Sauerkraut: The Quintessential Eastern European Vegetable

Sauerkraut on fork
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"Gdzie jest barszcz i kwasna kapusta, tam chata tlusta."
—Old Polish proverb meaning "Where there is beet soup and sauerkraut, there is plenty."

The World Runs on Cabbage Power

And we don't mean the byproduct of eating cabbage. This versatile vegetable appears in many guises worldwide—fresh and brined when it is known as sauerkraut.

History of Sauerkraut

The word sauerkraut is German for "sour cabbage" but it wasn't really invented by the Germans, although it is wildly popular there. It is believed laborers building the Great Wall of China over 2,000 years ago began fermenting shredded cabbage in rice wine to preserve it so they would have a food source during the nongrowing season. Then, nice-guy Ghenghis Khan and his merry band of marauders brought it to Europe 1,000 years later.

In the 16th century, the Germanic peoples began dry curing cabbage with salt to extract the water from the vegetable and allowed the mixture to ferment, turning the sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid which served as a preservative.

The process remains the same today. When sauerkraut was linked to the absence of scurvy in Dutch seamen, Captain James Cook, the French, and other Europeans jumped on the sauerkraut bandwagon.

Early German and Dutch settlers brought their recipes for sauerkraut to the Americas along with a New Year's Day meal tradition—eating pork and sauerkraut for good luck in the coming year.

The Eastern European Sauerkraut Connection

What's in a name? Sauerkraut by any other name would taste as great and, while Eastern Europeans might pronounce and spell it differently from each other, it is used across the board in countless recipes.

  • Bulgarian—kiselo zele
  • Croatian-Serbian—kiseli kupus
  • Czech—kysané zelí
  • Latvian—skābi kāposti
  • Lithuanian—rauginti kopūstai
  • Polish—kiszona kapusta
  • Romanian—varza murata
  • Russian—kvashenaya kapusta
  • Slovak—kyslá kapusta
  • Slovenian—kislo zelje
  • Ukrainian, Hungarian—savanyú káposzta

In the old days, usually in November, Eastern European families prepared for winter by putting up several barrels of sauerkraut. Depending on the size of the family and the size of the cabbages, a clan might ferment as many as 300 whole heads of cabbage in wooden barrels. Occasionally, along with the salt, spices like caraway seeds, wine, or other vegetables were added.

By the late 1800s, the cabbage was shredded before being placed in covered crocks. If the family couldn't afford their own shredding tool, a peddler went door-to-door and performed this service for a fee. Our 5-foot-tall grandmother did all her shredding by hand with a sharp knife and a strong arm, and taught her daughter, our mother, to do it this way, who passed on the technique to me. We admit to resorting to a food processor now, however.

After the cabbage had fermented to the household's liking, it was stored in a cool place and the housewife would pull out as much as she needed from the crock or barrel and prepare it primarily with pork if it was available or just plain when times were lean and money scarce.

The Fremont Sauerkraut Company

In 1905, Allen Slessman combined several small Great Lakes sauerkraut manufacturers to form The Fremont Company, which still exists today in Fremont, Ohio. A fourth-generation-owned family company, it has manufactured tomato-based sauces, fermented and pickled vegetables, and sauerkraut for more than 100 years under the Frank's, SnowFloss, and Deutsche Kuche labels.

The company brings in fresh cabbage from local farmers from July to November, known as sauerkraut season. One head of cabbage can weigh as much as 20 pounds. Fremont processes about 400 to 600 tons of cabbage a day and produces approximately 150,000 (14-ounce) cans daily, not to mention bagged, barreled, and larger cans of sauerkraut.

The process is the same as for home canning, just on a grander scale. Shredded cabbage is salted and allowed to ferment for 4 to 6 weeks, although the cabbage can actually be held for up to a year before being canned.

When tasters have deemed the kraut to be ready, it is sent to the canning room where it is piped into cans, lidded, and steam processed at 180 F, cooled down, and labeled and boxed for shipment.

Two-pound plastic bags of kraut are not processed under steam so they have preservatives and must be refrigerated. This kraut has a crisper texture than canned kraut. The Fremont Company introduced single-serving packets of kraut for hot dogs and other applications in 2001.

Sauerkraut Is Better Than Chicken Soup

Besides tasting darn good, eating sauerkraut has a raft of health benefits. Sauerkraut is packed with vitamins and minerals, is an immune booster, balances the bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract, might be a flu fighter, and its antioxidant properties are thought to combat cancer.

Super Star Food

When Heidi Klum, German supermodel, was asked to what she attributed her success, she said "sauerkraut soup." She says her grandmother's recipe kept her slim and trim. She's not alone. Russian supermodel Anna Azarova also cites sauerkraut as a favorite food.