Give your sauerkraut a little brown, impart with it a lot of flavor. Here’s why—and how—this works.
My first encounter with browned sauerkraut was many, many years ago on a family trip to Berlin. My father had just sold a piece of farmland and, instead of spending the money on something else, he decided to take us on a sightseeing trip to Germany’s capital city.
My mother, the tech-savvy one, logged on the Internet and scoured the web for vacation rentals until she found a one-bedroom apartment on the 11th floor of a tall, recently renovated Soviet-era apartment block in East Berlin (I slept on the living-room couch). Back then, you needed a bit of luck and a lot of ingenuity to find a vacation rental; Booking and AirBnB didn’t exist yet.
We flew to Germany, arrived at the apartment, and, after Lufthansa’s economy-class meals, we were in the mood for good food. So, we went in search of dinner in the area. It wasn’t long before we were standing in front of a place that looked like the neighborhood pub: three-four wooden tables out front, a few in the back, a cigarette vending machine at the entrance.
I ordered the browned bratwurst with braised sauerkraut, which was listed on the menu as Schmorkohl mit Bratwurst (don’t ask me how to pronounce it).
When the waitress, who looked like she’d been working in that same pub for 30, maybe 40 years, handed me the modestly prepared dish, little did I know it would trigger a lifelong fascination with browned sauerkraut so great, I would never again go without a jar of fermented cabbage… er, Sauerkraut in my pantry.
The bratwursts were good—as good as any Berlin restaurant where neither the staff nor the patrons speak any English—but it was the sauerkraut, shredded into thin strips and browned with butter and honey in a skillet, that shone.
I had never bitten into sauerkraut so sweet, and yet so savory. With its golden-brown crust and almost dessert-like flavor, one that I have been compulsively trying to recreate ever since, it made a heavenly match with the meat.
Why Does Browned Sauerkraut Taste So Good?
What we call browning, food scientists call the Maillard reaction.
Much of cooking science was discovered by accident. Someone sets out to understand something. Alas, they don’t necessarily do. But they come across a weird and unanticipated phenomenon that they can reproduce.
So their experiment takes a pivot in a new direction and uncovers a fact of science with implications so big, it changes the way we think about cooking. The Maillard reaction, named after French chemist Louis Camille Maillard who first observed it in the 1920s, is no exception.
Maillard was trying to synthesize proteins when something else caught his attention: When he heated foods containing proteins and carbohydrates above a certain temperature, they browned throughout, and were imparted with an intense aroma and savory flavor.
It turned out that, when you heat the surface of most foods to at least 284°F (140°C), the high heat causes the proteins and carbohydrates in it to clash and fuse. Hundreds of aroma and flavor compounds get produced as a byproduct of their clash, and those compounds make your food smell and taste better than it did before.
This is the reason why browned sauerkraut—along with seared steak, sautéed mushrooms, toast bread, and roast coffee—tastes so good.
How to Brown Sauerkraut
To brown sauerkraut, you must first pull it out of the brine and drain it. The best way to do this is to place the sauerkraut in a colander over a bowl and let the brine drain for a good 10 to 15 minutes before moving on to the next step.
Melt a generous amount of butter—I used 2½ ounces of butter for 8 ounces of sauerkraut—in a skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter begins to foam, that is, when it is hot enough that the water in it begins to evaporate, it is time to add the sauerkraut and ½ tablespoon of honey.
At first, not much will happen. The heat will slowly but surely draw the moisture out of the bits and pieces of sauerkraut. The dish will become watery, and the air in your kitchen will be perfumed with the funky and dare I say unmistakable odor of fermented cabbage.
Arm yourself with patience; this part of the process is likely to take anywhere from 6-7 to a dozen or so minutes. Before browning can take place, most of the moisture must evaporate. Water boils at 212°F (100°C), never higher, which is far from the minimum temperature at which the Maillard reaction occurs.
Simply put, for browning to begin, watery foods must first dry out. The difference is apparent:
Stay near the stove and stir the simmering sauerkraut occasionally until it begins to sizzle. This is the sign that the alchemy of browning is taking place in your skillet.
Start stirring the sauerkraut every 10-15 seconds to promote even browning. You will notice its texture changing as the surface becomes crisp and changes its color from yellow to golden-brown.
The scent it emits into the air also becomes deep, intense, and oddly satisfying. Just as a dog’s mouth waters at the sight of food, we’ve come to associate the aromas and flavors of the Maillard reaction with appetizing foods with a full-bodied flavor; even our taste buds know they’re about to have a feast.
The sauerkraut is browned when the crust has become crispy and the color has matured to a dark brown at the edges—but never black. You should remove the fermented cabbage from the heat before it turns black because blackening is a sign of pyrolysis. (Pyrolysis, which occurs at a slightly higher temperature than the Maillard reaction, is what happens when your food starts to burn.)
At this stage, you have two options: 1) Remove the sauerkraut from the heat and serve as a side. It pairs fantastically with bratwursts, roast pork, and pork knuckle; 2) Throw in a can of beans, ½ a beef bouillon cube, and a crackle of black pepper and reduce over medium heat to prepare the most delicious skillet stew.