Just when you thought cabbage was the pinnacle of banality in cooking, I give you sauerkraut.
Why make sauerkraut?
Get dirty. Eat some bacteria. We live in a world where hand sanitizers advertise a genocidal 99.9% destruction of the bacteria on your hands. But the fact remains that most of these bacteria are, in fact, good, and that killing them actually increases the likelihood of getting sick. In a culture that eschews bacteria, making sauerkraut at home is an act of defiance. In a batch of sauerkraut there are literally trillions of bacteria, and their taxonomic diversity is still the subject of fascination at microbiology labs to this day. But, can sauerkraut be dangerous? Rest assured that there has not been a single case of recorded food poisoning or botulism caused by sauerkraut in all of North America.
Ferment vegetables. Save money. Making sauerkraut is fun, easy, and empowering. Every day, companies try to convince you that food preparation should be outsourced. At the same time, well-meaning government health standards mandate that foods containing living bacteria cultures be pasteurized or even sterilized. The price for convenience? A huge mark up. The price for food safety? Insipid food. Like one of my heroes, Yvon Chouinard, said in his memoir, "the cure for depression is action." So make yourself a batch of sauerkraut. Save money that would’ve gone to a food company and relish in fact that you’d make a government health inspector faint if she saw you. Enjoy the ancient processes involved in preserving foods - processes that were developed at a time when refrigeration and chemical preservation did not exist. And finally, enjoy the delicious creation you’ve made - there’s nothing like it in the world.
Sauerkraut and the scientific revolution
In 1768 Captain Cook loaded his ships with sauerkraut. When he returned in 1771 he was the first to prove contemporary doctors right that the cure to scurvy was linked to nutrition. What they didn’t know then was that sauerkraut was packed with vitamin C, a chemical made available from cabbage through the fermentation process that prohibited the onset of scurvy. The long shelf life of sauerkraut made it perfect for transport and storage. At a time when half the sailors on-board a long-distance voyage were expected to die from this mysterious ailment, Captain Cook returned from the famous Cook expedition with every one of his sailors alive. He had also "discovered" Australia and New Zealand in the process, and had brought with him legions of astronomical, geographical, biological, and anthropological observations. The return marked a major contribution to many disciplines and inspired countless explorers, naturalists, doctors, and even artists. And it was in no small part thanks to the nutritious benefits of one humble food: sauerkraut.
Health benefits of sauerkraut
The health benefits of sauerkraut are multitudinous, mysterious, and probably exaggerated. I know that when I eat sauerkraut, I feel good. That’s enough for me.
How to make sauerkraut
Sauerkraut consists of just two ingredients: cabbage and salt. In fact, you don’t even need salt. The key is one additional element: time. Ranging from just four days to four weeks - the process of fermentation introduces trillions of other ingredients... for free! The freeloaders are the bacteria that make sauerkraut both incredibly delicious and magically nutritious.
Enjoy your sauerkraut on its own or as a side dish with virtually any meal. If you eat it with food heavy in grains or meat you may find that you’ll digest it better. If you keep it in the fridge, sauerkraut lasts a very long time and you can enjoy it in small quantities for many months.
Written by Erik Veitch in April 2018.
Edited by Michael Lee. Thanks, Mike!
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.