Get out your Rauchbier, folks! It’s smoked beer sauerkraut time!
Not long ago I was in Oklahoma getting ready for a backyard grillfest with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. We decided to keep it relatively simple. Plenty of bratwurst from Siegi’s Sausage Factory in Tulsa would do the trick fine.
We also just so happened to have some homemade sauerkraut in the fridge. What could be better with bratwurst than a nice, smoky sauerkraut? I was just about slice up some bacon and get the pork hocks out when my partner in crime reminded me that we had a few vegetarian guests coming. She suggested I make a vegetarian sauerkraut. But … but … I want a nice, smoky sauerkraut, I protested. And besides, we had some hearty grain salads at the ready.
I’ve made sauerkraut with wine, I’ve made it with hefty wheat wines and Weizenbocks, I’ve made it with gueuze. I’ve even made it vegetarian. But how would I satisfy my craving on this particular day for a deeply rich and smoky sauerkraut without the meat? A light bulb went off in my head, triggered by the Aecht Schlenkerla I spied in the fridge earlier in the day.
So far so good. But adding Rauchbier alone wasn’t going to do the trick. I needed to get that depth of flavour in there somehow. Enter caramelized onions. Lots of them! And lots of butter. Both help round out the beer’s contribution to the dish.
Unlike my light and zesty Choucroute à la Gueuze recipe I shared a few years back, this sauerkraut is Central European through and through: butter in place of the bacon, duck, or goose fat, and cooked for several hours. Spice amounts are approximate. As far as the sauerkraut goes, use fresh sauerkraut from the deli. Better yet, make your own. All you need is some advanced planning and enough time to let the critters do their thing –– not unlike homebrewing, really. (Details follow the recipe).
Smoked beer sauerkraut is a perfect side dish during grilling season, but it’s also suitable as a main course to help warm those dark days of winter. Even if the base for this recipe is vegetarian, nothing’s stopping you from adding some of those bratwurst fresh from the grill. Whatever the season, pour yourself a Rauchbier and raise your glass in the general direction of Bamberg.
- 3 lbs. fresh sauerkraut, rinsed
- ¼ cup butter, slowly browned in a saucepan before using in the main dish
- 4 onions, cut in half and sliced relatively thinly (too thinly and they’ll burn)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- About ½ a bottle of Aecht Schlenkerla Ur-Märzen (I use Aecht Schlenkerla because it’s one of the more intense Rauchbiers out there. Grätzer/Grodziskie, for example, would be too subtle for this dish.)
- 1 tbsp juniper berries, lightly crushed with the back of a knife
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp celery seeds
- 3-4 cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- Sea salt or kosher salt to taste. The amount you use will depend on how briny your sauerkraut is. Careful that you don’t over salt.
- Cheesecloth and cooking twine
- Accompaniments (boiled young potatoes, or sausages for your carnivorous friends)
Rinse the sauerkraut according to personal preference. Tie the juniper, cloves, coriander, fennel, celery seeds, and bay leaves in cheesecloth to make a spice bag.
Now crack yourself a beer and start browning your butter over low heat. In the meantime, set a heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat and cover with a fine layer of vegetable oil (you’ll add your browned butter later so that it doesn’t burn). To truly caramelize your onions, you’ll need a good forty-five minutes. Add about a third of the onions to start, and keep adding as the onions reduce down.
If patience isn’t your thing, you can get by with about twenty minutes at a slightly higher heat and still get some richness into your sauerkraut, but going the distance will add that much more depth. When you’ve gotten the onions to where you want them, swirl in your browned butter, add the garlic and cook till it’s aromatic.
Raise heat slightly, deglaze the casserole with your Rauchbier, add the sauerkraut and spice bag, and let everything come to a gentle boil. Check salt and add if necessary, then cover the casserole and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for the next two to three hours.
Beer pairing: Any smoked beer. Porters and stouts would also go well with this dish, and I’m willing to bet that a dunkles Hefeweizen, a Weizenbock, or a dunkles Bock would work as well.
Turning Cabbage into Sauerkraut
Find a dense cabbage, remove the outer leaves, core it, and then slice it thinly. For every five pounds of cabbage you’ll need about 3.5 tablespoons of salt (roughly 2-3% of the weight of the cabbage).
If you don’t own a crock, the fermenting fabrication in Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation works just as well: two food-grade containers of equal size. Just fill the bottom container with alternating layers of cabbage and salt, then fill the top one with water to weigh it down. Top it off with a clean pillow case to keep the bugs out, store the container in a cool, dry place, wait about three to five weeks, and Bob’s your uncle.
A deli and German-style restaurant in one, Siegi’s Sausage Factory in Tulsa is one of the best places in the U.S. to get German-style sausages. Look them up if you’re passing through Oklahoma on the I-44 some day (8104 S. Sheridan Rd., Tulsa, OK, 74133).
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Images: F.D. Hofer
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