By Laura Poe | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
I caught the fermentation bug in college, when I made kombucha in my tiny apartment, venturing next to fermented vegetables and beyond. I have loved sauerkraut since childhood, eating it enthusiastically with brats when I traveled to Germany with my mother. Clearly, I was destined to be a fermentation fanatic and Wisconsin resident. Fermenting experiments at home turned into a love that I have shared with friends at potlucks and taught at workshops, spreading probiotics and the smell of sauerkraut wherever I go.
Seeing fermented vegetables at stores and even in the news may make it seem like a fad, but fermentation has been around for centuries. Traditional diets were rich in cultured foods, as this was an important method of preservation before canning or refrigeration. Modern diets, dominated by processed foods, are devoid of ferments. Many favorites such as sausage, bread and pickles were once made using fermentation and have been replaced by commercially made counterparts. As a result, we are lacking the good bacteria that once accompanied these foods.
The body is populated by beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms, collectively known as the microbiome. This invisible ecosystem has been associated with well-being, including immunity, digestion and even mental health. The evidence supporting the microbiome’s role is growing, and alongside it, the desire for the probiotic foods that promote robust and diverse microbial populations. Yogurt has gained the most popularity for its role in digestion, but other fermented foods like kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut are also on the rise.
When foods like sauerkraut are prepared through fermentation, they contain trillions of these helpful microbes along with digestion-promoting enzymes. Multiple strains of bacteria are involved in transforming cabbage into sauerkraut, including lactobacillus, which naturally live on the surface of vegetables and in the soil. These bacteria facilitate fermentation and produce lactic acid, which raises acidity and, along with salt, acts as a preservative. Kraut has a shelf life of about one year in the fridge or root cellar, though I always eat mine well before that. When not heat-treated, like in canning, the nutrients and probiotics are kept intact. Most will recognize canned sauerkraut from store shelves, but real sauerkraut is alive, so you will find it in the refrigerated section instead of with the canned goods.
If you want to try your hand at cultured foods, sauerkraut is the easiest place to begin. First, start with organic cabbage, which I always encourage over conventionally grown. We have awesome local farms here in Southern Wisconsin that would be great sources, and they may even sell you “seconds” that aren’t as pretty but would still make great kraut. The only other ingredient you’ll need is fine-grained, unrefined sea salt with no iodine or other additives. Little equipment is needed other than a glass jar with a lid, though you could make a larger batch in a ceramic crock if desired.
To add a twist to your kraut, mix in other vegetables or herbs as you like. I often add wild greens, dill, garlic, carrots, hot peppers, or whatever is in season. Bring a jar of your homemade sauerkraut to a barbeque to top brats or burgers and impress your friends with your fermentation skills. It goes great on tacos, sandwiches, over-easy eggs and salads for extra flavor, crunch and health points. If not making your own, check your favorite store or farm-to-table restaurant, as many in the area are adding local or house-made fermented veggies to their shelves and menus.
My passion for fermentation goes hand-in-hand with my work as a dietitian, as I see the microbiome as a foundation for health. I recommend having a fermented food with each meal to begin repopulating your body with good bacteria, which may just be the antidote to many of the issues I see associated with the modern diet. Who would have guessed that by topping your brat with real, live sauerkraut at your next summer barbecue, you would be improving your microbiome?