The pickling of cabbage is ancient and widespread. Chinese workers building the Great Wall in the 7th century BC consumed Chinese cabbages pickled in rice wine. In ancient Rome, various types of Mediterranean cabbages pickled in wine and vinegar were being enjoyed. However, while pickling cabbage continued to be popular in Asia, it pretty much vanished in Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire—until the early 1200s, when Genghis Khan and friends reintroduced it into the countries they invaded (remember, they swept all the way into Eastern Europe).
Europeans liked the Tatar pickled-cabbage idea and began experimenting with it, using both local cabbages and different methods of preservation. However, sauerkraut, which involves layering shredded cabbage with salt, actually didn’t obtain its current form until the 1600s. But the fact that it was shelf-stable and appeared to have some health benefits made it widely popular, once it was perfected. Captain James Cook thought so well of it as a health food, he carried it with him during his long voyages— and he became almost legendary for never losing a man to scurvy (sauerkraut is high in Vitamin C).
The fact that sauerkraut (German for “sour cabbage”) was perfected in Germany—or the general region of what is today Germany (a few borders have changed since the 1600s) is reflected in the fact that just about everyone calls this particular form of fermented cabbage by the German name. (Even the French choucroute is really just a corruption of the German.) Sauerkraut, and dishes containing sauerkraut, can be found across Europe—and they made the leap to the New World as soon as the first German settlers did. (Asian-style pickled cabbages would have to wait a while to be discovered in the Americas.)
Growing up, there were several sauerkraut-based dishes I loved (most especially my mom’s baked spareribs and potatoes in sauerkraut, and just about anyone’s Reuben sandwich), but it was later in life that I discovered sauerkraut soup. I’ve enjoyed it in Austria and Hungary, as well as at an Alsatian restaurant in Chicago. Of course, the Austrian and Hungarian versions weren’t quite the same as the Alsatian, but they shared similarities—and all were great. Since then, I’ve seen different versions of sauerkraut soup in German, Polish, Russian, and Czech cookbooks and/or restaurants. One changes countries by changing from pork to mutton to beef to kielbasa. Different versions, even within one country, might add potatoes or carrots. But what they all seem to have in common is onions, garlic, meat, sauerkraut, broth or stock, and a garnish of sour cream.
The recipe below is for an Austro-Hungarian type, very much like the ones I had while visiting the former realm of the Habsburgs. It’s wonderfully hearty, warming, rich, and flavorful. Enjoy.
6 slices bacon
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
¾ lb. lean pork, diced
1 lb. fresh sauerkraut (approximately 2 cups) - see Notes
1 Tbs. tomato paste
½ tsp. paprika
8 cups beef broth or stock
1½ Tbs. butter
1½ Tbs. flour
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp. sugar (optional)
sour cream for garnish
In a fairly large pot (at least 12 cups), cook the bacon until crisp. Set bacon aside. Leave 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat in the pot, and sauté the onions and garlic in the bacon fat until brown. Stir in the diced pork, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 20 minutes.
Add the sauerkraut, tomato paste, paprika, and broth or stock. Stirring occasionally, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for one hour.
In a separate pan, melt the butter and slowly stir in the flour. (Yes, this is a roux.) When the flour and butter are completely combined, slowly add a ladleful of soup to the roux, stirring to combine. If still thick, add more soup. When roux is soupy, add it to the pot and stir it into the rest of the soup. Heat for a few more minutes, stirring, until it begins to thicken slightly. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Grind in a little black pepper, to taste.
Serve hot, garnished with sour cream (and, if you didn’t eat the bacon you cooked at the beginning, a little of that crumbled over the top looks nice, too).
Fresh or raw sauerkraut is sauerkraut that has not been cooked. It will either come in a barrel, where you just buy a pound, or it will come in plastic bags in the refrigerator section, or in jars. Canned sauerkraut is not a good option, as it has been heated in the canning process.
If salt is an issue, you might want to rinse the sauerkraut before adding it to the soup.
The sugar is not required, but as with any acidic dish, it helps smooth out the roughness of the acid. (1 tsp. is not enough to significantly change the flavor—it does not sweeten the dish—it just tames the acid a bit, just as it does when added to tomato sauce—but taste the soup first and decide for yourself. You might like the sharpness.)
As for sour cream, if that’s too luxurious for you, plain yogurt will do. And I’ve even been known to just use a few tablespoons of plain kefir.