Sauerkraut Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Entry updated June 2013

A jar of sauerkraut. Picture credit: jeremy_w_osborne, Flickr Creative commons

Sauerkraut is the product of the lactic fermentation of white cabbages - called 'Kraut' in southern Germany and Austria. This natural process is regulated only by the addition of kitchen salt, and the result is a food rich in vitamins. A similar kind of fermentation can also be used in other vegetables like red cabbage or turnips. Sauerkraut strengthens the bacterial flora of the digestive system, thus helping to remove harmful bacteria and pathological viruses. It is especially healthy when eaten uncooked.

Sauerkraut or similar things have been known in many places of the world for thousands of years. Today it is eaten throughout Europe, but of course known under different names in different countries. In the form of sauerkraut, cabbage stays good for months. In the past this created a very important source of vitamins in winter or on long travels at sea. On farms sauerkraut was a very common food all year round.

How to make it

Cabbage is harvested in autumn, so this is also the time to make sauerkraut. Today it is also produced industrially and is available in supermarkets in many countries. Whether home-made or bought, sauerkraut is always the result of the fermentation of the cabbage through various kinds of lactobacillus. Starch is transformed to sugar and lactic acid, which lowers the pH value of the cabbage and keeps away micro-organisms. The whole process takes a few weeks, after which the sauerkraut will stay good for months.

The Traditional Way

When making sauerkraut at home, people use either a wooden barrel or a special ceramic pot. After harvesting the cabbage, the outer leaves are removed, then it has to be finely sliced. The slicing is not usually done with a knife but with a 'Krauthobel', a special grater made from wood, with metal blades. On top of the grater is a wooden box to put the cabbage in, which can be moved back and forth on the grater.

The bottom of the container is covered with large cabbage leaves before the sliced cabbage is put into it. Alternate layers of cabbage and salt are added, as well as spices like caraway or juniper berries. After each layer the cabbage is pressed firmly down with wooden poles, hands or feet, so the juice comes out of the cabbage. Once the container is full it is again covered with whole cabbage leaves. In the case of barrels the cabbage is then covered with wooden planks or a lid which is loaded with stones, so the cabbage is compressed and the juice completely covers it. Stoneware jars may also be used; these keep air out of the fermenting cabbage by the use of a deep water-filled channel around the rim. A lid, with sides that curve downwards, sits inside the water which then provides an airtight seal while still letting fermentation gases out.

Grubenkraut - Pit Cabbage

A more archaic way to make sauerkraut is the 'Grubenkraut', which is rarely produced these days. The whole cabbages are blanched in a large kettle and then dried in the open air. Then the cabbage is put into deep pits in the ground, which have walls lined with wood. At the top comes a layer of straw, wooden boards and stones. The fermentation process is finished after about four months and the cabbage produced this way stays good for years.

Industrial Production

The production of sauerkraut on a larger scale started in the 19th Century. Basically the industrial production of sauerkraut works in a very similar way to the homemade version, but on a larger scale. Machines cut the cabbage and salt it. It is then placed into large, airtight containers and compressed. The fermentation under controlled circumstances takes between one and three weeks, after which the cabbage is briefly heated to 80°C to stop the fermentation process. The sauerkraut is put into bags, tins or glasses and pasteurised.

How to cook it

There is no definite recipe for sauerkraut, everyone makes it a bit differently. Sometimes it tastes more sour, sometimes less so; some people add flour or a grated potato for a more creamy consistency and a less acidic taste. Others add some apple, sugar or even white wine.

  • 500g sauerkraut
  • 50g onions, cut into small pieces
  • some bacon, cut in small cubes (optional)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • caraway (whole, no powder)
  • juniper berries (optional)
  • bay leaf (optional)

Fry the onions and bacon in a large pot with margarine or lard, add the sauerkraut, shortly sweat it off1 and then add water until the cabbage is covered. Season it and let it stew until the water is gone and the kraut is soft (about 1 - 1½ hours).

Sauerkraut tastes best when it is allowed to cool and is then reheated.

How to eat it

Sauerkraut is excellent with Bratwurst, dumplings or pork. It can also be used as a filling for Strudel or eaten raw as a salad. Other dishes that can be made with sauerkraut are casseroles, soups or stews like Hungarian Szegedi goulash, a dish made from pork, sauerkraut, paprika and sour cream.

Our thanks to jeremy_w_osborne, Flickr Creative commons for the artwork

1Cook without colouring.

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