If you're on a summer produce pickling binge, listen up. When you sort through the cabbage bin, steer clear of the lightweights - unless you're into kraut that is a bit on the scrawny side. A tightly wound, linebacker-size dicotyledon is what you want, says Greg Krüegermann, co-owner of Krüegermann Pickles and Sauerkraut in Glassell Park.
"Look at this one from Bakersfield," Krüegermann says happily, hacking an overgrown cabbage the size of a basketball in half with a machete. The cabbage's leaves are so jammed packed that the interior resembles celery heart. "The really tight head, not loose at all between the leaves... that's what you want."
This intense cabbage revelry has been passed down from generation to generation. Krüegermann's parents, Kurt and Helga, opened the factory in 1965 shortly after immigrating to Los Angeles from Lübbenau, Germany, where they worked in their family's pickle factory before it was seized by Communist officials. Krüegermann and his brother Carl now manage the daily operations, but Kurt and Helga still report to work daily (Kurt supervises the production; Helga fields wholesale orders between preparing lunch and laundering brine-soaked dungarees).
Carl Krüegermann, a food scientist with a degree from UC Davis, explains the purpose of those extra mid-section pounds and wide cabbage girth. "You can get these very thin strands." A powerful mechanized cutting blade helps, too.
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When you're running a pickle factory, having a food scientist in the family has its perks. But some days, it can feel a bit like inviting your good buddy, who happens to be an Italian chef, to your place for pizza night. "It was a little rough psychologically shifting from the traditional wood barrels Dad always used to the new fiberglass and plastic bins," recalls Greg Krüegermann. "But Carl was right... they're actually much better when you're dealing with natural fermentation."
That natural fermentation--just cabbage, water and salt--requires all the right elements (and none of the wrong ones) to occur properly. At the Krüegermann factory, kraut making happens in the Spring, the height of cabbage season, and it's conveniently bottled in time for your backyard barbecue version of a kraut dog.
The problem with making your own kraut is getting your hands on those gigantic heads. The Krüegermanns imported seeds from Germany and Holland and for years have commissioned Edna Valley farmers to care for their overgrown cabbages. But according to Helga, it's perfectly acceptable to resort to plebeian versions in a pinch. "In the early days, Kurt just bought them from the market."
If you want to test your cabbage-picking eye, here's a naturally fermented kraut recipe, or take the easy way out and nab the Krüegermann version at many Von's, Whole Foods and German markets, including European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen.