18 November 2011

Sauerkraut, an autumn event

I'm posting here a lot of photos and a brief description of the process of preparing and cooking raw sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is a German word, of course. Some say that sauerkraut is not German, originally, but Alsatian — Alsace being the old province that sits at the eastern edge of France, up against Germany.

The Alsatians have their own language (or dialect), which is Germanic, and they of course speak French as well. Alsace was under German control from 1870 until 1918, but France took it over again at the end of the World War I. In the Alsatian language, sauerkraut is called sürkrüt, and that's where the French word comes from. Choucroute is a French transliteration of sürkrüt, according to what I've read. So choucroute literally means "cabbage cabbage." Never mind.

1.4 kilos/3 lbs. of raw sauerkraut from Chez Doudouille
at the market in Saint-Aignan

Contrary to what you might think if you've eaten sauerkraut in the U.S., choucroute is not vinegary. It is shredded cabbage that has been salt-cured in a brine including juniper berries. It's not vinegary, but it can be salty. To make it palatable, it needs to be rinsed thoroughly in fresh water, and then it needs to be blanched in fresh, unsalted water too. Finally, in Alsace and all over France, choucroute is cooked in white wine. The best wine to use is a dry but fruity wine, like a good Chardonnay or, especially, and Alsatian white wine like Riesling or Sylvaner.

Aromatic vegetables and smoked pork lardons (bacon)
enhance the flavor of raw choucroute

According to the Larousse Gastronomique, the process of curing cabbage in salt to make sauerkraut removes some of the vegetable's natural nutrients, but it also makes the cabbage much easier to digest. The fermentation that takes place neutralizes the chemicals in fresh cabbage that cause intestinal distress, and it encourages the formation of soothing lactic acid in the intestine.

Here's the sauerkraut after about an hour
of cooking on top of the stove

It also seems to me to take away that cabbage taste and smell that so many people find unpleasant. Properly rinsed, blanched, and then cooked with carrots, onions, bacon (lardons in French), juniper and allspice berries (or cloves), and white wine, choucroute is mild and flavorful at the same time.

In the U.S., we eat sauerkraut as a condiment with frankfurter sausages, while in France the frankfurter is sort a condiment — a flavor added — to be eaten with choucroute. In fact, there are two similar sausages that can go with choucroute — German saucisses de Francfort or Alsatian saucisses de Strasbourg. Another usual accompaniment is smoked sausage, in the form of either saucisses de Montbéliard or saucisses de Morteau. Both are made in the mountains on the southern edge of Alsace.

Choucroute garnie with smoked chicken

In his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee calls sauerkraut "a refreshing side dish for rich meats" and describes its aroma as "remarkable, almost flowery."

A lot of foie gras is made in Alsace, so other meats people there might serve with sauerkraut are confit d'oie or confit de canard. I've discovered that it's also very good with smoked chicken, which is always available in the supermarkets here in the form of whole chicken smoked with beechwood. Having chicken instead of cuts of cured or smoked pork with choucroute at least gives you the impression that you've lightened up the dish.

Beechwood-smoked chicken from the supermarket
in France

If you can't get raw sauerkraut where you live, I'd recommend rinsing and re-cooking any pre-cooked sauerkraut that you buy. Instead of cooking it for three or four hours the way I do, you could reduce the cooking time to less than an hour. Don't omit the white wine. I think that would improve the pre-cooked product, and you've be sure it wouldn't be too salty, vinegary, or "cabbage-y."

Potatoes for boiling or steaming — they're a must
with Alsatian choucroute garnie

That said, one day a few years ago a French friend of mine served sauerkraut for about eight people, including me, my mother, and others. It was delicious — the choucroute itself was sweet and tender, and the accompanying meats were beautiful and delicious. I asked my friend how long she had to cook the sauerkraut to make it so good. She looked surprised and told me she just opened the tins, heated it up for 15 minutes, and served it. I don't know if she added any white wine. So it all depends on the quality of the pre-cooked sauerkraut you can get.

Add some thick-sliced poitrine fumée (smoked bacon)...

The other way to go is to make your own sauerkraut from scratch. I've never done it (no need to here in France) but I know people who have, and they've told me it's not difficult. It just takes time. You have to shred several pounds of fresh cabbage and then salt it down and let it ferment and cure for three or four weeks in a big plastic or ceramic container. Here's a link to an example and to a post about the result.

...and then cook this, covered, in a slow oven for 90 minutes.

I'm not posting a recipe here because I've posted about cooking raw sauerkraut before. It was two posts, Part 1 and Part 2. I've also posted before about serving smoked chicken as part of a choucroute garnie, here. I also once bought some pre-cooked French choucroute in a jar at the supermarket and compared it to my home-made version. Here's that post.


  1. We had some excellent choucroute garni the other day in Loches. As you know, I am not a huge fan, but Simon loves it. Bad sauerkraut is viciously vinegary, but good sauerkraut is by no means inedible (very mild flavour, very good ham hock and sausage, no vinegar, as you say). It is a dish that seems to have been enthusiastically adopted in the Touraine as a nice satisfying winter meal.

  2. Pauline and I, well mainly me, made sauerkraut one year in the old fashioned way... why? We had a glut of cabbage on our allotment.
    The lactic fermentation process was very straight forward, but does need a good lid. Mine was not quite tight fitting enough, or the container was too small for the reaction, and we ended up with a very blue-mouldy growth round the lid. It didn't effect the contents though, which were bottled and oven sterilized. It tasted good served straight from the jar [so was effectively 'raw' as you've described. It kept in the bottles for two years [might have kept longer, but we'd finished it by then]. Since that time we haven't made any more... no glut of cabbage and Pauline isn't a great fan.

    I was brought up on regular amounts of sauerkraut as my line of descent is about half German and my grandfather and father both adored it... but it was served up just cooked through in water with wurst of some sort or other... mainly frankfurters!

    I spotted in an antique shop in Malton [North Yorkshire] an industrial scale, domestic 'kraut preparation machine. Everyone must be familiar with a kitchen mandoline that you need to watch your fingertips on... this was a mandoline that you sat on the end of and put a large bucket under the blade. It was huge! It had come from Hungary or Poland... the shop owner didn't know exactly.

    The smoked chickens are also available from Lidl in France... and we used to get ones from Costco in the UK... but the quality wasn't nearly so good... tough birds or a bird toughening process perhaps. We always boil down the remains to make a wonderful soup.
    Tim [signed in as Pauline]

  3. I've never had choucroute in France, it didn't seem right somehow, because I always think of Sauerkraut being a German dish.

  4. Maybe my Grandmother's Alsatian and my Grandfather's German roots play a part - but I love sauerkraut and I also love red cabbage!
    Your ingredients as an addition sounds like a fabulous recipe to try.
    Oh - just getting caught up on my blog-reading -

    Mary in Oregon
    Judy - Congratulations and I, too, will keep both fingers crossed for a fabulous day on the 26th for you and your fiancé.

  5. Very interesting. My family is said to have originated in Alsace. Their German dialect has many French origin words in it. I grew up on sauerkraut. My mother always rinsed it because she didn't like what she thought was the chemically induced fermentation of the product available in Canada. The usual way she prepared it was in a pot over a layer of bacon strips and covered with a layer of yeast dumplings. Mmmm!


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