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We love the shriveled sour cabbage on top of our ballpark hot dog, but sauerkraut deserves so much more.
"The flavors are so complex and layered, but it is only made from cabbage and salt, two of the humblest ingredients in our pantry," Edward Lee, chef at Louisville's 610 Magnolia, says. "To transform something like that into the delicious, mysterious condiment is a small miracle."
Lee, along with a few our other favorite ferment-obsessed chefs, fill us in on tips, opinions and recipe ideas that will having you screaming and krauting for joy. In case you need a brushup, here is the basic process of making sauerkraut:
① Sprinkle shredded cabbage with salt. Jimmy Papadopoulos at Chicago's Bohemian House recommends using a 3 percent salt ratio to the weight of the cabbage. Do not use table salt, you hear? Chef Russ Moore of Oakland's Camino prefers very minerally sea salt like sel gris, saying, "Table salt or even kosher salt tastes very uninteresting and metallic." Keep in mind that this salt is a seasoning ingredient itself, so when you add sauerkraut to foods, you often don't need any additional salt seasoning.
② Massage the salt into the cabbage to release juices and create a brine. Papadopoulos says fresh cabbage is key, because it has a higher moisture content for the brine. Salt pulls water out of the cabbage, fostering an environment where the good bacteria flourish, and the bad die off.
③ Store it in a crock pot, submerging the vegetable in its own juice. "Then nature does its thing," Lee says. "Lactobacili will proliferate causing the pH [level] to become acidic [and] making it unsuitable for unwanted bacteria. The cabbage will become transformed into a slightly sour, delicious and crunchy sauerkraut." This process takes about six weeks. Then jar it up, screw on a tight lid and move it to the fridge. And if a little white mold develops, it's OK, Moore says. "Just skim off what you can and don't worry about what you miss."
④ Think beyond cabbage. There's a world of fermentation options. Papadopoulos has had great results making krauts with golden turnips, Brussels sprouts and rutabaga. In the spring, when ramps grow wild, Lee Desrosiers of Brooklyn's Achilles Heel likes to preserve them and mix them with the sauerkraut. He serves the ramp-kraut condiment alongside pork sausage to cut its richness and fattiness.
⑤ Serve it on more than dogs. Lee uses sauerkraut as a bright condiment for charcuterie or fried foods like tempura. Papadopoulos braises it with other vegetables (onion and garlic) and spices (caraway), and also uses it for smoked ham hock stock. Papadopoulos also goes so far as to dehydrate it for a crispy-salty-funky garnish, and has turned it into a powder to dust potato chips.
⑥ Save that juice! Lee uses the juice (the best part, in our opinion) in vinaigrettes; adds a little bit to gravy for a nice, bright kick; and uses it to marinate tough cuts of meat. "And, yes, we add it to bourbon cocktails," the whiskey lover says. Or go all out like Desrosiers: "I drink it from a paper cup and then crush [the cup] in my hand." (He also uses it to jump-start the next batch of sauerkraut.)
Now that you've heard from the chefs, here are five recipes to scream and kraut about.
—Make It a Dressing—
This creamy green dressing-dip hybrid is what you should be massaging into your kale or using as a crudités centerpiece. Moore rightly encourages you to never throw away the juice, so we added a little extra, flavoring the dip with just the right amount of acid and salt.
1 c sauerkraut + 3 tbsp sauerkraut juice + ⅓ c packed herbs (parsley, chives, tarragon) + ¼ c toasted walnuts + 2 garlic cloves + ⅔ c olive oil + 3 tbsp mayonnaise
In a blender, mix the sauerkraut, juice, herbs, walnuts and garlic on medium-high speed until almost smooth. With the blender running, slowly add the olive oil and mayonnaise, and blend until emulsified. Makes 1½ cups of vinaigrette.
—Make It a Dumpling—
Eastern European food guru Tim Wiechmann stuffs pierogi with kraut, but in our Test Kitchen, we went even further east for these stuffed, doughy delights.
1½ c sauerkraut, chopped + 1 garlic clove, grated + 2-inch piece ginger, grated + 1 lb ground turkey + 1 egg + 1 tbsp soy sauce + 2 tbsp water + 4 scallions + 12-ounce package wonton wraps
In a large bowl, add the sauerkraut, garlic, ginger, turkey, egg, soy sauce and water. Thinly slice the scallions, adding all of the white and most of the green parts to the bowl, reserving some for a dipping sauce. Mix until just combined, not overworking the meat. Prepare a small bowl of water and, working a few at a time, arrange the wrappers in a diamond shape on a work surface. Fill each center with ½ tablespoon of filling. Dip your pointer finger into the water and draw a line along the top half perimeter of the diamond. Fold the wrapper over the filling to create a triangle shape, pinching the edges to seal.
Working a few at a time, drop the dumplings into a large pot of boiling water. After 1 minute, they will float. Continue to cook 2 minutes more and, using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer them to a serving bowl. Drizzle with a little canola oil and cooking water, so they don't stick. For an easy dipping sauce, mix equal parts soy sauce and white vinegar with a pinch of sugar and the reserved green scallions. Makes 35 to 40 dumplings.
—Make It a Southern Stew—
Knuckle down into a bowl of smoky ham hock stew, which thickens up thanks to starchy potatoes and quinoa. Add the sauerkraut right before serving, so you don't cook out its probiotic magic.
1 smoked ham hock + 1 bay leaf + 3 qt water + 1 lb baby waxy potatoes + 1 c quinoa + 2 c thinly sliced mirepoix + ½ tsp hot paprika + kosher salt and black pepper, to taste + 1 c room-temperature sauerkraut, divided
In a tall, medium stock pot, add the ham hock, bay leaf and water. Partially cover and cook at a simmer for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, quinoa and mirepoix, and season with hot paprika, salt and pepper. Simmer until the quinoa is cooked and the ham hock is tender, another 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the stew from the heat and transfer the ham hock to a medium bowl. Tear the meat from the bone and stir it back into the stew. Return the pot to medium-high heat to warm through, 5 minutes. Just before serving, stir ¾ cup of the sauerkraut into the stew. Ladel into bowls and top with a spoonful of sauerkraut to serve. Makes 8 cups of stew.
—Make It Breakfast—
We went to Germany for these kraut pancakes, inspired by the flavors Wiechmann serves at his Eastern European sandwich shop, Playska, in Cambridge, MA.
1 c sauerkraut + 1 egg + ½ c flour + ½ tsp fresh thyme + ½ tsp caraway seeds + ¼ tsp kosher salt + oil, for frying
In a large bowl, stir together all of the ingredients, except the oil, until combined. Working in 2 batches, heat 2 teaspoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add ¼ cup-size scoops of batter and cook until golden brown on both sides, 6 to 8 minutes total. Serve immediately. Makes six 3-inch pancakes.
—Make It Slaw—
At Camino, Moore often opts to keep the sauerkraut raw and alive, throwing it into a variety of salads. Eat this slaw on its own or use it as the ultimate condiment for sandwiches—no mayo required.
1 apple, shredded + 1 carrot, shredded + 1 c sauerkraut + 2 c shredded green cabbage + 1 tbsp white vinegar + 1 tsp honey + ¼ tsp celery seeds + kosher salt, to taste
In a large bowl, toss all of the ingredients together. Season to taste with salt. Let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes, stirring every so often. Makes about 3 cups of sauerkraut slaw.