What is sauerkraut?

A diet staple of Germany and much of central Europe, sauerkraut is finely sliced cabbage that's been subjected to lactic-acid fermentation.

Salt is added to prepared cabbage, which draws the liquid from it and encourages the conversion of natural sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid. Together with the salt, this preserves the cabbage. Originally a standby during winter, sauerkraut is now beloved for its excellent health benefits, thanks to the probiotics created during the fermentation process.

Sauerkraut is the European equivalent of Korea’s kimchi, but differs in that it's pickled after being finely sliced rather than in big sections. It's also rarely flavoured with other ingredients, except for a little caraway seed or similar.

It can be eaten raw or cooked; in fine-dining restaurants, it's sometimes even served drenched in champagne.

Read our guides on the health benefits of sauerkraut and the health benefits of fermenting.

How to cook sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is very simple to make at home, and there are many recipes available online. Be certain to closely follow instructions concerning hygiene. It's ready in a matter of a few weeks.

When raw, it makes a great sandwich ingredient, and is a good accompaniment to sausages and meats, particularly those that have been smoked. If you like, you can rinse it quickly to reduce the saltiness. Sauerkraut is vital to New York's famous reuben sandwiches, when it's piled high with corned (salt) beef, swiss cheese and chilli-spiked dressing on rye bread that's fried or grilled.

Sauerkraut can be added to soups and stews; cooked with stock, beer or wine; served with sausages or salted meats, and is especially good with smoked fish, like hot-smoked salmon. For contrast of colour and texture, cranberries make an excellent addition to serve with roasted game birds, while apple works very well with pork or chicken.

Heating and cooking will dramatically reduce the health-protective properties with which sauerkraut is credited.

See our simple sauerkraut recipe.

How to store sauerkraut

Once opened, sauerkraut must always be kept beneath its preserving liquid; it’s common to add a weight of some kind to ensure this. It will then last a very long time and is best kept covered in the refrigerator. Use very clean utensils to take it from the container, or you run the risk of contaminating it or even encouraging other processes that might change its flavour and safety.

Where to buy sauerkraut

Commercial cans and jars are available year round. It can be made at home, usually with solid white cabbage, but all types of cabbage, including red, can be pickled.

Choose the best sauerkraut

The main difference between commercially available styles is how finely the cabbage is sliced. Sauerkraut that is finely sliced rather than roughly chopped makes this essentially rustic food easier to eat and use. Sauerkraut made in Poland is usually very good.

It can be rinsed before use but will still taste salty. There should also be a sweetness from the cabbage itself, and further depth of flavour as a result of the fermentation.

Pickled red cabbage often has spices, such as allspice berries, cumin, coriander, black or white peppercorns added to it.