It’s no secret that we often judge international cuisine on a few unrepresentative memories. Maybe you had some seriously whack guacamole that was just a little too day-glo green. Perhaps it was a lackluster miso soup. It’s possible you’ve sworn off these foods—even written them off as gross simply based on your first (and last) bad experience. Today, however, we make the case for the Helen, Georgia, must-have: sauerkraut.
Although sauerkraut is a cultural staple in Europe, is healthy, handcrafted, deeply flavored, and versatile, many of us only know it as that old canned stuff they warm and put on hotdogs at county fairs. Not fair. Helen has several places whose sauerkraut takes you straight to Munich. First, some background.
Sauerkraut, like many of the now-revered fermented things we consume, has humble beginnings. Sauerkraut—although German for “sour cabbage”—was probably used to feed laborers building the Great Wall. It emerged as a solution for preserving cabbage with rice wine for use while it was out of season. It probably made its way to Europe by way of Ghengis Khan.
People of Germanic states made one advancement by subtraction really: they found that you didn’t need to add liquid to cabbage to ferment it. Instead, they used salt to draw moisture from the cabbage and then allowed that liquid to ferment and break down the sugars naturally present, naturally creating the preservative lactic acid. This takes between two and six weeks. Many families added their own flavors or other vegetables to sauerkraut, such as juniper, caraway, and dill. Over time, the dish born of necessity became integrated into the cuisine, providing a tangy complement to almost every rich and hearty German staple.
Like most fermented dishes, it’s healthier than the original. Sauerkraut has notable amounts of fiber (4g), vitamin C, and probiotics. Probiotics are healthy gut bacteria that aid digestion, and sauerkraut has 3 billion colony forming units per serving (that’s almost what the supplements you see at the store have per dose).
Just because it is simple doesn’t mean that all sauerkraut is representative. Here is how you can ruin it:
If it is canned, the kraut has been heated once for canning and probably heated again for serving. This affects the flavor and kills enzymes and probiotics.
If it is pickled, citric acid or sodium benzoate is often added as a preservative to extend shelf life and halt natural fermentation. Those preservatives aren’t “good” for you even if they aren’t going to hurt you.
If it is left out for too long naturally, sauerkraut begins to soften and may develop a harsh flavor.
And if you serve it with subpar food and don’t season it properly. . . obviously.
As you might expect, Helen restaurants take sauerkraut seriously. None more so than Bodensee Family Restaurant. My server said you have to try an uber-traditional German dish to appreciate how it pairs with other staples. On their menu, that is the Schweinbraten with spaetzle and sauerkraut. This dish consists of a slow roasted pork with brown gravy, small round dumplings, and the sauerkraut. I ate several bites of pork with the kraut (served on the side) on top, and the full quality of rich gravy to trebly and tangy kraut was satisfying. It made sense with the small noodle dumplings as well (the acidity tasted like a mix between capers and kimchi). Kraut has never been my favorite alone, but in this context, like my native collard greens, it glues the meal aesthetic together.
Bodensee Family Restaurant wouldn’t give me their spice blend of course, but they said the cabbage is sometimes ready in as little as two weeks—it just depends on the texture. They have a steady supply staggered to ensure they can serve it with an ever so slightly crunchy texture every time.
I also got one parting tip for home use from the Bodensee crew—pinto beans and sauerkraut. Give sauerkraut another shot in Helen. It’s always in season.