I knew choucroute garnie before I truly knew choucroute garnie. When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes braise pork chops in a Dutch oven with sauerkraut, a dish I'm pretty sure he picked up from his own childhood with a German father and Swedish-American mother. That combo of sauerkraut and pork is common throughout the Teutonic, Eastern European, and Scandinavian regions, and has made its way well beyond that. Who among us hasn't heaped some kraut on a hot dog? We all know this dish in one way or another.
But it wasn't until I read Jeffrey Steingarten's great essay "True Choucroute" that I learned about the existence of choucroute garnie itself, France's lavish version of that classic pairing. It hails from Alsace, the French region bordering the German Rhineland that's been caught in a tug-of-war between the two countries more than once over the centuries. During some periods, Alsace was instead part of Germany, a detail that isn't insignificant to the dish. A single plate of choucroute garnie presents the best of both French and German gastronomic sensibilities: a beguiling mix of heartiness and heft with refinement and delicacy.
The name of the dish itself, choucroute garnie (also sometimes extended to choucroute garnie à l'alsacienne or choucroute alsacienne à l'ancienne), hints at its lavishness. Indeed it is garnished! The choucroute, as sauerkraut is called in French, is infused with the delicate flavor of Alsatian wine, gilded in goose fat, fragrant with juniper, and heaped with an embarrassment of charcuterie—glistening slabs of tender and melting fatty pork, plus taut sausages of all sorts. And then potatoes! Little buttery golden ones, just in case the kraut and meat aren't enough.
This isn't a weeknight dinner for two, and it's not a light summer lunch. Choucroute is grand in the truest sense of the word, meant to feed a crowd and fortify them against the chill of winter winds. There's an art to making it, most of it tied up in understanding that the abundant mix of meats is the dish's biggest challenge: They're not all created equal, and they shouldn't be treated as such. Learn that, plus a few other key details (hint—as nice as they are, you don't really need the Alsatian wine and goose fat), and you'll be ready to whip it up in no time.
A final note: This may look like a big undertaking, with a lot of complicated steps, but honestly, once you get the shopping done, the worst is behind you. Choucroute requires very little knife work and prep time, and demands only a little attention as it cooks. Don't let the detailed explanation I'm about to launch into scare you.
While the meats in a choucroute are likely to get most of us salivating, the sauerkraut is the real star of the dish. I've been lucky enough to visit Alsace and taste its sauerkraut, both in its raw fermented state and also cooked into a choucroute, and I can tell you firsthand...it tastes like sauerkraut. Very, very good sauerkraut, but sauerkraut nonetheless. Which is all to say, just get your hands on some good-quality kraut, and you're all set for this recipe.
In theory, tracking down good kraut shouldn't be too difficult in the US, though I learned the hard way while working on this recipe that bad versions do exist. I encountered two different duds during testing: one that was nicely crisp but strangely sweet (with no indication in the ingredient list as to why it would be sweet), and another that was nice and tart but unfortunately soft and mushy.
Thankfully, I'd been fermenting my own sauerkraut at home for the past couple months, so I was able to use mine instead—tangy, slightly funky, and very crisp, as it should be. It's easy and fun to do, and only requires that you plan far enough in advance, since it takes at least six weeks to ferment. If that's not feasible, just shop around until you find a good product.
Most choucroute recipes tell you to rinse the kraut before cooking it, then squeeze it dry; some even say to do this repeatedly. Really, though, it depends on the age of your kraut, and just how tart and funky you want it to be. Fresh, young sauerkraut may not need much rinsing at all, while an older batch may have built up enough intensity that a good rinse really will help tame it.
Your best bet is to taste your sauerkraut first, then give it a quick rinse, taste again, and decide from there how much more of its tangy flavor you want to strip away. For fresher kraut, I don't do much more than a very cursory rinse under cold running water.
A good chunk of Steingarten's essay on choucroute is spent trying to figure out how to replicate the traditional cuts and sausages used in Alsace with what's available in the United States. He zigzags all over New York in search of a butcher who can cut him just one of the many French-style cuts he's after. While it makes for great reading, it's not a sustainable approach.
The fact of the matter is, animals are butchered differently in each country, and sausage types vary quite a bit, so what they can get there and what we can get here won't ever be exactly the same. That's fine.
More important is to understand the role each cut plays in the larger dish, and to assemble something similar using whatever you can find where you live. Look at most choucroute recipes and you'll find some combination of fresh, salted, and smoked pork. To complicate matters, those cuts are sometimes lean ones that dry out if overcooked, and sometimes tough, fatty ones that require long cooking to soften. It's not uncommon to find recipes that throw all of them in the pot together and cook them until the toughest ones are tender and the lean ones are dry. Let's not do that, okay?
Your best bets for fresh pork are the shoulder and loin. The shoulder is a tough cut that needs plenty of time for its collagen-rich connective tissues to melt into succulent gelatin, while the loin is basically the opposite—lean, and at risk of dryness.
The shoulder is easy: Just throw it in the pot at the beginning, and cook it until it's tender. Sure, you could brown it first, but, to be honest, it's pretty freaking terrific all by itself after a few hours in the pot—unbelievably tender and flavorful from all its time with the kraut.
The loin, on the other hand, requires care. I cook the choucroute in a low oven after starting it on the stove (more on that below), so I take advantage of that setup by putting the loin in the oven at the same time.
Cooking the loin in a low oven before searing is a technique we often employ, called the reverse sear. It allows the meat to gently come up to the perfect internal temperature; as soon as it reaches that point, you can take it out and hold it until the rest of the food is ready, with no risk of it overcooking. As long as you're waiting, you might as well sear the exterior of the loin for a deeper, roasted flavor. Then, just set it aside until it's ready to be added to the pot right at the end to warm through one final time.
One option for both the fresh shoulder and the loin is to pre-salt them a day or two ahead, leaving them uncovered on a wire rack in the fridge. Doing this gives the salt a chance to penetrate more deeply into the meat, dissolving a muscle protein called myosin. This reduces the amount by which the muscle contracts when heated, in turn reducing the amount of juice that's pushed out of the meat as it cooks. The result is juicier meat that's more deeply seasoned.
I don't think the pre-salting step is a required one, but it is helpful—even more so when you consider that in the United States, we have very few of the salted-pork options that often go into a true Alsatian choucroute. Pre-salting your fresh meats can help you mimic some of the effect from the salted meats you probably won't be getting from butchers here in the US. It won't create a full-on salted-pork product, but it gets you a hair closer than totally fresh meat, especially if you salt it with a heavy hand.
In Alsace, as mentioned above, you'll find many more salted-pork options than we have stateside—salted loin, salted belly, and more. In some US markets, it's possible that you won't be able to locate any salted pork at all, in which case it's fine to just omit it.
I was able to get my hands on some salted pork belly, which is a good cut if you can find it. It's much more like a fresh belly in texture than, say, pancetta, which is also salted pork belly, but too heavily salted and cured for this application. Pure-fat salt pork, like fatback, is also not a good option here, since you want a meatier cut.
If you do find some salt pork that can work, you'll want to simmer it in water while the choucroute is in the oven. This will draw out some of its salt, making it more palatable, and will also get it pretty far down the road to being fully cooked and tender. It can go into the choucroute pot later on so that the flavors mingle before the dish is served.
When it comes to smoked meats, we have a lot more options. Fatty, tougher cuts, like slab bacon and ham hocks, can go into the Dutch oven at the beginning to slowly cook with the kraut.
Lean and tender cuts, like smoked pork chops, should go in only at the end, just long enough to heat them through—they're already fully cooked anyway, so they don't need any extra time in the pot.
Once again, most of us outside France don't have access to some of the classic sausages in choucroute, like Strasbourg sausages, French-style blood sausages, and more. C'est la vie. We can still make do.
I grabbed a mix of German-style emulsified wieners, like frankfurters, weisswurst, and knackwurst. French options, like boudin blanc and boudin noir, would be great, too, if you can find them.
We could throw all the sausages into the choucroute with everything else, but then we'd risk them bursting in the heat. Instead, I like to gently poach them on the stovetop until they're heated through—it's a technique we also use for grilled sausages.
Once they're poached, you can then keep them warm and add them to the pot shortly before serving to bathe them in the kraut's flavor. If you want, you can also sear some of them in a hot skillet after they've been warmed from poaching; I don't usually bother, but it's an option open to you if you're so inclined.
As is often the case with regional dishes, people can be adamant that the only wine appropriate in the dish is a local one. Alsace produces some of my favorite whites, so I'm in no way opposed to adding a Riesling or Pinot Gris to choucroute, but I won't go so far as to say that it's essential.
More important than anything else is that you use a dry white, preferably one without too much of an oaky flavor. If you taste two batches of choucroute side by side, one made with an Alsatian wine and another made with some other dry white, you will be able to taste the difference, but it'll be subtle. For example, I made a batch with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and found that it had a more assertive and less delicate flavor than another that I made with an Alsatian Riesling, but the differences were small enough that they wouldn't stand out without the benefit of a direct comparison.*
* If you've spent your life eating countless renditions of choucroute made with Alsatian wine, you might notice the difference even without a direct comparison, but you'd have to be deeply and intimately familiar with those flavors to register them.
As a final touch, I like to borrow a step that the French chef (and Alsace native) André Soltner uses in his recipe: adding a small splash of kirsch (cherry brandy) to the dish right before serving. It adds an intriguing fruity, boozy overtone that somehow works with the dish's fermented and porky flavors. It's not a requirement by any stretch, but it's worth adding if you have it.
Bringing It All Together
With all the above details in mind, here's how to make it.
Sauté Onions in Fat
The first step is to gently cook sliced onions until they're softened but not browned. This is traditionally where you'd use rendered goose fat, duck fat, or even lard, and this is where you will use them if you have them. But if you don't, you can get away with using a neutral cooking oil. There's a luxurious richness that the poultry fats in particular give to the dish, but ultimately it's not a make-or-break situation. I mean, think about it: You've got hunks of fatty pork of every kind loaded into the pot, and that fat is going to melt and render into the dish. If you're missing a few additional tablespoons of animal fat, you're not going to mind all that much.
Add Wine, Stock, and Spices
Once the onions are softened, it's time to add your dry white wine, a little bit of chicken stock—if you don't have stock, you can just use some more wine—and a cheesecloth sachet that includes a couple cloves of garlic, some juniper berries, cloves, a bay leaf or two, and possibly some caraway seeds.
Caraway tends to be a more German addition to sauerkraut, while juniper is more common in Alsace, but I've seen choucroute recipes that call for both. I like both, so I use both. You can also skip the cheesecloth and just dump all those herbs and spices loose into the pot, which is fine as long as you don't mind picking out the odd juniper berry, clove, and bay leaf as you eat.
Add Long-Cooking Smoked and Fresh Meats and Sauerkraut, Then Cook
Next, nestle those long-cooking meats into the pot, and bring the liquid to a simmer. Most recipes also have you add the sauerkraut at this point, but I've learned to wait.
My recipe starts at a lower oven temperature than most of the others I've seen—I begin with a 250°F (121°C) oven, while most others start at over 300°F (149°C). The benefit of my low temp is that the meats cook more gently, coming out more succulent and tender; plus, that low temp gives me the opportunity to reverse-sear the loin, as I mentioned above. But cooking with lower heat means it takes longer for the meat to tenderize, and if you put the kraut in from the beginning, it will be too soft by the time the meats are ready.
Instead, I cook the meats in that oniony wine broth for an hour and a half, then add the kraut, raise the oven temp slightly, and continue from there. The result is perfectly cooked meat, along with kraut that's well braised but still has some life left to it.
I add the simmered salt pork, if I have it, around the same time the kraut goes into the pot, so that it gets plenty of time to cook with everything else and exchange flavors.
I like to use a parchment paper lid on the Dutch oven throughout, which protects the surface from drying out too much, while still allowing for evaporation and some very subtle browning on the surface, deepening the choucroute's flavor.
Add Cooked Lean Cuts, Sausages, and Boiled Potatoes, and Cook Until Warmed Through
When the meats in the Dutch oven are ready, I add parboiled Yukon Gold potatoes and the fully cooked lean meats, like the roasted loin and smoked pork chops. After 10 to 15 minutes, when everything is heated through, it's time to serve.
You can pull the large cuts out of the pot and slice any that need to be sliced. Transfer the sauerkraut to a large platter, allowing any excess liquid to drain off, then pile the meats, sausages, and potatoes on top.
It's a sight to behold: so comfortingly familiar, and yet so utterly extraordinary.