Find out how to cook sauerkraut, how to buy and store it, its nutritional benefits as well as where it comes from and how to easily include it in your diet. The post also contains 6 sauerkraut recipes.
What is sauerkraut
Sauerkraut (‘kapusta kiszona’ in Polish) is fermented cabbage which is made by combining shredded raw cabbage with salt and pressing the mixture down to release water and encourage fermentation which happens over several days.
Where does it come from
Sauerkraut traces its origin to ancient China when it was a staple (alongside rice) for thousands of workers during the building of the Great Wall of China. Back then cabbage was preserved in rice wine and it wasn’t until the Tartars brought sauerkraut to Europe centuries later that salt started being used instead of the wine to produce the European variant of sauerkraut.
Today sauerkraut in English-speaking countries tends to be associated with Europe, mainly Germany, as the word ‘sauerkraut’ used in English is a German word for ‘sour cabbage’, but sauerkraut is actually popular in most East European as well as some Western countries.
Sauerkraut is extremely nutritious! Naturally low in calories it is high in Vitamins including C and K, fibre, potassium, a gut-friendly probiotic called lactobacillus as well as iron.
How to buy sauerkraut
When buying sauerkraut look for a light yellow, even slightly greenish sauerkraut, with no traces of grey.
The best traditional fresh sauerkraut consists of cabbage and salt and does NOT contain vinegar. Sauerkraut is sold in jars, cans and airtight bags (like the one in the photo above) and it can also be kept in barrels and sold by weight (in some Polish delis, for example).
Ideally sauerkraut should be preservative free and not pasteurised (canned sauerkraut is often pasteurised, which translates into being less nutritious, so if you are planning to eat it raw avoid this variety), but it can contain other ingredients, such as shredded carrot or caraway seeds for added flavour.
You can use any type of sauerkraut in the recipes below.
Does sauerkraut need to be rinsed
Generally speaking – no, it doesn’t. Sauerkraut is naturally sour and salty and once you try to remove these qualities it stops being sauerkraut. Commercially produced sauerkraut (especially sold in jars and cans) can, however, be a little too salty which is why it may be necessary to rinse it briefly before using it.
Good quality sauerkraut, made without preservatives, is delicious just as it is and should not need to be rinsed. So if your sauerkraut tastes delicious don’t rinse it!
Does sauerkraut have to be cooked
No, it doesn’t. Sauerkraut is extremely versatile and can be eaten raw as well as cooked. Raw sauerkraut makes a fantastic salad ingredient (‘surowka’ in Polish), served with a little oil, shredded carrots and apples (which balance out the savouriness of sauerkraut), especially popular during winter months.
Good to know
Raw sauerkraut is more nutritious than cooked (heat destroys some of its nutrients), but cooking it adds a completely new (and wonderful!) dimension to this simple food - in my view - absolutely worth pursuing, even if it means the finished dish won’t be as nutritious. Because cooked sauerkraut tastes fantastic!
How to cook sauerkraut
1.How to warm up sauerkraut
If you want to serve sauerkraut as a hot side dish you can either heat it up in the microwave or on the stove top. To use the latter method drain and chop it roughly then place in a saucepan, add a little water or oil, pepper to taste and cook for a few minutes until thoroughly heated, stirring often. Make sure there is enough moisture in the saucepan so the sauerkraut doesn’t stick to the pot and burn (top up with water as needed).
Warmed sauerkraut can be used as a topping for hot dogs/German sausages or over mashed potatoes and pork chops. You can add sauteed onions, chopped fried bacon or sausage into the sauerkraut for more flavour.
2. Make sauerkraut stew
Stewing sauerkraut turns it into a rich and flavourful dish, especially if you cook it with other ingredients, as I have done in this traditional Polish sauerkraut stew - ‘bigos’. This recipe contains meat, prunes, wild mushrooms and a few spices commonly used in sauerkraut dishes in general. It’s versatile in that you can use different types of meat (or enjoy it vegetarian), extremely uncomplicated to make and my personal favourite when it comes to serving sauerkraut!
With mashed potatoes, cooked buckwheat, barley or millet as well as crusty bread.
3. Make sauerkraut soup
Sauerkraut can also be used in a soup, which is popular in several East European countries and in Poland goes by the name of ‘kapusniak’. This soup can be made with or without meat, contains a few simple vegetables and is extremely easy to prepare.
Sauerkraut soup is delicious on its own, with bread, freshly chopped parsley or chives, pieces of fried sausage, especially smoked (I recommend using Polish kielbasa) or bacon.
4. Put it in a casserole
Sauerkraut can also be turned into a delicious one-pot meal. Slow cooking enhances the flavour of sauerkraut so it’s the perfect ingredient to put in a casserole and let the oven do most of the work. Check out sauerkraut chicken casserole with vegetables.
You can use different root vegetables in this recipe depending on preference and whatever you happen to have on hand.
5. Make sauerkraut pierogi
This is perhaps one of the best known East European sauerkraut dishes, one that in Poland has become inextricably linked with Christmas. The filling mixture in this pierogi recipe is made by cooking sauerkraut along with onion and wild mushrooms.
Good to know
The sauerkraut mixture can also be served as a separate dish (as part of the Christmas Eve feast), not necessarily in pierogi.
6. Make sauerkraut cabbage rolls
This is another recipe where sauerkraut is used in the filling mixture. This time I spiced it up with harissa and mango chutney which really enhance the flavour of the sauerkraut. These cabbage rolls are even better the next day!
7. Use it to add favour to dishes
Because sauerkraut offers such intensity and depth of flavour it can be used to improve/change the flavour of other dishes. For instance, you can add a small amount into a coleslaw salad, braised cabbage, traditional Polish cabbage pasta or chicken stew.
Expert tips and FAQs
- Buy good quality sauerkraut. I really recommend getting it from a Polish deli.
- Do NOT rinse sauerkraut (unless it’s overly salty). Good quality sauerkraut should not need to be rinsed.
- Drain it thoroughly before using.
- Chop your sauerkraut roughly before cooking (or putting in a salad) so it’s easier to combine with other ingredients.
- When cooking sauerkraut it’s important to stir it often and make sure there is enough moisture in the pot so the sauerkraut doesn’t burn (add a splash of water as needed).
- You shouldn’t need to add salt into sauerkraut recipes but taste the finished dish before serving in case the seasoning needs adjusting.
- Cooked sauerkraut dishes taste delicious for several days (up to 4) so can be made ahead and reheated in small batches. They work equally well as family dinners as well as potluck dishes.
Sauerkraut has a long shelf life but once opened it should be refrigerated. Keep it in an airtight container (jar or another container it came in) and it should stay fresh in the fridge for 2 weeks or even longer.
Sauerkraut will stay fresh for longer if you ensure it’s completely immersed in the brine at all times. So don’t drain it completely if you are planning to store leftovers for later.
Is drinking sauerkraut juice good for you
Yes, it is! Sauerkraut juice contains the same nutrients as sauerkraut (listed above) so it’s a shame to waste it. It’s salty and sour, but there is also a hint of sweetness and depth of flavour, which makes for a delicious drink.
Keep in touch!
If you make any of the above sauerkraut recipes I'd love to know how it turned out for you. Do you have a favourite sauerkraut dish? Let me know in the comments below, thanks!