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Supermarket Sauerkraut

Published February 2016

How we tested

Sauerkraut isn’t for everybody. The pungent acidity of fermented cabbage can be polarizing, but fans of this zesty condiment swear by its ability to add refreshing tang to rich meats or hearty potatoes. To find out which kraut is king, we tried six nationally available supermarket sauerkrauts plain, with hot dogs, and in pierogi. Sauerkraut has a similar tanginess to pickled foods, but unlike most supermarket pickles, sauerkraut contains no vinegar. Instead, it gets its acidity from fermentation: Shredded cabbage is sprinkled with salt, packed in containers, and left to sit at room temperature for 1 to 6 weeks. During this time, natural bacteria and yeasts eat away at sugars in the cabbage, leaving behind tart lactic acid in their wake. Once manufacturers deem the sauerkraut suitably tangy, it’s packed into jars, cans, or bags along with some water to prevent browning.

While it only takes three ingredients to make sauerkraut—cabbage, salt, and water—our tasters detected “off,” “chemical” flavors in three lower-ranked sauerkrauts. A peek at ingredient labels revealed that these products all added sodium benzoate and sodium bisulfate—preservatives that extend shelf life. With so few other ingredients to mask off-flavors, sauerkrauts with chemical preservatives had a prominent “fizzy,” “sulfuric,” almost “ammonia-like” quality, even when tasted atop hot dogs or in pierogi. Tasters preferred products that contained just the core three ingredients, calling them “fresher,” “brighter,” and “classic.”

Since salt enhances flavor, it wasn’t surprising that our favorite products also contain more sodium. We liked the “punchy,” “zippy” flavor of sauerkrauts with 200 milligrams of sodium or more per 2-tablespoon serving. No kraut was too salty for tasters, who thought more salt made for kraut with a hearty, fermented flavor; those with any less just tasted like wet cabbage.

What did surprise us, though, was that these sharper, brighter-tasting krauts were packaged in shelf-stable jars or cans, while lower-ranked products were packed in refrigerated plastic bags. Though we often assume that the products we buy in the refrigerated section of the supermarket are fresher than their shelf-stable counterparts, our science editor explained that in this case, they’re not. Unlike jars and cans, plastic bags let in small amounts of air over time, which degrades some of the sauerkraut’s pungent flavor. This is also why bagged products are the only ones to add preservatives: Unlike the canned and jarred krauts, their packaging alone isn’t enough to prevent the growth of microorganisms.

In addition to tasting fresher, canned and jarred sauerkrauts also had a softer, more tender texture. Bagged sauerkrauts were tough and crunchy, which tasters found distracting on hot dogs and in pierogi. A condiment should know its place, and we preferred softer krauts with only a hint of crunch to complement a dish. Lower-ranked products also had strands that were large and uneven, as if they had been roughly chopped with a knife, while our favorite krauts had small and uniform shreds, like they had been shredded with a grater. Big, chunky krauts slipped off hot dogs and crunched unpleasantly in pierogi; we preferred smaller shreds with good cling and subtle chew.

Our favorite was Eden Organic Sauerkraut, a jarred kraut with punchy, tangy flavor and even, delicate shreds. A bonus: Its jar makes refrigerating leftovers easier, so we can keep this kraut on hand for heaping on hot dogs all summer long.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*