Meet the new generation of sauerkraut. It's naturally fermented, comes in audacious flavors, and isn't just for hot dogs.
Kathryn Lukas founded Farmhouse Culture, a small organic sauerkraut business, in Santa Cruz, California. Appropriately enough, the city is halfway between two world bastions of fermented cabbage -- Munich, Germany, and Seoul, South Korea -- both culinary muses for Lukas.
Sauerkraut is also, of course, "as American as apple pie," says Lukas, a third-generation Californian and a professional chef. But in this country, "it's ripe for rediscovery." To make the company's classic version, seeded with caraway, Lukas sticks to a traditional Bavarian recipe. For some of the more unconventional flavors -- including sauerkrauts spiked with horseradish and leeks or smoked jalapenos -- she draws inspiration from kimchi, the fiery fermented cabbage beloved in Korea, or curtido, a spicy cabbage salad that's a favorite in El Salvador.
All Farmhouse Culture sauerkrauts are naturally fermented (keep reading for a crash course on the process) and righteously tart, with a distinct crunch often lost in mass-produced versions of the condiment.
Although Lukas founded her business in 2008, setting up shop at a historic mill built in the early 1900s, her interest in sauerkraut goes back more than a decade. After a stint running a restaurant in Stuttgart, Germany, in the mid-1990s, Lukas returned to the United States and took a course on fermented foods at Bauman College, a holistic nutrition and culinary school in Santa Cruz. Later, she studied at the New College in San Francisco, writing a thesis titled "Reclaiming Pre-Corporate Food Traditions."
So it's not surprising that Farmhouse Culture products have a composition in keeping with the artisanal-food ethos. The green cabbage and even the coarse salt are locally sourced. And the sauerkrauts are barrel-fermented, much like traditional German renditions. Perhaps most important, the sauerkraut isn't pasteurized. This helps the cabbage retain crunch as well as potentially gut-healthy probiotics that are destroyed when heated.
For Lukas, though, traditional methods also leave room to experiment with sauerkraut. "In this country, we've been eating it the same way for the last 200 years," Lukas says. To break out of the hot dog routine, she suggests adding some smoked jalapeno sauerkraut to a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich. Or combining Farmhouse Culture's classic version with shredded carrots, scallions, and olive oil for a light side dish. And when you're down to just juice in the jar, add a shot to a Bloody Mary.
Get the recipe for Farmhouse Culture's Classic Kraut with Caraway
Natural Fermentation 101
Letting the cabbage ferment at room temperature invites beneficial bacteria to grow. These microorganisms feed on sugars in the vegetables and raise levels of lactic acid, giving fermented foods their tang while also preserving them.
- Get the Gear
For avid picklers and sauerkraut makers, a Harsch Fermenting Crock -- a German-made clay vessel with an airtight lid -- is a good investment. But for smaller batches, wire-bale glass jars (the ones with toggle clasps and rubber gaskets) work just fine. (Harsch Fermenting Crock, $115, canningpantry.com)
- Experiment with Flavors
For a straight-up sauerkraut, you need only cabbage. But Lukas and her team also regularly add other sliced vegetables or fruit, including carrots, fennel, and apples. She suggests a mix of 75 percent cabbage to 25 percent other produce. She also suggests skipping cucumbers or zucchini; enzymes they contain make the kraut lose its crispness.
- Watch the Temperature
Sauerkraut ferments best in a cool, dark place at a temperature that is consistently 64 to 70 degrees. In hot weather, let the jars stand in a dark corner in the back of a closet. At cool times of the year, a cupboard above the refrigerator is a safe bet.
- Check on the Brine
It is important that the cabbage stay submerged in liquid. If the brine bubbles out during fermentation, replace it with a solution of coarse salt dissolved in filtered water, using a ratio of one tablespoon to one cup.
- Open the Jar
After five days, open and close the lid quickly to release air (specifically, carbon dioxide) from the jar. Repeat every five days or so during the three weeks of fermentation.
More Ways with Sauerkraut
Hear Lukas talk about the versatility of sauerkraut and you'll start to wonder why you've always limited the condiment to hot dogs. She features creative serving ideas (and recipes) for her krauts at farmhouseculture.com, including:
- Classic kraut with cheddar cheese and sourdough rye (and a glass of dry white wine)
- Classic kraut tossed with carrots, scallions, and olive oil, and then with buttered boiled potatoes
- Apple-fennel kraut with pork chops or chicken sausage
- Horseradish-leek sauerkraut mixed with stuffing ingredients
- Smoked jalapeno kraut in a cheese quesadilla