One afternoon in the spring of 1980, I was standing on the Great Wall just north of Beijing. My tour guide was describing various aspects of the wall and its history: like the fact that you could see it from space. (Today, she would probably say that I could find it on Google Earth—which I can.) I don’t remember much of what she said about the wall’s history, but I do seem to remember her saying how the workers were fed sauerkraut—in French, choucroute—each day. I suspect that the sauerkraut of Qin Shi Huang—the first emperor of China and one of the early builders of the Wall who reigned from 247 to 210 BCE1—was different from the choucroute eaten today in France.
I suspect that the ancient Chinese preserved their cabbage just as the ancient Romans did, by pickling it in brine containing sour wine, vinegar, or verjuice along with salt, and not by anaerobic fermentation. The acidic and salty brine preserved the cabbage, but did not ferment it.2 The first description of cabbage being fermented as it is in modern choucroute dates back to 1607,3 but the first actual use of the word choucroute is much later. According to Hordé, “The bringing together of the French words chou and croûte transformed, in second half of the 18th century, the Alsatian [word] sûrkrût into choucroute. The Alsatian word initially was adapted as sorcrote in the Les Dons de Comus (1742) of François Marin and corresponds to the German [word] sauerkraut, ‘sour herb,’ ....”4
This concept of choucroute being health-giving was whole-heartedly adopted by the naval forces of Europe, whose ships were supplied large quantities of sauerkraut to ward off scurvy among the sailors.6 The sauerkraut-making process leaves intact the cabbage’s abundant vitamin C (36.6 mg/100g).7 But the opinion that choucroute was salubrious was not necessarily universal at that time. Jacob writes in Mémoires du Cardinal Dubois: “Quand je fus bien débarrassé de la choucroute, je me présentai chez le cavalier de Lorraine, …” (When I was well rid of the sauerkraut, I presented myself at the residence of the Chevalier of Lorraine, …),8 and “Ayant toujours sur l’estomac la terrible choucroute qui me donnait des nausées à chaque instant…” (I still had that terrible sauerkraut in my stomach that was making me nauseous at every moment…).9 But at about the same time as these statements were being published, a contrary opinion also made it into print:
A century or so later, one writer found that the problem lies not with the choucroute, but with the meats normally served with it.
Although choucroute may have been given a clean bill of health, the workshops where was produced did not fare as well.
Choucroute (Ateliers de fabrication de la).
La choucroute se prépare au moyen de choux nettoyés, épluchés, coupés en minces lanières et placés ensuite dans des tonneaux en couches séparées les unes des autres par une certaine quantité de sel marin. Les choux ne tardent pas à fermenter et à produire une saumure à odeur très désagréable qu’on remplace de temps à autre par de la saumure fraîche. La préparation de la choucroute demande de 20 à 25 jours.
Ces ateliers ont l’inconvénient de dégager une odeur pénétrante provenant de la fermentation des choux et de fournir des eaux résiduaires malodorantes et très insalubres.
1° Bien ventiler les ateliers ;
2° Imperméabiliser le sol par cimentage ;
3° Fermer toutes les ouvertures donnant sur la voie publique ou sur les propriétés voisines ;
4° N’écouler les eaux à l’égout qu’après traitement au moyen d’un lait de chaux.12
Sauerkraut (Workshops for manufacturing).
Sauerkraut is prepared from cabbages that are cleaned, peeled, cut into thin strips, and then layered in barrels with a good quantity of sea salt. The cabbages soon start fermenting and they produce a very unpleasant-smelling brine, which one replaces from time to time with fresh brine. The preparation of sauerkraut requires from 20 to 25 days.
Unfortunately, these workshops release a terrible odor of rotting cabbages and produce malodorous and very unhealthy waste water.
1st. Make sure the workshops are well ventilated;
2nd. Waterproof the floor with cement;
3rd. Close all openings onto public spaces or neighboring properties;
4th. Release waste water into the gutters only after treatment with lime.
The anaerobic fermentation that turns cabbage into choucroute is a two-stage process. Initially, the cabbage along with some salt is immersed in the juice exuded by the cabbage. The cabbage is totally submerged in the liquid so that it is not exposed to air. The naturally occurring bacteria Leuconostoc mesenteriodes flourishes in the absence of air. It consumes some of the cabbage by metabolizing the sugars in it. The process produces a number of antimicrobial byproducts including lactic and other acids, carbon dioxide, and alcohol. While this is happening, the structure of the cabbage is left intact.13 As the acid level in the choucroute rises, other bacterial species such as Lactobaillilus brevis and Lactobaillilus plantarum take over the process and contribute to the aroma and flavor of the final product.14
Curiously, the earliest description I found for the fabrication of choucroute failed to mention the use of salt:
A slightly later recipe, as well as all the others I found, does call for salt.16 One recipe from mid-19th-century seems to combine the new method of using primarily salt and cabbage with the earlier method of brining the cabbage.
The most detailed recipe of the period that I found was from Gouffé.
Prenez 12 kilos de choux blancs ;
Retirez-en les parties dures et toutes les feuilles vertes ;
Émincez les choux en filets d’un demi-centimètre de large.
Si l’on a une grande quantité de choucroute à préparer, il faut employer de préférence une machine à couper les choux ; on les coupe ainsi plus régulièrement qu’avec le couteau.
Les choux coupés, prenez un baril qui puisse les contenir à peu près exactement ;
Placez dans le fond du baril des feuilles de choux saupoudrées de sel pilé ;
Mettez dessus une couche de choux de 5 centimètres d’épaisseur ;
Recouvrez cette couche de sel, et continuez successivement les couches de choux et de sel, jusqu’à ce que le baril soit plein.
Disséminez dans les choux à mesure du travail :
10 feuilles de laurier,
Et 1 hecto de baies de genièvre ;
Couvrez la surface du baril d’un linge blanc ;
Posez dessus un rond de bois chargé d’un poids de 5 kilos.
Dès que l’eau monte à la surface,
On découvre la choucroute ;
On lave le linge, et on écume.
Si la saumure n’est pas assez abondante pour couvrir les choux,
On ajoute de l’eau salée et bouillie de manière que la choucroute baigne entièrement ;
Recommencez l’opération du lavage cinq fois pendant les quinze premiers jours ;
Après ce temps, laissez fermenter les choux.
Au bout de cinq semaines de salaison, la choucroute est à son point, et on peut l’employer.
A mesure que vous faites usage de la choucroute, recouvrez les choux de saumure, autrement ils jauniraient et pourraient moisir.
Nota. Pour 12 kilos de choux, on emploie 3 kilos de sel blanc.
Faire sécher le sel, et le piler.
La choucroute parfaitement préparée est toujours blanche.18
Start with 12 kilos of green cabbage;
Remove the cores and the dark green outer leaves;
Slice the cabbages into half-centimeter wide strips.
If you are preparing a large quantity of sauerkraut, it is preferable to use a machine for the shredding; this way you can shred the cabbage more evenly than with a knife.
Select a barrel that is just large enough to hold the shredded cabbage;
Line the bottom of the barrel with a few cabbage leaves sprinkled with crushed salt;19
Cover this with a 5-centimeter thick layer of shredded cabbage;
Cover this layer with salt, and continue adding layers of shredded cabbage and salt, until the barrel is full.
As you work, evenly intersperse with the cabbage:
10 bay leaves,
And one quarter-pound of juniper berries;
Cover the surface of the barrel with a piece of plain white cloth;
On top place a wooden disc and a weight of 5 kilos.
As soon as the water rises to the surface,
Uncover the sauerkraut;
Rinse out the cloth, and skim the surface.
If there is not sufficient brine to cover the cabbage,
Add salted, boiled water20 so that the sauerkraut is entirely covered;
Repeat the washing five times over the first two weeks;
After this time, leave the cabbage to ferment.
After five weeks in the salt solution, the sauerkraut is ready to be used.
As you remove sauerkraut from the barrel, cover the [remaining] cabbage with brine, otherwise it will yellow and maybe get moldy.
Note. For 12 kilos of cabbage, use 3 kilos of white salt.21
Dry the salt and crush it.
Perfectly prepared sauerkraut is always white.
Choucroute can easily be prepared in a home kitchen, although you may wonder if it is worth the effort. I think it is. The process is quite simple and the result quite tasty. The method I use is similar to traditional methods but differs in some notable ways. First, I don’t make the large quantities that traditional recipes are sized for. I can prepare an adequate supply with an amount of cabbage that can easily ferment on my kitchen counter without taking up much space. Second, I integrate the salt with the cabbage rather than layering it. This speeds the start of the fermentation process. Third, I use a clear plastic container for the fermentation rather than a barrel or crock. This way I can watch the process as it is progressing.
My container has a total capacity of about 6 liters. From past experience I know that it will reasonably hold about 3 kilograms of shredded cabbage. Consequently, I try to buy just a bit less than 4 kilograms of cabbage. What the French recipes refer to as chou blanc is what my market calls green cabbage, or sometimes head cabbage. Your market may call it by a different name. I try to choose heads that feel solid and heavy. I look to make sure that the outer leaves are fresh, unblemished, and intact.
I work with each head, one at a time, all the way through the process of shredding and salting. To start the fabrication process, I remove the outer leaves from one head and discard them. I then place the cabbage on my cutting board with the stem end facing me, and I cut it in half directly through the core. Each half is then placed cut side down on the board with the stem pointed towards my cutting hand. I then cut each half so the core is split evenly in two.
Now working one quarter at a time, I place one on my cutting board so that one cut surface is on the board and the other is towards my cutting hand. I use a large knife to make a single diagonal cut to slice out the core, which I discard. The quarter is turned end for end so the stem end is towards my holding hand and the piece is resting on the triangular area produced by the last cut. I then proceed to shred the cabbage with a large knife. I use the flat side of the tip of my index finger on my holding hand to guide the knife. My goal is to make the shreds as narrow and as even as possible. They probably average about 3 millimeters in width.
After each section is shredded, I place the shreds in a large mixing bowl and remove any thick pieces cut from the stem end that feel too coarse. After all four sections are shredded and transferred to the bowl. I weigh the results and calculate how much salt to add. I use 3% salt, by weight. To determine the amount of salt, I multiple the weight of the cabbage, in grams, by 0.03 and round the answer to the nearest gram. I then weigh this amount of fine sea salt and sprinkle it over the cabbage.
Rather than wait for the salt and cabbage to interact on their own, I massage them together until the cabbage starts exuding water and feels slightly soft. This only takes a minute or so. I set the massaged cabbage and any exuded liquid aside in the container that I’ll be using for the fermentation process and proceed to process the remaining heads of cabbage in the same manner as the first.
When all the cabbage is shredded, massaged, and added to the plastic container, it is easy to see that there is a slight difference in color between the different heads of cabbage. This can be because of color differences between the individual heads, but is more likely due to the heads being massaged different amounts. So I mix the cabbage so that the color looks even. Using the blade of a large rubber spatula, I press the cabbage down so it is below the exuded water. After each press, it floats up a little. My goal here is for it to be evenly distributed in the container and slightly below the level of the liquid.
At this point, it is possible to see that my shredded cabbage, which had a weight before salting of 3.2 kilograms, has a volume of about 3-1/2 liters. Instead of using a plate or a piece of wood to keep the cabbage below the liquid, I use a plastic bag filled with brine. I choose a bag that is slightly larger than the container and fill it with 2 liters of water mixed with 60 grams of fine salt. I use a brine so the cabbage liquid is not diluted in case the bag breaks. To date, I’ve never had a bag break. I heat seal the bag so I know it will not open accidentally. When the bag is placed evenly on its side on the surface of the cabbage, it is easy to see the cabbage liquid extend up the sides of the bag. Also, since the bag is clear, I can see that I haven’t left any significant amount of air sitting between the bag and the cabbage.
Finally, I place the lid on the container and set it aside on my counter. The lid does not form an airtight seal on the container. It is important that the gas created during the fermentation process can escape. The cabbage should be fermented in a room with a temperature of 24 °C or less. My kitchen is usually about 21 °C. The fermentation can be done at a much lower temperature, but it will take longer. Some people prefer a slower fermentation saying that it produces a better tasting choucroute, but I am satisfied with my results. I also don’t worry about the cabbage being exposed to light, although it is only exposed to ambient room light, not sunlight.
After a day or two, gas bubbles produced by the fermentation are noticeable in the cabbage, and the color of the cabbage is turning from green to yellow. At first there are just a few bubbles but during the first week there seem to be many. Every day or so, I remove the plastic bag of water and press the surface of the cabbage gently with the spatula, as I did in the beginning. This causes the gas bubbles to rise up through the cabbage and escape. When I remove the bag, I place it on the inside of the lid of the container so the bag does not become contaminated. One of the advantages of the clear plastic container is that I can see the bubbles of gas clearly during the fermentation process.
Almost all recipes that I have found suggest that any scum that floats to the surface is skimmed off and discarded. I have never seen any scum when making choucroute with the method that I use.
I also taste a little of the cabbage each time I remove the bag. I do this to see how the flavor is progressing. Initially, the cabbage tastes a little of salt, but as the fermentation progresses, the salty flavor disappears. Also, the aroma changes during the process. It gets stronger as the fermentation advances, but it is never unpleasant.
After about two weeks, no new bubbles are being produced and the choucroute seems to be ready. The color is now a dull yellow and the fragrance is delightful. At this point, the cabbage can be packaged—I use glass jars—and refrigerated until it is used. The choucroute will last a number of months in the refrigerator. But my refrigerator is small. So except for a portion or two, I put all my choucroute through a canning process so that it is shelf-stable.
I put the choucroute up in glass canning jars with two-piece lids. Any heat-processed canning system will work. I first pack the choucroute into clean jars. Then I use the end of a wooden rolling pin to firmly tamp the cabbage into the jars so there is only enough juice to barely cover the cabbage. Before placing the lids on the jars, I wipe the rims clean and dry. For this particular batch, by the time every jar was packed, I still had 600 milliliters of juice remaining. Some people drink this juice, claiming it is healthy. I don’t particularly like the flavor, so I discard it.
The jars are placed in a large stock pot and covered with warm water. The pot is placed over high heat and the water brought to a boil. I process the jars for 20 minutes past the time the water comes to a boil. I usually use small jars that only hold about two portions, but if I were to use a jar with a capacity larger than 1/2 liter, I would increase the process time to 30 minutes. After the jars are processed, I remove them from the water and set them aside to cool. Much of the liquid that was in the jars is now gone! I store the processed choucroute in a cupboard until I use it.
When prepared as just described, the choucroute is still raw and is sometimes referred to as choucroute crue. Occasionally, choucroute is served almost raw, but most often it is cooked for a significant amount of time before serving. It is in the raw form, already fermented, that most people purchase choucroute. It is still available from charcuteries, but it is also easy to purchase at local marchés and supermarchés throughout France. A century or so ago, at least one cookbook specifically instructed its readers to purchase their raw choucroute rather than making it themselves.
La choucroute est généralement achetée chez les charcutiers et les épiciers qui la conservent en tonneaux. Autant que possible, il faut éviter de prendre le dessus du tonneau, qui est toujours rougi par l’air. La bonne choucroute doit être blanche. Il faut d’abord la laver dans deux eaux froides ; ensuite on la met à froid dans une casserole de cuivre ou d’émail, avec une bonne quantité de saindoux fin (deux grosses cuillerées pour 2 livres de choucroute). On peut mettre moitié graisse d’oie, moitié saindoux. Ajouter un verre de bouillon non coloré, couvrir la casserole et faire cuire à l’étuvée, lentement pendant trois heures. Retourner de temps en temps avec une cuiller de bois; saler, poivrer. Pendant la dernière heure, faire cuire avec la choucroute, le lard, le jambon ou les saucisses qui doivent être servis en garniture.
La choucroute doit rester blanche et fumante jusqu’à la fin. Ne jamais y mettre du jus de viande, qui change le caractère de ce plat. Quelques personnes y ajoutent un verre de vin blanc sec (au besoin du champagne), qu’on fait cuire au moins une heure. Si la cuisson était un peu rapide, il faudrait de temps en temps mouiller avec du bouillon.
La choucroute supporte fort bien d’être réchauffée.22
Sauerkraut is generally bought from pork butchers or grocers who keep it in barrels. If possible, it is important to avoid taking sauerkraut from the top of the barrel, which is always discolored by contact with the air. Good sauerkraut should be white. It needs to be rinsed twice in cold water before cooking; and then put cold into an enamel or copper pan, with a good quantity of fine lard (two large spoonfuls for 2 pounds of sauerkraut). One can use half goose fat, half lard. Next add a glass of colorless bouillon, cover the pan and braise slowly for three hours. Stir from time to time with a wooden spoon; add salt and pepper. During the last hour, add to the sauerkraut the bacon, ham or sausages that you plan to serve with it.
The sauerkraut must remain white and steaming until the end. Never add meat drippings to it, because that would alter the character of the dish. Some people add a glass dry white wine (or if you want, champagne), which should be cooked for at least an hour. If necessary, add a little bouillon from time to time to keep the sauerkraut moist.
Sauerkraut reheats nicely.
The author of the above recipe cooks the choucroute for three hours—a time I find a bit long. But Gouffé outdoes us both by cooking his choucroute for a full eight hours.
La choucroute doit être généralement très blanche.
Certaines personnes ont l’habitude de l’employer sans la laver, d’autres la blanchissent : je me rallie à ce dernier système.
En admettant que la choucroute blanchie perde quelque chose sous le rapport du goût, cet inconvénient se trouve amplement racheté par ce qu’elle gagne, au point de vue hygiénique et digestif, par l’opération du blanchissage.
Ayez 1 kilo de choucroute, faites blanchir à l’eau bouillante pendant dix minutes ;
Rafraîchissez, égouttez, et pressez avec soin pour bien extraire l’eau ;
Mettez la choucroute dans une casserole d’une contenance de 4 litres ;
Ajoutez 1 litre de bouillon, 3 décilitres de dégraissais de marmite, 3 prises de poivre ;
Faites mijoter pendant 8 heures, la casserole entièrement couverte ;
Retirez dans une terrine que vous couvrez d’une feuille de papier.
Réservez pour garnir.23
The sauerkraut should generally be very white.
Certain people are accustomed to using it without rinsing it first, others blanch it: I prefer with the latter method.
While I agree that sauerkraut loses some of its taste with blanching, this disadvantage is amply offset by what the blanching adds in healthiness and digestibility.
Take 1 kilo of sauerkraut and blanch it in boiling water for ten minutes;
Rinse in cold water, drain, and press the water out as much as possible;
Put sauerkraut in a 4-liter saucepan;
Add 1 liter of bouillon, 3 deciliters of fat skimmed off the top of pot of stock, and 3 pinches of pepper;
Simmer for 8 hours over low heat, tightly covered;
Pour the sauerkraut into a bowl and cover with a piece of paper.
Reserve to serve as a side dish.
My recipe for choucroute is simple and tasty, and requires much less time to prepare. The following recipe will prepare enough for about two portions.
I heat a saucepan over medium heat. To this I add 1 thick slice of bacon that has been diced and an equivalent amount of finely diced yellow onion. I sweat the onion and cook the bacon without allowing either to take on any color. I then add about 300 grams of rinsed and drained raw choucroute and enough wine to moisten everything. When the liquid comes to a boil, I lower the heat, cover the saucepan, and cook the choucroute until tender, about 45 minutes. I stir the contents of the saucepan occasionally and add more wine if it become too dry. Before serving, I taste the choucroute and add a little salt if necessary. Sometimes I’ll sprinkle a little black pepper over it as well. I usually serve choucroute as a side dish with my homemade smoked sausages and hams.
The author gratefully thanks Ken Broadhurst of Mareuil-sur-Cher, France, for his superb editing assistance with this article.