The sauerkraut I grew up eating, at least from what I could remember, was that cold stuff you ate out of a jar that had the “i” in the logo replaced with a pickle, or the Costco’s gourmet hot dog condiment station.
Remember when that was a thing? I miss the Costco Polish sausage hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut. Say I committed the act of culinary blasphemy and had that Polski with plenty of ketchup (I know there are those out there judging me) at least the acidic, briny, cold, and crunchy shreds of preserved cabbage cut through the sickly sweetness of a Canadian Anglophone’s favourite condiment.
I know you’re maybe thinking, “This guy’s a chef, why is he eating a hot dog?” Whatever. Either way, I’d smash that hot-dog.
That’s not why we’re here though. I want to tell you about another preparation for sauerkraut.
I missed a couple of classes of Hot Foods I (I was working full time while attending culinary school in those days.) I vaguely recall hearing something about this dish. I don’t remember much about it. (If Facebook is any indication, I’m not alone in my sauerkraut miseducation)
That changed when I met my wife’s family in Montreal, and it was either her grandma, her aunt, or her mother who made this sauerkraut dish. It was cooked through, creamy, with a slightly sweet and sour taste. Alone, it was acidic, even sweet. When served with roast pork and Czech bread dumplings, it transformed into the best condiment for the dish.
I’ve tried to replicate that flavour memory. I’ve tried apples grated into it, no flour, some flour, no potatoes. Each time I made it it came close, but not enough so my wife would point out something that makes it different than my mother-in-law’s. Maybe it’s not creamy enough. Doesn’t taste the same. I guess that’s how we improve, by competing against ourselves.
I found out the key to this dish is to reserve the brine for braising. The revelation came to me by surprise. Wouldn’t you know it though, Babbi (and my mother-in-law) had always used it, I just missed that fine detail.
Look, let’s be straight. If your sauerkraut comes from a jar with a logo that has a pickle instead of an “I”, then you’re going to want to consider using cider or pale ale instead. Don’t use the brine unless you like a very sour-slight chemical taste. You’ll also want to wash your cabbage first.
If you’re using decent sauerkraut (or perhaps you’re one of my cool friends on Facebook that makes their own) taste the brine, and if necessary mix it with cider or ale starting at a 1:1 ratio. Aim for around 2 cups (500 ml)
I don’t want to micromanage the type of beer or cider you use either. I wouldn’t use a stout. Use whatever you are going to drink with your meal. Apparently, a hallmark of a Czech dish like this is enjoying a beer with it.
Use water if you must, just remember to add something to it for flavour, even just a lick of bouillon powder. Anything to improve the insipid taste water will give it.
- Time: give yourself an hour to make this
- Yield: lots. Enough for leftovers
Mise En Place
(one day I’ll remember to put affiliate links)
- Heavy bottomed pot big enough to hold sauerkraut plus water
- Small grater
- wooden spoon
- Tasting spoon
- Mortar and pestle
- 1 jar sauerkraut, separated (see note above about reserving brine)
- 1 onion, finely diced
- As needed salt
- 2 oz (50g) bacon grease
- 1 tbsp caraway seeds, crushed lightly in mortar
- 3 slices bacon, cut in 1/4 chiffonnade
- apple cider or pale ale as needed (see note above)
- 100g sugar
- 3 tbsp flour
- 1 small potato, peeled
- TT Salt
- TT freshly ground pepper
- Super important! Don’t throw away the brine from the sauerkraut, keep it on the side. I repeat. Don’t throw the brine away yet. (Unless if your sauerkraut comes from a glass jar that has a pickle instead of an “i”.
- Melt bacon grease over medium heat (5 on the stove) in a thick-bottomed pot. Add onions, sprinkle salt over, sweat until translucent.
- Add bacon, cook until it starts to crisp. This may take anywhere between 5-10 minutes. Stir to avoid burning. Crush caraway seeds with mortar and pestle until coarsely ground.
- Add crushed caraway seeds when bacon is almost crisp. Cook, stirring, for a minute to activate the oils. You should smell the caraway fragrance.
- Add sauerkraut to the pot, then make a decision. If you don’t find the brine is too terrible, add enough to just cover the cabbage. You may have to add water to get the amount needed. If the brine tastes terrible then add more water. If the brine tastes like shit, then just use beer or cider instead.
- Add sugar, bring mix to boil, cover, cook for 15 minutes. Make a slurry with flour and a bit of water (especially if you need to add more to cover the braising cabbage) and cover. Reduce heat to simmering (stove 2) for another 15 minutes. You will need to stir occasionally to ensure it doesn’t stick.
- By now the mixture should have thickened slightly while the cabbage still has a little bite when tasted. Remove cover and grate potato finely into the mix.
- Cook uncovered, until the mixture thickens further, and will start to glisten. For unknown reasons this is super important to my wife.
- Taste it. You’ll think it is a bit too sweet. Maybe too acidic. Get your significant other to test it. Get a second opinion. Know though it’s usually served with pork, and a pretty rich sauce, so having an acid and sweetness will compliment it nicely. Try not to get into your head about it.
- Cool leftovers properly, and store in the fridge. It won’t last long enough to go bad. If it’s an issue, make it into a soup.