place a lid on the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and let the soup simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Once the potatoes are tender, add the sauerkraut and reserved bacon pieces and stir to combine.
Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Serve with hearty bread and a green salad.