Kathryn Lukas has quite a global pickling pedigree. The chef-owner of Farmhouse Culture once owned a neighborhood restaurant in Stuttgart, Germany; when she moved back to the United States, she studied fermented foods at Bauman College, a holistic/natural foods culinary school. Today, she makes sauerkrauts that are raw, organic and naturally fermented. Though inspired by both German and Korean fermentation techniques, her offbeat, probiotic-packed flavors like apple-fennel and smoked jalapeño, are decidedly all-American.
TakePart spoke with Lukas about her raw kraut evolution, tips for making your own naturally fermented holiday gifts and quick kraut cocktail party ideas.
TakePart: What drew you to naturally fermented sauerkraut?
KL: I tasted “real” [naturally fermented] kraut for the first time in Germany when I owned a restaurant there. It was such a revelation, so intensely flavored. I didn’t realize sauerkraut could taste so different from the canned and bottled versions we have here. It really sparked my imagination. I was fascinated by adding different vegetables, as they do. Later, I encountered a lot of “healthy” naturally fermented krauts over here with marketing angles like, “Take a tablespoon, and you’ll feel better.” I wanted to come at it from a culinary angle. If it’s healthy, that’s a bonus, but the flavor was most important to me.
TP: But other than your Bavarian-style caraway seed-spiced kraut, you’re not exactly making traditional German flavors.
KL: Definitely not. Part of what got me so inspired was also the realization that California is geographically almost exactly in between Munich and Seoul, where you have the other flavor side of kraut—kimchi. In Korea, there are hundreds of types of kimchi today. Why hasn’t that evolution happened here? We’ve been eating the kraut in this country for hundreds of years. It’s literally as American as apple pie, but it hasn’t changed much. That idea really got me experimenting with flavors.
TP: Your krauts require refrigeration due to the live cultures, unlike pasteurized products. Has that been tricky from a production standpoint?
KL: For us, it means we need to be able to buy organic cabbage year-round. We can fortunately do that as we’re in California, but that’s not the case in any other state that I am aware of. Elsewhere, you’d need the space and cash flow to make your product during the limited cabbage season in most areas. We’ve been lucky, working with a variety of small famers. All produce small amounts of organic cabbage for us. But it’s been a learning process. It took us a while to figure out how to specify the varieties of cabbage that we wanted. There are surprisingly many! And cabbages all have different sugar contents, which can get tricky when you’re making kraut. We’re also buying organic cabbage, which means we are limited in the number of farmers we can buy from. You hope they all have a good year so you have ingredients. But really, you just learn as you go.
TP: Which means you’ve probably accumulated some great tips along the way for those of us wanting to make naturally fermented kraut at home.
KL: Oh, yes. First, for every successful flavor, I’ve learned there are ten disasters. That’s just what happens when you’re experimenting with something like this, with a life of its own. I wanted to do an Italian kraut with tomatoes and basil, but it was awful [laughs]. I think naturally fermented kraut is too wild and violent for fresh herbs. Basil in particular tastes like canned pesto after it ferments.
TP: That’s interesting. The other ingredients you use are all fresh, not dried.
KL: Too much sugar really makes kraut taste unpleasantly yeasty, which is why I think fresh herbs don’t ferment well. Dried spices do really well. If you can leave the spices whole, even better. You have to be open to that experimentation with naturally fermented foods.
TP: And if we’re feeling lazy, and just buy a jar, how do you like to serve it this time of year?
KL: When you cook raw, naturally fermented foods you lose the probiotics, which is a concern for some people interested in the health side. I also have one vegan distributor whom I think would really like it if I said that I don’t ever eat gourmet hot dogs! Hey, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t get dreamy eyed over bacon. But I do think it’s very important to buy good [sustainable, natural, humanely-treated] meats. That said, for easy cocktail party appetizers, I like to take high-quality, grass-fed sausages, slice them, and put them on a toothpick with a little kraut. Or, you can sauté shiitake mushrooms with a little soy sauce, add crumbled blue cheese and some horseradish-leek kraut, which really tastes great cooked with those leeks. I like to bake the mixture on a puff pastry round. Usually though, I just spoon the [raw] caraway kraut right out of the jar. I really get the late-night salty snack cravings! A few spoonfuls do the trick.
TP: Just in time for those New Year’s diet resolutions.