Sauerkraut: History, Flavor, Benefits, Uses

Sauerkraut is German for sour cabbage and the dish is associated mostly with Germany, despite being popular throughout Central Europe. There is no evidence that the Germans were the ones to create it since the dish has roots in Russia and Austria as well. Sauerkraut is an example of a pickle. Pickling was one of the ways that vegetables were preserved before refrigerators.

Sauerkraut originated in Asia around 2,000 years ago, and many believe that it was eventually brought to Europe via Genghis Khan. Chinese laborers building the Great Wall needed a way to preserve cabbage during winter and used rice wine to pickle it. It is believed that this pickled cabbage was the first sauerkraut. Genghis Khan encountered the dish and adopted it. His armies took it with them through Asia and Europe. As a result, versions of sour cabbage show up all over these continents.

The European version foregoes the rice wine and replaces it with salt. The cabbage is fermented in its juices and salt, which enables natural bacteria to create lactic acid. The cabbage is finely shredded and salted — the salt is placed between layers of the shredded cabbage — the cabbage is then pressed down so that it releases its juices.

Sauerkraut made its way to the US via German immigrants in the 1700s. In America’s early years, it was considered a specialty of the community called the Pennsylvania Dutch. These immigrants were invited to the Pennsylvania area by William Penn and brought sauerkraut over from Europe with them in barrels. The first documentation of it in American English is from 1776.

Sauerkraut also found its way to New York with other immigrants from Germany and wound up as a condiment for the iconic New York hot dog.

During World War II, sauerkraut was marketed as liberty cabbage out of fears that the German name would be off-putting for American shoppers.

While sauerkraut has widely been viewed as the quintessential German food (especially by Americans), its consumption in Germany has been in decline. These days, more of it is consumed by the average French person than by Germans.

Sauerkraut flavor profile

Sauerkraut is known for its sour flavor profile, which comes from the lactic acid produced by lactobacillus bacteria.

Health benefits

Many people consider sauerkraut to be a superfood. The fermentation process makes cabbage easier to digest, which enhances its nutritional value. Its health benefits come from compounds like:

  • Probiotics: Sauerkraut contains more beneficial lactobacillus bacteria than yogurt.
  • Vitamins: Sauerkraut contains B vitamins like riboflavin, thiamin, and pyridoxine. It may also provide vitamin C.
  • Minerals: Sauerkraut contains minerals like potassium and iron.

Sauerkraut’s nutrition may help your body to treat and prevent health problems like:

  • Breast cancer: Multiple studies have found a connection between sauerkraut consumption and a lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Poor gut flora: Gut flora is believed to have far-reaching positive effects on the immune system, and there is evidence that it helps protect the body from invading pathogens.

Health concerns

Some sauerkraut is high in sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure.

Common uses

In the US, sauerkraut is a famous topping for hot dogs; sauerkraut goes particularly well with mustard. You will also see it on the Reuben sandwich, where it is paired with Thousand Island dressing and used to complement pastrami. Serve it as a side with kielbasas and other European sausages.