When you think of sauerkraut, what else do you think of?
What probably comes to mind are fatty hot dogs, bratwursts and kielbasa sausages…and an even fattier Reuben sandwich.
Those are not exactly healthy foods!
Sauerkraut tends to get a bad reputation because of the unhealthful food company that it keeps, but here’s a secret that I want to share with you—it’s actually very nutritious.
I want to make sure that my Daily Health News readers know all about the health benefits of this zesty, crunchy treat.
It’s time to set the record straight!
I talked with two experts who told me all about the healthful benefits of sauerkraut—one even provided me with a simple and delicious recipe for it that you’re sure to love…
A LOW-CAL, HIGH-NUTRIENT SUPER FOOD
Sauerkraut is actually high in fiber and contains nutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamins A, C and K—all in just 45 calories per one-cup serving, I learned from Mary E. Mennes, MS, professor emerita of food science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who loves making her own sauerkraut at home. And because it’s fermented, sauerkraut also contains probiotics—live bacteria that support the beneficial microorganisms in your gut and fight the bugs that cause tummy upsets.
You can, of course, buy sauerkraut in a store. But with most brands, by the time you buy a jar or can of it in a supermarket, it has likely lost most of its probiotics, I learned from regular Daily Health News contributor Andrew Rubman, ND. Store-bought sauerkraut is typically pasteurized, and the heat is what kills the probiotics. (Refrigerated varieties, though, are sometimes not pasteurized.)
In addition, many store-bought brands of sauerkraut contain preservatives, such as sodium benzoate. High levels of preservatives have been associated with cell changes and cancer, and Dr. Rubman said that they often lower the food’s probiotic count, so it’s safest to avoid preservatives whenever possible. There are commercially available jars of preservative-free sauerkraut, but those can be very costly—as much as three times more than the kinds you’d find in your grocery deli section.
Also, store-bought sauerkraut sometimes contains added sugar.
So instead of buying sauerkraut, save money by making a fresh batch at home and you’ll end up with more probiotics, no preservatives and no added sugar—a financial and nutritional win!
Note: If you are cutting back on salt—for example, if your doctor has put you on a low-sodium diet due to high blood pressure—keep in mind that salt is necessary to ferment cabbage into sauerkraut and one drawback of the food is that it’s high in sodium (whether you buy it or make it).
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN SAUERKRAUT
Sauerkraut has two basic ingredients, Mennes said—cabbage and salt. What’s the secret to the perfect batch? Pick the largest head of cabbage that you can find, she advised. The larger the head, the sweeter it is—and the better your sauerkraut will taste.
Now that you have the perfect cabbage, here’s how to turn it into sauerkraut…
1. Shred cabbage to about a one-eighth-inch thickness with either a large, sharp knife, a food processor or a special kraut cutter and put it in a bowl.
2. Sprinkle the shreds with three tablespoons of pure canning or pickling salt per five pounds of cabbage. The salt will draw out the juice so it can be fermented. It’s important to use canning or pickling salt, specifically, because it’s noniodized—iodine prevents the bacterial fermentation necessary to turn cabbage into sauerkraut. Mennes told me that you could also use kosher salt (which is noniodized) if you prefer.
3. Mix well and allow to stand for five to 10 minutes—until the cabbage begins to wilt.
4. Pack into an earthenware crock or a food-grade plastic pail. (Do not use a metal container, since the acid produced in the fermentation process can cause metal to leach out into the sauerkraut.)
5. Pound the cabbage with a wooden tamper or spoon until juices completely cover it.
6. Use a food-grade, water-filled plastic bag to cover the cabbage. This prevents the cabbage from coming into contact with air, which can interrupt fermentation and cause spoilage.
7. Keep at room temperature (68° F to 72° F) for three to four weeks. You can also ferment cabbage at temperatures down to 60° F—say, in your garage or basement—but the fermentation will take a little longer.
8. Check the container daily and skim off any film that develops on the surface. Mennes assured me that if you cover your sauerkraut correctly, as she advised above, a film is very unlikely to develop—but if it does, it’s simple to skim off. Afterward, recover your container thoroughly and completely so it won’t happen again.
How do you know when it’s done? Taste it after three weeks. If it tastes like sauerkraut, it’s sauerkraut, said Mennes. If it doesn’t taste ready, give it one more week and then taste it again. Whatever you don’t eat right away you can store in heavy-duty plastic freezer bags in the refrigerator for several months or in the freezer for up to a year. Do not keep it at room temperature or it will spoil.
WHEN HOMEMADE IS NOT AN OPTION
Of course, while homemade is great, not everyone has the time and energy to make sauerkraut. If that includes you, no problem. Mennes prefers refrigerated brands because they usually are crisp and flavourful and taste closest to homemade sauerkraut. Personally, I would also look for brands with labels that say “nonpasteurized,” “no preservatives” and “no added sugar,” because those types are most healthful.
MORE THAN A HOT DOG TOPPER
Once you get the hang of making the basic recipe, or find a store-bought brand that you like, you can dress it up with a variety of other spices and produce, said Mennes, such as caraway seeds, chopped apples and onions, or shredded carrots and parsnips. Rather than serving sauerkraut with high-fat meats, use it to accompany leaner cuts such as pork tenderloin, chicken or turkey sausage. Or add it to salads, slaws and casseroles. Believe it or not, one of Mennes’s favorite tricks is to slip two-thirds of a cup of drained and chopped sauerkraut into her homemade chocolate cake. She stirs it into the batter as the final step before baking. The result? The extra hit of acid intensifies the flavor of the chocolate, and Mennes has a good time making her guests guess what her secret ingredient is!
The fermentation process involved in making sauerkraut is actually a form of pickling. To learn more about the health-boosting powers of pickled foods, click here.