There’s something about the crispy, acidic crunch of sauerkraut that compliments a juicy hot dog like nothing else.
Rooted in an age-old culinary tradition that dates back to 2,000 years ago in China and widely popularized in Europe, sauerkraut has been winning palates around the world.
So, how about crafting your own homemade sauerkraut for that next barbecue? Let’s get into it!
What is sauerkraut?
“Sour cabbage”, as the Germans like to call it, or sauerkraut in its simplest terms, is fermented cabbage.
All it requires is cabbage, a sprinkle of salt, and a bit of time.
The salt extracts moisture from the cabbage, creating a saline environment perfect for helpful bacteria to flourish and convert cabbage sugars into lactic acid, thereby imparting that distinctive tangy flavor we love.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is nature’s way of transforming food. Microorganisms break down food sugars through this process, altering their flavors and textures while fortifying their nutritional values.
In sauerkraut, the lacto-fermentation process is at work, where lactic acid bacteria metabolize the cabbage’s sugars into lactic acid, contributing to a unique tangy taste and naturally preserving the cabbage.
It has a number of health benefits
Packed with beneficial bacteria that promote a healthy gut microbiome, it aids digestion and strengthens the immune system.
Also, it’s packed with vitamins C and K, fiber, and crucial minerals such as potassium and iron.
Why should you make your own sauerkraut?
While there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a jar of sauerkraut from the supermarket, preparing it from scratch is a culinary adventure of its own.
Homemade sauerkraut gives you the freedom to adjust its flavor and texture to suit your palate and allows you to be in charge of the fermentation process.
Additionally, it’s devoid of any preservatives, making sure the naturally occurring flavors and healthful bacteria are in the limelight.
Gathering the ingredients and equipment you need
The beauty of sauerkraut lies in its simplicity. All you need is:
- Fresh cabbage (about 2.5 pounds)
- Non-iodized salt (about 1.5 tablespoons)
Optional: caraway seeds or other preferred spices.
Sourcing fresh, delicious cabbage
Fresh, organically grown cabbages can be found at local farmers’ markets or the produce section of your local supermarket.
Look for dense, heavy cabbages with crisp, vibrant leaves – a sign of freshness.
What about the equipment you need?
- A large mixing bowl
- A sharp knife or mandoline
- A cloth cover or fermentation lid
- A fermentation jar or food-grade plastic container
- Fermentation weights or a smaller jar that fits inside the fermentation jar
Preparing the cabbage
While any cabbage can be used, green and red varieties are most common for sauerkraut.
Look for cabbages that feel heavy for their size, with tightly packed leaves and no signs of wilting or browning.
Here are the steps to follow to prepare the cabbage:
- Clean your cabbage by removing and discarding the outermost leaves.
- Rinse the cabbage under cold water and pat it dry.
- Keep one or two of the outer leaves for later use.
- Cut the cabbage into quarters and remove the core.
- Then, slice each quarter into thin shreds. The thinner the shreds, the faster the fermentation process will be. Alternatively, you can use a mandoline or a food processor with a slicing attachment.
Salting and fermenting
Salt is crucial in sauerkraut fermentation. It draws water out of the cabbage to create a brine, where beneficial bacteria can thrive and harmful ones are inhibited.
Salt also keeps the cabbage crisp by hardening the pectin in the cabbage cells.
The recommended salt-to-cabbage ratio
For every 2.5 pounds of cabbage, you should use about 1.5 tablespoons of salt.
This is roughly a 2% salt concentration, ideal for fermenting sauerkraut.
Drawing out the cabbage’s natural juices
Once you’ve added the salt to your shredded cabbage, you’ll start the massaging process.
This involves using your hands to squeeze, knead, and crush the cabbage, breaking down its cellular structure.
The aim is to release as much liquid as possible, creating enough brine to cover the cabbage entirely when packed into the jar.
Packaging the cabbage into your jar
Pack the massaged cabbage into your jar, pressing down firmly with your fist or a tamper to eliminate air pockets.
The goal is to submerge the cabbage entirely in the brine.
Tip: Add a bit of distilled water to ensure the cabbage is covered.
Place a fermentation weight or a smaller, clean jar filled with water on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged in the brine, creating an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.
Cover the jar with a cloth or fermentation lid, as this prevents the gases from escaping contaminants.
Ensuring the best results
Fermentation time for sauerkraut varies, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. The precise timeline depends on the temperature, the cabbage’s freshness, and your flavor preferences.
The warmer the room, the faster the fermentation process.
The ideal temperature and location for fermentation
The ideal fermentation temperature for sauerkraut is between 65-75°F (18-24°C).
Choose a location out of direct sunlight where the temperature is relatively stable.
What are some of the issues you need to look out for?
During fermentation, keep an eye out for any discolored, slimy, or foul-smelling cabbage. If you notice any, remove it immediately.
Remember, a little cloudiness in the brine or white yeast (Kahm yeast) is normal and safe, but any sign of mold is not.
Monitor your sauerkraut daily, especially in the first few days when fermentation activity is high.
“Burping” the jars, or releasing built-up gas, is necessary if you’re not using an airlock lid.
Testing and storing sauerkraut
Sauerkraut can technically be eaten at any point during the fermentation process. However, most people find that it reaches its peak flavor after about two weeks.
To test, simply taste a bit. If it’s tangy enough for your liking, it’s ready.
Over time, the flavor of sauerkraut deepens. It starts off salty, then turns tangy as the lactic acid develops. The longer it ferments, the more complex and sour the flavor becomes.
Fermentation is a matter of personal taste. If you prefer a crunchier and milder sauerkraut, you may choose to ferment it for a shorter period. For a softer texture and a tangier flavor, allow it to ferment longer.
Once your sauerkraut has reached its desired flavor, store it in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process. Ensure the cabbage remains submerged in the brine to prevent spoilage.
Serving and enjoying
A generous heap of sauerkraut on a hot dog adds a delightful crunch and a tangy punch.
Try caramelizing the sauerkraut with some onions before topping your hot dog for a gourmet twist.
Or create a Reuben-style hot dog with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing.
Classic pairings for sauerkraut-topped hot dogs include mustard, onions, and relish. But don’t be afraid to experiment! Add pickles, bacon, cheese, or spicy sriracha sauce.
Serve your sauerkraut-topped hot dogs with sides such as potato salad, coleslaw, or baked beans.
As for drinks, a cold beer or a glass of Riesling pairs well with the tangy sauerkraut.
Delving into the health and nutritional benefits
Sauerkraut is a probiotic food, rich in live cultures that boost the beneficial bacteria in your gut. These bacteria aid in digestion, enhance nutrient absorption, and support overall gut health.
It’s also high in vitamins C and K and fiber and minerals such as potassium, calcium, and iron.
Its low-calorie count makes it a nutritious addition to any meal.
The probiotics in sauerkraut help to strengthen your immune system.
Moreover, its vitamin C content supports your body’s production of collagen, enhancing skin health, and its iron content aids in red blood cell formation.
Try your hand at making your own sauerkraut
Making sauerkraut at home is a rewarding process that involves selecting fresh cabbages, preparing them, adding salt, and fermenting until you achieve the desired tanginess.
This simple yet magical transformation of cabbage into sauerkraut adds a unique touch to hot dogs, enhancing their flavor profile.