Exploring Sauerkraut: Fables, Facts, and Fun Recipes
Believe It or Not
What do these foods have in common?
- ice cream
- cured ham
All of these foods originated in China. Yes, sauerkraut! Long before German “sour cabbage” was being heated with ham hocks in Heinzenhausen, the Chinese were pickling shredded cabbage in rice wine. A little building project (otherwise known as the Great Wall of China) necessitated the development of a food that could last well beyond the growing season, and thus fermentation was born.
1000 years later, Genghis Khan and his band of merry men began their marauding ways in China. From there they expanded their conquest to most of Eurasia. They seized vast regions, depleting crops, wiping out the civilization of entire towns, and spreading deadly diseases. In fact, historians believe that the Black Death of the 1300s came not directly from rats, but from the fleas that traveled with Mongol hordes.
But those Mongols also introduced sour cabbage to Europe . . .so all is forgiven?
According to a German website on the history of sauerkraut:
In the 12th century the Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, established sauerkraut as a remedy in folk medicine. In addition to promoting digestion, it was used to purify blood and skin, to heal ulcers, inflammation, gout, headaches and hangovers.
So, even in the 12th century, sauerkraut was being recognized as not only a method of preserving food, but as a great part of one's diet.
Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
Cabbage, on its own, is a wonderful food. It's full of fiber. It contains substantial amounts of the important minerals potassium, magnesium and calcium. But fermented cabbage is a super food, and here's why:
- It contains live and active probiotics.
- These probiotics act like your first line of defense against various harmful bacteria or toxins that might enter your body.
- They also have important anti-inflammatory effects.
- They prevent and reduce symptoms of food allergies, including lactose intolerance, milk protein allergy and others.
- It can improve high blood pressure.
- It can lower cholesterol.
Are you willing to give sauerkraut a chance?
A New Methodology
In about the 16th century, a different method was being employed in Europe to create sauerkraut. Rather than packing cabbage with vinegar or sour wine, salt was used to convert the natural sugars into lactic acid.
And that acid is important.
Sauerkraut is a great source of vitamin C, which prevents scurvy. No wonder explorer James Cook included it in the provisions for his sea voyages—25,000 pounds of it.
When General Lee took possession of Chambersburg on his way to Gettysburg, we happened to be a member of the Committee representing the town. Among the first things he demanded for his army was twenty-five barrels of Saur-Kraut.— Editor, The Guardian (1869)
Facts and Folklore
- Cabbage harvest is in the autumn, and fermentation takes place during the winter months. Hence a meal of pork and sauerkraut is a New Year’s tradition in the Pennsylvania Dutch community.
- In World War I, the word “kraut” was used as a pejorative for people from Germany, so during the war years the product was called “Liberty Cabbage.”
- Americans consume 387 million pounds of sauerkraut (or about 1 ¼ pounds per person) each year.
- According to the USDA, approximately 262 million pounds of cabbage for sauerkraut were harvested in 2011 in the United States.
- Waynesville, Ohio hosts an annual Sauerkraut Festival in October. In the first year (1970) 528 pounds of sauerkraut was served to approximately 1500 visitors. Festival serves 7 tons of sauerkraut and attracts approximately 350,000 visitors each year to browse among the over 450 craft booths and sample the offerings from more than 30 different food booths.
How to Make Your Own Sauerkraut
Of course, you can purchase sauerkraut at the grocery store. Personally, I don't recommend the stuff in cans. Buy it in a jar. It has a better flavor (not tinny), less briny, more crisp, more like homemade. (I have also read that the canning process can destroy some of the probiotic benefits.)
But, speaking of homemade, did you know that you can make your own? It just takes cabbage, salt, a little muscle, and patience. Two weeks worth of patience. The following video shows how easy making your own sour cabbage can be.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Use the freshest cabbage you can get (bad cabbage won’t improve with age, trust me).
- Make sure everything is clean. Fermentation happens because of bacteria, but it has to be the right kind of bacteria. Bowls, tampers, jars, and hands need to be very clean.
- Don’t skimp on the salt.
- Temperature is important. From 60 to 70 degrees is perfect. If it's colder, the fermentation process will slow down. If it's higher, the fermentation will be too fast and your cabbage will turn mushy.
And Finally, Recipes Using Sauerkraut
Creamy Sausage, Potato, and Sauerkraut Soup
This soup is full bodied, rich and creamy. The sausage is already fully cooked, so you can put this together for your family in less than 30 minutes. A side salad or fresh veggies and you have a wonderful, comforting, and healthy meal.
German Skillet With Mustard Cream Sauce
Did you think that the soup recipe sounded good? Well, take a look at this! Same sausage, potatoes, and sauerkraut. But then, you add heavy cream and brown mustard. This meal is rich and creamy, decadent, luxurious (need I go on?).
Potato and Sauerkraut Onion Pierogies
Pierogis (dumplings), potatoes, and sauerkraut. My mom was Volga-Deutch, and this dish is blissfully reminiscent of my childhood. The pierogi dough is easy to make, and the yin/yang of sweet creamy potatoes and crisp tangy kraut make a delicious, satisfying filling. Make extra and store them in the freezer.
Chocolate Cake (With a Secret Ingredient)
This recipe is from my mom's collection and is almost as old as me. I remember the first time she made it. I had to take a vow of silence that I would not disclose the "secret" ingredient. My dad loved it, thinking that it was a rich, moist chocolate cake with coconut . . . I don't think that Mom ever told him what was really inside.
- 1/2 cup butter or margarine
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sauerkraut, rinsed, drained well, and chopped fine
- 1 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 13x9 inch cake pan and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter or margarine and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time; add vanilla.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. Add to creamed mixture alternately with water, beating after each addition. Stir in sauerkraut. Pour batter into prepared pan.
- Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Let cake cool in pan. Frost with your favorite chocolate frosting. Cut into squares to serve.
© 2018 Linda Lum