I grew up with the understanding that sauerkraut was either some foul smelling dish, or an overly sweet creamy salad doused in too much mayonnaise and left out too long in the sun at summer potlucks. I don’t know why I mistook picnic bowls of coleslaw for sauerkraut, but my child brain must have put the two cabbage dishes in the same category: the Do Not Touch category.
I have of course grown to like both, although only when coleslaw is made fresh and preferably without mayonnaise. While it was after much coaxing at summer barbecues that I finally put a little coleslaw on my plate, it was in France that I learned to enjoy sauerkraut.
Spending time studying and living in Strasbourg, I ate my fair share of one of the quintessential dishes of the Alsace region, choucroute garnie. A fairly simple, rustic dish, it’s sauerkraut served warm (sounds weird, but it’s not) with some various meats piled high on top, likely the way to get most people to eat cabbage. The meat was always a bit over the top for me — it’s no surprise I later gave it up — but I always loved the choucroute and its tangy flavor. Or was it the glass of Riesling that came with it?
It’s not so surprising that sauerkraut has never had a huge following; if there’s one thing harder than convincing people to eat cabbage, it’s fermented cabbage. Beige and a little slimy, it doesn’t have so much going for it in the aesthetic category. In the health category however, sauerkraut packs a punch, and thanks to the fermentation craze, many are ditching their previous perceptions of sauerkraut and embracing it with a vengeance.
Cabbage that has undergone a process of lacto-fermentation (that makes it one of those probiotic foods that everyone is telling you is good for you), sauerkraut has long been a staple in Eastern and Northern European countries. Kvashenaya kapusta in Russian, zuurkool in Dutch, and surkål in Swedish, our own version comes from the German, literally translated, “sour cabbage.” You can see why someone kept with the more exotic sounding version.
These days, you’ve probably seen an artisan brand of sauerkraut pop up on your local grocery store shelf, and brands like Olykraut and Farmhouse Culture have built devoted followings. That’s a good thing for us; sauerkraut is full of lactobacillus bacteria, the same stuff that’s in yogurt, which help to keep our guts happy and in check. Particularly if we’ve been destroying them with a diet rich in white flour, sugar and processed foods.
Not only are we on the search for foods that are better for us, we are also in the midst of a movement that is taking back the kitchen. “In general, we’re seeing an overall embrace and revitalization of traditional foods as home cooks rediscover a lost culinary heritage,” says Jennifer McGruther of Nourished Kitchen. “Sauerkraut is naturally part of that heritage.” As we start to add more fermented foods to our diet, we are also changing our palates, readapting to certain flavors. “I think people in general are more open to assertive flavors found in fermented foods than they were even a few years ago,” says McGruther.
But of course, you don’t have to buy sauerkraut to reap all the benefits. Sauerkraut is “relatively easy and inexpensive to make,” says McGruther. The cabbage has all it needs to ferment (I’m looking at you, bacteria and yeast), it just needs to be kickstarted with a little salt. Which is why if you’re ever at the grocery store looking at a container of sauerkraut and there are any weird preservatives or other ingredients you can’t pronounce, put it back immediately. That’s the beauty of fermented foods; they’re simple, natural, and they just let Mother Nature do her thing.
If you are just starting out, there’s no better reference than the one from fermentation master Sandor Ellix Katz. Not into the idea of all cabbage, all the time? There are also plenty of ways to spice up sauerkraut if 100% cabbage isn’t your thing. Carrots, apples, beets, kale; you can put them all in there (maybe not all at once though).
As more of us make it and eat it, sauerkraut’s bad reputation will be a thing of the past. We will move it from the Do Not Touch category to the Put In My Mouth Immediately category. Our stomachs will thank us for it.
Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible, and runs Foodie Underground, a site about real food for real people. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.
Photos by Forrest O CC BY-SA, William Brawley CC BY and jules CC BY