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How to Make Sauerkraut

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Farmhouse Culture's krauts are sold at farmers' markets and some supermarkets in California (farmhouseculture.com lists locations), and through foodzie.com.

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

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Comments (3)

  • Aspasia_Darkstone 23 Sep, 2012

    I always wanted to make my own sauerkraut and this recipe is so simple it has worked very well every time. I DO knead the cabbage very vigorously to produce a lot of cabbage liquid. Also, more liquid is produced when I pack the cabbage tightly into the jars. No special equipment required: Wide-mouth mason jars work fine - and reusable plastic caps are available at Walmart. The trick about using a piece of cabbage leaf at the top of the jar really does prevent mold from forming. Good Luck!

  • James Gutting 8 Sep, 2012

    Purejuice - you need to sprinkle the salt all over the cabbage, then cover it and shake it about so the salt spreads evenly over the cabbage. Wait the 20 minutes and massage, not too gently, and you will see the brine flow. If not, let it set longer in the brine that was produced and massage again after 20 minutes - the only reason I can think that you wouldn't get enough brine is that the cabbage was older and had dried out a bit?

  • purejuice 3 Dec, 2011

    massaging the cabbage only got me enough liquid to moisten the cabbage about 3/4 of an inch up in the jar. by no means was it submersible in its own juice as shown here. as i went to considerable expense to obtain non-reactive air tight canning jars, and time and trouble to shred 14 cups of cabbage, i'm wondering if you all at martha stewart tested this recipe to see if it is reproducable for the home cook. i doubt it seriously.