Fermenting a New Approach to Sauerkraut

 Kathryn Lukas, who wants to change the way you think of sauerkraut.

As a young girl, Kathryn Lukas remembers her Irish grandfather serving her hot dogs piled high with sauerkraut, just the way he liked it. And each time, she would push the shreds of pungent, fermented cabbage off to the side, trying hard not to make a face.

She may not have been a kraut fan then. But now, with more than 25 years in the restaurant industry, Lukas has grown into a kraut evangelist, bent on a mission to change the perception most of us have of the age-old condiment.

In 2008 in downtown Santa Cruz, she started her own business, Farmhouse Culture, which specializes in artisan contemporary kraut — made with local, organic and sustainable ingredients in intriguing, seasonal flavors such as Smoked Jalapeno, Apple Fennel, and Horseradish Leek.

Her raw, uncooked sauerkrauts can be found at nine Bay Area farmers markets, as well as local retail stores such as select Whole Foods, where they sell for about $7 for a 1-pound jar. For those outside the Bay Area, you’ll be glad to know that you also can buy the krauts on Foodzie.

Horseradish Leek sauerkraut.

Lukas knows sauerkraut may not be an easy sell to some palates, but she’s been pleasantly surprised by all the old-timers who come up to her to tell her they remember their grandparents making kraut or by the college students who have become regular customers at her farmers market stands after developing a new-found addiction to the stuff.

“I can’t tell you how many times a day people walk by our farmers market stands and say, ‘Sauerkraut? Ewwww…,’ ” Lukas says. “We talk them into trying a taste. I’d say 75 percent get converted. They tell us they hated sauerkraut their whole lives, but love ours.”

It’s easy to see why. Unlike mass-produced sauerkraut with limp cabbage and a muted, rather medicinal taste, Farmhouse Culture’s versions have crunch, real tang and a fermented zing to them. The Smoked Jalapeno has a wonderful roundness and depth from the peppers that are smoked with oak wood; while the Horseradish Leek boasts a subtle nasal bite from the fresh root. If you like kimchi or assertive pickles, these krauts will be right up your alley.

Her jarred, refrigerated sauerkrauts can be found at farmers markets and Whole Foods stores in the Bay Area.

Of course, the krauts are naturals with any kind of sausage. But Lukas’ favorite way to enjoy sauerkraut is tucked inside a grilled Cheddar cheese sandwich or tossed with olive oil to form a side salad of sorts.

Every day, she also downs a shot of kraut juice — yes, the liquid produced after fermentation — which she also sells at farmers markets. The juice is satiating and puckery, but not overpowering. It would be great in a Bloody Mary or Dirty Martini.

Plus, it does a body good, according to Lukas. Raw sauerkraut is high in Vitamin C and pro-biotic enzymes. It also is rich in lactic acid, which aids digestion.

It takes about three weeks for a batch to come to market. Each week, Lukas and her 12 employees turn out 2,700 pounds of sauerkraut. The process couldn’t be easier, either. Although white cabbage is favored in Germany for its sweetness, Lukas uses green cabbage for its heartier crunch. The organic green cabbage is shredded, then layered with carrots, and Sonoma sea salt, then weighted down in big plastic barrels stored in an insulated former gelato freezer that’s able to maintain the optimal 64 degree temperature needed for the three-week fermentation. Despite its resulting tang, there is no vinegar used in making sauerkraut. That’s all lactic acid that you taste in the finished product.

Unlike mass-produced krauts that are 2 to 3 percent salt, Farmhouse Culture’s are 1.5 percent. The lower ratio gives the kraut good crunch and flavor, but also necessitates they be refrigerated, unlike pasteurized commercial varieties that can sit on a shelf for a long time.

Kraut-making in downtown Santa Cruz.

The kitchen crew hard at work, making sauerkraut.

The shredder.

If you’ve ever overcooked cabbage at home, you know it gives off a strong odor. Making sauerkraut can be an equally smelly process. When Farmhouse Culture was chosen to showcase its products at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008, Lukas jokes that people found her stand by just following their nose. In the early days of packing her kraut in downtown Santa Cruz, it also wasn’t uncommon for alarmed neighbors to call the police.

“Because of the smell, they thought it must be a PG&E gas leak,” she says.

The salted cabbage gets weighted down to begin fermentation.

The former insulated gelato freezer can store 21,000 pounds of kraut.

So, what led this former runway model, private chef and Bernardus Lodge food and beverage manager to devote herself to such an odoriferous undertaking?

An epiphany in Germany years ago. Although she ran a restaurant in Stuttgart at the time, Lukas was only used to canned sauerkraut from the supermarkets, which was what most people ate there.  But one day, a farmer let her taste his homemade kraut fermenting in barrels.

“I tasted the fresh and it was just a revelation,” she says.

So, when she and her then-husband moved to the Yosemite Valley area, she took classes to learn how to make fermented foods. Then, she started fermenting everything she could get her hands on, and selling her successful concoctions.

“I knew I had something special when I started selling it around the foothills and these conservative ranchers were going crazy for it,” she says with a laugh.

Now, she’s constantly experimenting with new versions, including an Asian-flavored kraut she hopes to create with mushrooms, seaweed or almonds in it. Another time, she fermented yams with rare, maple-syrup-heady, candy cap mushrooms that had been foraged by an employee. If you’re lucky, you might catch some for sale at her farmers markets stands in the days to come.

Crunchy, organic, locally grown green cabbage forms the basis of the krauts.

With her business going strong and even the likes of John Scharffenberger (Yes, of Scharffen Berger chocolate fame) trying his hand at making artisan sauerkraut, could fermented cabbage, of all things, supplant cupcakes as the next hot food trend?

Lukas smiles at the thought. “I love cupcakes. I think sugar has a more addictive quality. But the health benefits of kraut will give it staying power. And acid and salt just make everything taste better.”

Garlic Dill Pickle kraut that tastes just like your favorite dill pickle relish.

More Home-Grown Goodies: The Philo Apple Farm

And: Hodo Soy Beanery Organic Tofu

And: Touring the See’s Candy Factory

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