Eric Akis: Sauerkraut a umami-bomb of flavour

Eric Akis

A reader, Tony, asked me, in short, if good things about sauerkraut outweighed the bad. I’m answering that query in my column today.

Sauerkraut, German for sour cabbage, is often thought of as a German invention; a place where its been made and enjoyed for centuries. According to The New Food Lover’s Companion, though, Chinese Labourers building the Great Wall of China more than 2000 years ago ate it as standard fare.

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That style of sauerkraut, where shredded cabbage was fermented in rice wine, made its way to Europe. Germans and Alsatians enjoyed its taste, made their own and it became an important food in their cuisines and still is.

In brief, German-style of sauerkraut is made by combining shredded cabbage with salt in a barrel or other vessel, covering and weighting it down, and allowing it to ferment. Flavourings, such as spices, are also sometimes added. Wine is also featured in some sauerkraut.

According to The Oxford Companion to Food, pressing the cabbage helps squeeze out the juice, which is also extracted by the salt, and the covering also excludes air, for the fermentation is anaerobic (airless) and contamination by aerobic (air-breathing) organisms must be avoided.

During the process, lactic bacteria naturally present in cabbage ferments the sugars in the juice extracted from it and the taste of the cabbage evolves, becomes pleasingly sour and savoury.

In other words, an umami-bomb of flavour that can compliment and lift up the taste of other foods, such as sausages and hot dogs, pork ribs and roasts, hot sandwiches and casseroles, such as the famous Alsatian dish, choucroute garni.

Beyond taste, the other good thing about sauerkraut is that cabbage contains nutritious things and the fermentation process further enhances that.

Sauerkraut is low in calories and fat and provides good amounts of dietary fibre and vitamins C and K, and minerals, such as calcium, iron and potassium. But, perhaps most importantly, during fermentation beneficial probiotics, those bacteria, and enzymes are produced. When consumed they, according to a number of sources, may help with such things as digestion and overall gut health, constipation, blood circulation, lowering LDL cholesterol and a host of other things.

There are good reasons to eat sauerkraut, but some say the bad thing about it is its sodium content, which can vary. I checked several brands sold in Victoria and all had — sometimes quite — different levels of it.

For example, when calculating a modest 1/4-cup serving from nutrition facts I found, Bick’s brand wine sauerkraut had 400 milligrams of sodium, Bubbies sauerkraut had 290, Eden Organic sauerkraut had 440, Kuhne barrel sauerkraut had 220, Hengstenberg Bavarian-style sauerkraut had 280, and Karthein’s traditional sauerkraut had 170.

If you fermented your own sauerkraut that sodium content, of course, would vary depending on how much salt was used. But in Samuel Hofer’s book, A passion for Sauerkraut, he suggests a 1/4-cup would contain about 365 milligrams.

According Health Canada, people ages 14 and over should not eat more than 2300 milligrams sodium per day. They describe that as the “tolerable upper intake level,” and sodium intake above that is likely to pose a health risks.

As I noted in a recent story on cooking with salt, though, Health Canada says, ideally, adults 14 to 50 years of age should consume around 1500 milligrams of sodium per day, those 51 to 70 years, around 1300, and those over 70 years, 1200.

For someone who, for medical reasons, must tightly control their sodium intake, they would have to avoid salted foods like sauerkraut. But for those simply being careful about how much sodium they consume, given Health Canada’s “tolerable upper intake level,” it does seem possible to occasionally work sauerkraut into your diet, a good thing if you enjoy its taste and other heath benefits.

That is even truer if you use modest amounts and choose brands that are lower in sodium, and most often serve that sauerkraut with foods also not rich in it. In Hofer’s book he says thoroughly rinsing sauerkraut can also reduce sodium content, but doing that may also rinse away some of the flavour and nutritious things it contains.

My recipe for pork tenderloin bunwiches shows how a more modest amount of sauerkraut, two tablespoons per serving, can still add plenty of flavour to a dish.

Pork Tenderloin Bunwiches with Sauerkraut, Cheese and Apples

Tender medallions of pork, tastily topped with sauerkraut, cheese and apples, sandwiched in buns spread with honey mustard-flavoured mayonnaise. You could serve the bunwiches with local corn on the cob and beer.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 16 minutes

Makes: four servings

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 Tbsp honey, plus a bit for drizzling

1 Tbsp Dijon mustard

1 whole pork tenderloin (550 grams), trimmed of any fat and silverskin

1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil

• freshly ground black pepper and dried sage leaves, to taste

4 leaf or butter lettuce leaves

1/2 cup sauerkraut, drained well, or to taste

1/2 cup grated Swiss or other tangy cheese, or to taste

16 thin wedges of apple

4 hamburger or kaiser buns, split and warmed

Combine mayonnaise, 1 Tbsp honey and mustard in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Cut pork tenderloin widthwise into four equal pieces, and then set them upright on a board, spacing each one a few inches apart. You’ll have to press on the tail end piece of tenderloin to make it sit upright.

Cover pork with plastic wrap. Now firmly press on each piece of pork with the palm of your hand, or use a kitchen hammer to pound it, into medallions, each about 1/2-inch thick.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Heat the oil in a skillet set over medium-high. Season the pork with pepper and sage (the sauerkraut and cheese will add a salty taste). Set pork in the skillet and cook three minutes on each side, or until just cooked through. Transfer pork to the baking sheet.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Top each piece of pork with some sauerkraut, cheese and apple slices. Drizzle apples slice with a bit of honey. Set the pork in the oven and bake until the cheese melts, about 10 minutes.

Spread cut sides of each bun with some mayonnaise mixture. Set a lettuce leaf and piece of pork tenderloin on each bottom bun. Set on top buns and serve.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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