I’ve tried so many times, and at so many different places. Expensive restaurant or cheap deli, doesn’t matter, I can’t get a good Reuben. It’s always the same, limp sauerkraut. I don’t get snobby about rye bread, russian dressing (how can you screw up mayo and ketchup) and corned beef (literally I have no idea how to make that stuff, someone could probably use bologna and I wouldn’t know the difference). But the sauerkraut is what makes my world go ‘round. Here’s the deal: restaurants and deli’s use canned sauerkraut, that’s cabbage that’s been fermented, and then pasteurized and put in a can. Once canned it can last for forever, essentially. This irony is not lost on me. The cabbage is fermented so that it can last longer, the taste of which is unique and a product of the fermentation process. Then the kraut is pasteurized: rapidly heated so kill any living thing in it. What else is destroyed in the heating processes? You guessed it, the delicious taste of sauerkraut and it’s delicate texture.
But why would any food establishment choose to use a sub-par product when they could make their own sauerkraut? It’s not terribly difficult, and the internet exists. Here’s why: the health department won’t allow it. There has to be “separation of time and space” between actively fermenting vegetables and regular prep. Because the fermented foods are not thought to be safe until the fermenting process is over and the product’s pH has lowered sufficiently, below 4 pH. This level of acidity does not allow any pathogens (bad bugs) to survive, like botulism. But I digress.
So restaurants can’t make their own kraut, but there are more and more small-time fermentationists starting businesses, why can’t restaurants just buy the kraut from them? M-O-N-E-Y That’s why. Here’s the data: a deli can buy a 5 gallon bucket of sauerkraut for $40. Given that non-organic cabbage runs anywhere from $16-20 / case (which is about 40 lbs once you discard all the outer leaves) and you need about 1.5 cases to make a 5 gallon bucket, your cost is already$24-30. That leaves $10-16 for salt, spices, kitchen rent, equipment, and don’t forget your time and any other overhead, like labels, pH testers, certifications, and the actual bucket. Small producers of kraut don’t have the $5000 cabbage shredder that can shred a case in 10 minutes. They chop by hand, or use a food processor, or a manually operated $400 shredder that can process a case in roughly 30 minutes if you’re hustling.
But couldn’t restaurants just pay a little more for locally made, hand-crafted kraut? Sure but then their foods costs would go up, which would either cut into their profit margin or their prices would have to go up. The business of food does not enjoy a wide margin, so if you suddenly decide to pay 20-50% more for a product then it could drastically affect the bottom line.
In my opinion people don’t put enough thought into the source of the food they eat. However I’m aware that everyone’s just trying to live their life and the last thing they need is to research where their dang lettuce came from. Folks want to be able to go to one store and get their toothpaste and OJ and cabbage and whatever else in any growing season. Nevermind the toothpaste growing season. That said there are ways to take steps to be more thoughtful about the where your food comes from. Farmers markets afford the ability to talk the the actual person who grew the food they are selling. The internet has information how to make your own anything. Social media makes it easier to share the ridiculous amount of okra your grew this year, and help your to trade it for something you want. But like anything that is good, it takes effort.
I don’t have any solutions to this, but if you’ve made it to the end of this rant I thank you for your interest and would like to formally invite you to my house. We’ll make Reubens, and they’re gonna be great.
Amy Peddie has been fermenting since 2006. Originally from Greensboro NC she has traveled all of the United States, often with active ferments. She now resides back in Greensboro where she enjoys spending time with family and gardening.