Six varieties of raw sauerkraut are widely available in the Bay Area. (Kate Williams)
Sauerkraut was one of the first fermented foods I learned to make. It’s quite easy to do — and I’ll be sharing my methods in a DIY recipe next week — but it is easy to be tempted by the wide assortment of ‘krauts available at grocery stores these days. Even at traditional grocery stores like Lucky’s, you can find true raw sauerkrauts, often from more than one brand. Before tackling a recipe, I wanted to suss out the different varieties I could find in the Bay Area.
I was surprised to find that every sauerkraut I tried was distinctive. Each sauerkraut maker tends to put its own spin on the product. Even amongst the plain options (just cabbage and salt), textures and levels of fermentation vary, so the end result is different. Other brands add an aromatic or two, from traditional caraway to more assertive garlic. One even threw in apple slices for a touch of sweetness.
There were really no losers in this taste test — a good sauerkraut tends to be in the eyes of the beholder. But I did have my favorites, so here are my tasting notes, with my picks for the top ‘krauts first:
This Santa Cruz-based sauerkraut is an exemplary example of a mild, everyday ferment. The company makes five different sauerkrauts; the caraway variety is the most traditional. Opening the pouch (Farmhouse Culture packs its ferments in a breathable bag to allow any gasses released from the ferment to escape) reveals a pleasant anise-y aroma. The thin shreds of cabbage have a crisp-tender texture and a balanced sour tang. There’s little in the way of the yeasty fermentation flavor that accompanies longer ferments, making Farmhouse Culture a fantastic introductory sauerkraut. I’ve been eating it straight out the pouch as a snack, but it would be equally good on a grilled sausage.
Here is the sauerkraut you’re most likely to find at your neighborhood grocery store. Sonoma Brinery has done a very good job getting onto the shelves at stores like Lucky’s and Andronico’s, in addition to health and specialty food stores like Whole Foods, Bi-Rite, and Berkeley Bowl. It’s also the cheapest on the shelf by almost half. (It is not organic, unlike most raw ‘krauts.) Sonoma Brinery’s sauerkraut is on the stronger side; it’s not super funky, but it definitely has yeast flavor notes in the brine. There’s nothing but cabbage, salt, and water on the ingredient list, but the ‘kraut has a surprising depth of flavor. There are both sweet and sour notes to the ‘kraut, but it is balanced by the aforementioned funk. The cabbage is in long, super-thin spaghetti-like strands, which makes for pretty presentation and messy eating. I also like eating this sauerkraut straight up, but it could also hold its own on a reuben.
Bubbies got its start in the kosher pickle business, but has since added a traditionally fermented sauerkraut to its line-up. Like Sonoma Brinery, Bubbies has a minimal ingredient list. The ‘kraut has a mildly sweet smell; you can hardly tell you’ve opened up a jar of fermented cabbage. The thin shreds are extra-crisp, and have a mild fermented funk. There are sour notes, but remarkably, you can still taste the cabbage. I would recommend Bubbies, like Farmhouse, for any sauerkraut newbies. While it isn’t quite as interesting to eat on its own, it would be a great sauerkraut for multipurpose cooking and toppings.
Pickled Planet is an Ashland, Oregon-based company, and their labeling fits its origins; you can tell the ferments are made by alternative health nuts. Its kraut has a much stronger flavor than its smell. It is intensely sour and yeasty. In fact, my first reaction was to dismiss the ‘kraut as over-fermented, but as I kept eating, the flavor began to grow on me. Because of its strength, Pickled Planet would hold up well to cooking; it would likely be delicious in choucroute garnie (a braised sausage and sauerkraut dish). Don’t, however, feed this raw ‘kraut to picky friends.
Cultured is the smallest company selling raw sauerkraut in the Bay. The company is based in Berkeley, and it only sells through farmers’ markets and Berkeley Bowl. It is, however, making the most creative ferments around. Their most plain sauerkraut has green apple, caraway, and juniper berries in addition to the cabbage, so that’s what I’ve tasted here. The ‘kraut gives off a strong apple smell, which is a little surprising but not unpleasant. The cabbage itself is crisp and crunchy, with a very strong fermented funk. There’s little in the way of tang, and I couldn’t taste any of the caraway or juniper. I wasn’t particularly excited about this brand, but people who prefer intense flavors may like it. At $10 for 16-ounces, this is the most expensive sauerkraut on the list. I’m not convinced that it is worth the price.
Like Cultured and Pickled Planet, Wildbrine sauerkraut is not for the faint of heart. I thought it verged on over-fermented, and its garlic flavor is just as intense. Again, I didn’t get much tang, so I found the ‘kraut to be out of balance. Unlike the other ‘krauts, Wildbrine uses chopped cabbage, which helps it to retain a distinctive crunch. If you want to add a crisp, funky flavor note to a salad or sandwich, Wildbrine could be a decent choice, but I wouldn’t choose to eat it plain.
In the end, I would reach for Farmhouse Culture and Sonoma Brinery before any of these other brands, but they would likely all work in a pinch. Choose wisely, though, depending on your tolerance for wild, funky flavors.