Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut!

Emptying the crock of the finished kapusta before
it’s frozen for later use.
For the past three years, we have been part of a group led by the indomitable Henry Gluch and put together for the sole purpose of making sauerkraut (or kapusta – since he’s Polish). Henry and his wife Madeleine are part of our group that gets together at the end of every summer to make tomato sauce. This year they also joined Vicki and me to preserve a number of liters of chopped tomatoes. Henry’s also a hell of a sax and clarinet player.

My wife and I are both half German, so sauerkraut was part of our lives from an early age. I must admit that I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I know now that it was because my mother bought the kraut at the supermarket. It was salty, sort of mushy and didn’t have a particularly pleasant taste or aroma – at least as far as this young eater was concerned. Whenever it was served, I tried surreptitiously feeding it to our dog (who was always interested in “people food”), but he wasn’t having any, either. My wife, on the other hand, enjoyed it very much. (That didn’t come out quite the way I mentioned it. I have never tried to feed my wife anything under the table, surreptitiously or otherwise!)

The first time I tasted sauerkraut that piqued my interest was at the Naschmarkt in Vienna which we visited while researching my novel, Cemetery of the Nameless. The samples we were given by someone who made it fresh right in the market was world’s away from what I was used to. Flavorful, crunchy and piquant all at the same time, it really opened my eyes.

When Henry mentioned making sauerkraut, we were immediately onboard. It is a very simple thing to make: shredded cabbage and pickling or kosher salt are all you actually need. Put a few inches of cabbage into a crock, sprinkle on a couple tablespoons of salt, any herbs you want to use (we like juniper berries, bay leaf and black peppercorns), and pound it hard with something until some water is released. We used a rubber mallet until Madeleine came up with a carved wooden pounder of ancient vintage. Pile in another layer of cabbage, more salt and herbs and do it again. Eventually you want to fill the crock to about two inches from the rim. Then you put a plate on it to weigh it down, cover it with a cloth and put it into a cold place to form more brine – hence the plate – and the sauerkraut will pickle itself in just a few weeks (depending on how cold your space is). The only drawback is that it’s a bit stinky while it’s fermenting. Henry has a cantina below his porch that’s perfect — and it has a door so the smell is contained. He skims off the gray scum that forms on the top of the sauerkraut as it’s pickling. That’s basically all there is to it.

Our recipe for cooking it (if you want) is based on a recipe Henry’s mother uses – more or less. It’s easy, fairly quick and very tasty. On a cold night, you can’t beat it. It also is a great dish for a slow cooker. Throw it together and leave it to cook for 4-6 hours and it will be ready when you get home from work in the evening. I’d suggest keeping the sausage to kielbasa in this case. And I would cook the bacon first, too.

Baked Sauerkraut with Sausage
Serves 4

3 rashers of bacon, sliced across into quarter-inch strips
2 Tbs bacon fat, butter or oil (bacon fat is the best here!)
1 1/2 cup onion, sliced finely
1 cup grated carrot
2 cups thinly sliced fresh cabbage
4 cups raw sauerkraut
12 juniper berries, crushed with the side of a knife or using a mortar and pestle
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1 bay leaf
1-2 Tbs dark brown sugar
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup semi-dry wine (Reisling or Gruner Veltliner are lovely)
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1 cup chicken stock (more may be needed)
4 fresh pork sausages or some big chunks of kielbasa


  1. Preheat oven to 325°. Fry the bacon slowly in an oven-proof casserole so the fat renders out. When done, remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve. Use the rendered bacon fat to sauté the vegetables.
  2. Gently sauté the onion and carrot in the fat until softened but not browned. Add the fresh cabbage and cook a few minutes longer until the cabbage has wilted.
  3. If your sauerkraut is too salty, put it in a colander, run it under some water, and squeeze it dry. Then add it to the casserole.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sausage (don’t forget to put the bacon back in!), and mix it all together gently while continuing to heat to a boil.
  5. Cover the casserole and place it in the oven. Bake for 30-45 minutes (depending on how crunchy you like the sauerkraut. If you enjoy your sauerkraut soft, bake longer, up to two hours if you want it very tender. Regardless, watch the liquid level. Add water or a little more stock if necessary. You don’t want it swimming in liquid, but it must be moist.
  6. If you’re using fresh sausage, bake it in the oven alongside the sauerkraut for about 20 minutes so some of the fat renders out. (You don’t need to cook kielbasa first.) Add the sausage to the sauerkraut, nestling it in as much as possible.
  7. Continue baking for another twenty minutes. Serve with mashed potatoes, latkes, or perogies (with sour cream!). Finish off that bottle of wine with it, too!

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