This not Misson Impossible. Far from it.
Your DIY project, (should you choose to accept it): Making fresh, fermented sauerkraut.
Your ingredients: 8 pounds organic cabbage, 4 tablespoons sea salt, spices of your choice.
Your tools: Hefty chef’s knife. Big bowl. Fermentation vessel: glass jar, or ceramic crock. You really don’t need anything fancy, but, sigh, do check out Sarah Kersten’s elegant stoneware fermentation crock.
Time: About an hour to prep the cabbage and stuff it into a jar. Then you wait…
Let’s start with the sauerkraut, or more precisely, the reasons you might want to make it.
Like anything we put in our mouths, fermented vegetables are a matter of taste, a perception of deliciousness (or not). I happen to be addicted to the surprisingly delicate, tangy flavor of finely cut cabbage that has been massaged with salt, layered with aromatic spices, packed in a jar and left to sit for awhile.
Incidentally, sauerkraut literally means “sour cabbage.” (Try to wipe from your mind the odious memory of any limp, vinegary, commercially bottled stuff that may have caused your throat to clutch in the past.)
The batch we’re eating now took four weeks to reach absolute perfection. It’s fresh tasting, still crunchy, and when you chew it, the spices detonate like little flavor bombs. Each bite releases the cool, aromatic essence of whole caraway seeds and the sweet, citrusy taste of the coriander. I only wish I’d added a few peppercorns.
Last weekend we devoured spoonfuls of sauerkraut with a brined and grilled pork loin roast, its tangy flavor a perfect counterpoint to the sweet, smoky taste of the meat. Kraut is delicious with fried wienerschnitzl and sausages of all kinds. I even stirred some into chicken and barley soup, transforming a bland mess of pottage into a lunch dish that made my taste buds dance with pleasure.
Yesterday I caught B standing in front of the refrigerator, eating it out of the jar. Naturally, I joined him.
But then I’m half German, so perhaps such cravings are genetic. I’m also pretty sure that an especially tasty batch of sauerkraut, fermented during a hot, unairconditioned New York summer, made B consider, rather early in our love affair, the advantages of a more permanent alliance.
Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables is one of the oldest methods of food preservation, originating thousands of years before refrigeration was invented. An early mention of preserving cabbages and turnips with salt is frequently cited in connection with Cato’s De Agri Cultura (160 BC) which includes a section on the medicinal virtues of cabbage. According to Wikipedia, Genghis Kahn introduced sauerkraut to Eastern Europe in the early 13th century, via multiple invasions, bringing with him the method of salt-fermenting vegetables from China.
Today I think of sauerkraut as a German dish, although it is also found in kitchens across Eastern Europe—and don’t forget that the French have the Alsatian version, choucroute garnie. It is also an ingredient in the sour variation of the Russian cabbage soup known as shchi.
Entire books have been written about the subject—the current bibles are Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation—but basically cabbage turns into sauerkraut when various lactic acid bacteria break down the natural sugars in the vegetable during fermentation. Importantly, this process—known as lacto-fermentation—creates an acidic environment that prevents the growth of botulism toxins.
By the way, Lactobacillus bacteria are quite beneficial for the gastro-intestinal system. (Can you say “probiotic”?) Sauerkraut is also packed with nutrients, including vitamin K, a known cure for stomach ulcers. Right after college, I brought cases of canned sauerkraut juice to my 90-year-old great aunt Gertrude for just such a purpose. After six weeks, her perplexed doctor, who had wanted to operate, asked her what she had done to her ulcer. She smiled: It had simply vanished.
Anyway, this is a great weekend project, especially since the prep work doesn’t take much more than an hour. Most of what you need is probably already in your kitchen: utensils like a chef’s knife and bowl, sea salt and whatever spices you’d like to use for flavor.
For my first batch I mixed in tablespoons of bright, aromatic caraway seeds from the Nachstmarkt in Vienna, along with a citrusy coriander seeds. I just started a second batch, adding cracked black peppercorns to the mix. If you’re going German-style, you will probably want to try juniper berries. But really, the sky is the limit—you could even try fresh herbs such as tarragon or marjoram.
The cabbage you’ll find at your farmers market or in the organic produce section of your supermarket. For the batch I started in May, I used only green cabbage, but for the second batch I added a head of very spicy red cabbage. I love the way the two look together when they’re finely shredded, before they are “massaged” with salt.
The fermentation vessel warrants a bit of discussion, however.
Years ago, when I first made sauerkraut, I used a large glazed crock from a kitchen supply store. There was no top, so I “sealed” it by filling a plastic bag with water, tying it closed and placing it on top of the salted cabbage. The bag filled the crock, so in essence, it created a seal of sorts—imperfect, but good enough, so that the first few batches I made turned out beautifully. There was no mold and in the heat of an un-air conditioned apartment, it fermented within a week or so.
Last month when I told my butcher that I was making sauerkraut at home, he said, “Oh my mother did that. She used a milk can.” As in: a large metal can into which the fresh milk from your own cow goes….
According to Sandor Katz, you can use almost any container as long as it is not metal which may be corroded by the salt and the acids created during fermentation. Any sort of ceramic crock will do, or even a big glass jar. Katz avoids even food grade plastic because chemicals can leach into the vegetables during the fermentation process.
Personally, though, I’m hooked on Berkeley ceramicist Sarah Kersten’s pale fermentation jar.
I first discovered it on Heidi Swanson’s shopping site, Quitokeeto. I’m totally addicted to the small, beautifully curated collections of “kitchen jewelry (of the utilitarian sort)” and “wildcards” that appear in my inbox every month or two. Each item, whether a Spanish folding knife with a handle made of “naturally shed deer antler,” or raw California olive blossom honey, is so sensuously photographed that lust is instantaneous. This is where I found one of my favorite mortars and pestles (by Magnus Lundstrom), as well as a quartet of vintage pottery bowls from Puebla that remind me of childhood trips to Mexico every time I use them.
For paranoics like me, the genius of Sarah’s high-fired stoneware jar is that it makes fermentation “safe and easy.” The jar is based on an ancient Chinese design that “eliminates mold growth & other naturally probable complications that often arise during fermentation.” The key feature is a water seal “created when the moat-like outer rim of the jar is filled with water.”
On her website, Kersten elaborates: “After the vegetables are prepared and packed inside the jar, the water-seal rim is filled with water. The lid is placed in the water to seal the jar. As the fermentation processes occurs, CO2 is created. The bubbling of the CO2 displaces all oxygen in the jar by pushing it through the water seal and lid. A seal is created, and the oxygen-free environment is maintained.”
This last is important: It prevents mold growth, fruit flies, and bad fermentation smells. It also keeps the brine covering the cabbage from evaporating, so you can ferment worry-free until you reach an ideal flavor profile. The jar comes with a set of two semi-circular weights to keep cabbage submerged in the brine.
But this is the technical stuff. The fact is that this two-handled fermentation jar is so beautiful that you’ll want to keep it on your kitchen counter, even if it takes a month or more to get your sauerkraut to perfection. This is important, by the way, because you may need to taste it a few times—and, if you stash it in Angus’s bathroom, as I did for a couple of weeks, trust me, you’ll forget it’s even there.
For Quitokeeto, Heidi and Sarah collaborated on a pale custom glaze called White Fog. Here’s how Heidi describes it: “…a slightly cool-toned shade of white, with a scattering of tiny cinnamon-colored freckles and a barely textured finish. The color reminds us of the winding fingers of fog that roll in under the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer…”
At this very moment, Quitokeeto has just one remaining White Fog fermentation crock. If you can’t wait for restocking, trot on over to Sarah’s site where you’ll find the same jar in other glazes. I am way behind Heidi who has graduated from basic sauerkraut to making vin de pamplemousse, but I clearly see the need for multiple crocks so that you can have various experiments going on simultaneously. I’ve got my eye on one in Gunmetal Black…
Although some of you may prefer the taste of quickly fermented sauerkraut (5 to 10 days), I wasn’t satisfied with the flavor until four weeks had passed. The time it takes will depend not only on your own preferences, but also on the weather. Fermentation occurs more quickly in hotter weather, more slowly when it’s cool. Your best bet is to let the crock sit on your kitchen counter where, hopefully, the temperature will remain fairly constant, until fermentation has gone as far as you’d like.
Here’s a recipe for sauerkraut adapted from a booklet which Sarah wrote and illustrated. In it, you’ll not only find meticulous directions for making Simple Sauerkraut but also lots of ideas for variations. How about sauerkraut flavored with grated lemon rind and fresh tarragon? Or white peppercorns and fresh basil?
Spicy Homemade Sauerkraut With Caraway & Coriander Seeds
The method for making sauerkraut in this recipe was mostly taken from Sarah Kersten’s booklet, Vegetable Fermentation Jar: Instructions, Ideas, Recipes. The directions are for making sauerkraut using her stoneware crock, which features a unique water seal. If you are using a different type of fermentation jar, you could certainly follow the initial steps, all the way through packing the vessel with salted and spiced cabbage, and then adapt for the kind of fermentation jar you have on hand.
8 pounds organic green cabbage (add a red cabbage if you like)
4 tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons whole caraway seeds
1-1/2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns (optional)
First remove two or three large outer leaves from the cabbage and keep them in reserve. Then cut each head in half and remove the core. Chop or shred the cabbage.
Put half the cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle it with two tablespoons of sea salt.
“Crush the cabbage: This action breaks down cell walls and encourages fermentation. Don’t skip it!” writes Sarah. “Massage” the cabbage for 5 to 10 minutes (as if kneading bread) until it begins to exude water and turns a murky shade of green. If your hands get tired, pound it with a pestle. As the cabbage breaks down, the volume of shredded vegetable will decrease and the salt will produce a natural brine in the bottom of the bowl.
“Taste the cabbage: It should be pleasantly, definitively salty; saltier than you would want it to be if you were going to eat a whole meal of it, but not so salty that you don’t want to eat anymore of it. You’re making a condiment.” More salt will make the cabbage crunchier, less will make it softer.
Add the rest of the cabbage and salt to the bowl and continue massaging for 5 to 10 minutes more. The cabbage will continue to exude water, making a natural brine. Taste and adjust the salt, if necessary.
Add the spices—caraway, coriander and cracked black peppercorns, if using—and toss with the shredded cabbage to make sure they are evenly distributed.
Pack the crock with handfuls of the cabbage mixture, pressing down firmly with your hands to eliminate air pockets as you fill the crock. Layer the reserved leaves on top of the cabbage mixture and place the semi-circular weights over them. If there is not enough natural brine water to cover the cabbage, add salted water to cover. (I had to add at least one cup.)
Find a place to put the crock so that it will not be disturbed during fermentation. Fill the “moat” with water and put the top on the crock. Kersten suggests that you let the mixture ferment for 10 days to several weeks, without removing the lid in order “to maintain the beneficial water seal…add extra water to the seal periodically to compensate for evaporation.”
She concludes: “A lightly fermented kraut will taste fresh compared to a more complex, lengthier ferment.” True enough—and here I must confess that I “broke” the water seal 3 or 4 times in order to taste the level of fermentation. Just so you know, I am here to tell the tale.
When the sauerkraut is ready, remove it from the crock and pack it with some of the brine into glass jars. It will keep in the refrigerator for much longer than it will take you to devour it.