Love it or hate it, sauerkraut has found its sweet spot

Sauerkraut has long been a standard Wisconsin condiment, but it’s trending now as a fermented health food.
A large serving tray filled with sauerkraut and sections of sausages, surrounded by smaller condiment bowls and a serving utensil.
Photo by Youa Awasthi
Sauerkraut goes way back in culinary history, but it's still a key ingredient in many recipes today. (German sauerkraut from Fizzeology Foods and Willow Creek Farms sausages pictured)

Sauerkraut has thrown off its stodgy reputation as something only our grandparents ate and has become trendy once again with increased sales. In its 2021 list of the next big things, Whole Foods Market included sauerkraut as part of a trend focused on foods offering health benefits. Why? Fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, raw cheese and sauerkraut are gaining popularity because they are rich in probiotics, which promote digestion and good gut health. Probiotics also prevent damage from low-grade inflammation, which contributes to serious medical conditions including cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Probiotic substances are sometimes prescribed when the digestive system gets out of whack due to poor diet or the use of antibiotics. That said, long before I heard of a probiotic, my grandmother insisted sauerkraut could cure a cold.

Simply speaking, sauerkraut is nothing more than finely chopped and salted cabbage. Packed into a crock, the salt draws out its juices, which naturally ferment. Originally, people made sauerkraut because they were concerned about food preservation rather than health benefits. Paradoxically, it relies on its own bacteria to suppress other bacteria that cause decay. Today, not all kraut is created equal. In the early 20th century, commercially canned sauerkraut began to hit the market. Unfortunately, though milder in taste, pasteurized and canned sauerkraut has little to no probiotic bacteria.

The world’s largest kraut maker, GLK Foods, is located in Bear Creek, Wisconsin. Established more than a century ago originally as Flanagan Brothers by two Irish brothers, Dave and Henry Flanagan, it now processes more than 150,000 tons of raw cabbage each year. Every August, Bear Creek’s St. Mary’s Parish holds a three-day sauerkraut festival that features everything from kraut salad to kraut cupcakes.
In recent years, a slew of raw, naturally fermented sauerkraut options have popped up in supermarket refrigerator cases. Established in 1982, California’s Bubbies became one of the first companies to market naturally fermented kraut nationwide. Wisconsin boasts many new sauerkraut makers, including Angelica’s Garden in Elmwood. Owner Angelica Hollstadt says, “I think the market for sauerkraut has been steadily growing over the past decade. … That has not surprised me, since people have become more aware of a need to improve their gut health.” In addition to Angelica’s Garden, Fizzeology based in Viroqua makes fermented foods using organic ingredients.

Kraut is so synonymous with German cuisine that the word eventually became a slur for a German person. Though sauerkraut was invented by the Chinese as fermented cabbage in rice wine, the Germanic languages gave us its name. Sauerkraut literally means “sour herb,” but krut is an old word for cabbage. It has been a staple in the diet of German-speaking people since the 1600s, no doubt because they had an abundance of cabbage that, once fermented, would keep all winter. Today, on a per-capita basis, the French eat more of what they call choucroute than do the Germans. American acceptance of this pickled dish is attributed to the flood of German people who arrived here during the 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a majority of the residents in 41 of 72 Wisconsin counties were of German heritage, and people with German ancestors were prevalent in major cities such as Milwaukee and Green Bay.

German-speaking immigrants left their mark on Madison as well. By 1880, they made up about 45% of the community’s population. The Heidelberg Hofbrau was a popular eatery on the Square for more than a decade. The specialty of the house was pork shanks and sauerkraut (the dish sold for 70 cents in 1935). For more than six decades, the Maier family has run the Dorf Haus in Roxbury Township. Dorf Haus is probably best known for its first-Monday-of-the-month Bavarian smorgasbord — rest assured sauerkraut is always on hand. Since 1983, Essen Haus has been a downtown rendezvous for gemütlichkeit. The restaurant includes sauerkraut with several appetizers and entrees, but it also can be ordered a la carte. “We put some work into it. … We do a very traditional-style sauerkraut,” Manager Neale Hansen says. “It’s a big seller.”

In all honesty, sauerkraut is almost always on the menu if you look for it. What would a Reuben sandwich be without it? At The Cooper’s Tavern, the cabbage topping is no afterthought — it gets a bath in Lake Louie Brewing Co.’s Warped Speed Scotch Ale. Not surprisingly, at Sweet Home Wisconsin it garnishes a Bavaria Sausage smoked bratwurst, but it’s also available as a side. Personally, I wish sauerkraut balls would make their way to our town. They’re a favorite pub grub in Ohio, supposedly having originated in Akron. As addictive as cheese curds, I would liken their taste to a deep-fried Reuben.

Sauerkraut isn’t subtle: The smell can clear a room and the taste will pucker your lips. Whether you love it or hate it, I suspect the stinky sour stuff has finally found its sweet spot.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years and is currently working on a cookbook. This article appeared in the August 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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