Sauerkraut and pork is a German tradition that found its way to America in the early 19th century via the Pennsylvania Dutch. The complementary tastes of salty pork and pickled sauerkraut were widely hailed, eventually propelling the dish into the mainstream, where it's equally suitable for a big holiday feast or an ordinary Tuesday night dinner. The recipe can be prepared and cooked many ways using a variety of pork products, which serves to reduce monotony and appeal to different palates.
Several cuts of pork can be used, depending on your preference, including pork loin, pork shoulder and pork roast. Kielbasa sausage is also sometimes used in the dish, not as a substitute, but rather an accompaniment to the pork. A well-marbled cut of pork will be butcher-shop fresh and balance hunks of meat with bits of intramuscular fat, which add flavor and texture. The pork can be shredded, cubed or cooked as a whole roast. For additional flavor, some people soak the pork in marinade for a day, while others simply add salt and pepper as a tenderizer.
Sauerkraut is often sold in bags filled with brine. For a milder taste, place the sauerkraut in a colander, quickly rinse it under the faucet with cold water and allow it to drain; for a stronger taste, keep the brine for cooking. The sauerkraut can also be marinated in beer or wine for a few hours. Optional additions to the recipe include yellow onions, apples, juniper berries and caraway seeds. Onions should be peeled and minced. Apples should be peeled, cored and diced; Honeycrisp and McIntosh work best when mixed with a pinch of brown sugar.
If you are using a skillet or Dutch oven, add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil, place over medium heat, add the pork, and wait until it browns on all sides. Add the sauerkraut and other ingredients, cover it, and cook on a low setting for about four hours. If using a slow cooker or oven, add all your ingredients at the same time. For slow cookers, set the heat to high and let cook for about six hours; for ovens, bake at 325 degrees for two to three hours. Use a meat thermometer to ensure the pork has reached the USDA-recommended temperature of 145 degrees. Add water during cooking if it looks as if the sauerkraut is getting dry.
Remove the meat and sauerkraut from the heat and let it cool for several minutes. This lets the juices settle and makes the temperature safer for consumption. By cooking the pork in the sauerkraut, you will achieve the dual benefit of an especially tender cut of meat that easily tears apart, and mellower sauerkraut with just a hint of meat flavor. Serve this dish with traditional side dishes such as boiled or mashed potatoes and applesauce. Offer spicy brown mustard as an elective condiment for the meats.
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