Sauerkraut takes longer to contemplate than make

The Whole Dish podcast: Winter is the prime time for countertop fermentation

When it comes to food, I’ve never been much for New Year’s resolutions, as evidenced by the lack thereof in this blog.

I did vow three Januarys ago to eat more fresh, locally grown veggies. But that resolve stemmed from reluctance to waste my biweekly allotment of produce from a community-supported agriculture program, rather than a desire to improve my diet.

Similarly, my intolerance for food waste was the strongest force compelling me last weekend to FINALLY make sauerkraut. Cabbages, in seasonally atypical abundance in a friend’s garden, had earned my admiration, not least for their resemblance to gargantuan, vibrantly hued blossoms in the dead of winter. Turns out, there was no grand preservation plan for those resplendent brassicas, biding their time in the chilly air and sizing up to five or more pounds apiece.

A five-pound cabbage constitutes a very large recipe of sauerkraut, perfect for the ceramic crock that my mother-in-law had picked out for one of my birthday or Christmas gifts several years hence. OK, guilt over never christening the crock with kraut might have been behind my renewed interest in fermentation, which started percolating with a story on Kirsten Shockey, a well-respected author and teacher on the art of fermentation.

This blog also has posted several recipes for fermented vegetables: whole Napa cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi and even a loosely constructed — and named — “kraut-chi.” (Yes, I have an inexplicable fondness for kimchi.)

Yet, I’d never made any of them until that behemoth Savoy cabbage convinced me that I was done procrastinating. Otherwise, what would I possibly do with FIVE POUNDS of cabbage?

Turns out, all my indecision and inertia consumed much more time than dispatching the cabbage, tossing it with salt and packing it into my crock. The actual fermentation — as short as six days — could be even quicker.

As Chicago Tribune food writer James DeWan pointed out more than a year ago, everyone should be making sauerkraut because it’s not hard and doesn’t take long. And the result is a dietary tonic, not to mention delicious. Here is his play-by-play on the process.

Tribune News Service photo

WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS

Store-bought sauerkraut tastes fine, of course — if you like that sort of thing. Homemade sauerkraut, though, is about a gajillion times better in flavor and texture. Also, because canned products have been pasteurized, the kraut within lives in a sterile, albeit stinky, environment. Homemade sauerkraut has the advantage of being filled with what the kids are calling “probiotics,” beneficial microbes that can aid digestion and boost our immune systems.

THE STEPS YOU TAKE

The word of the day is “lacto-fermentation,” a biochemical process that transforms something fresh into something wonderful. Thousands of years before humans even knew what bacteria were, we were using lacto-fermentation to preserve food. Today we do it as much for the flavor as we do for the preservation. Here’s how it works:

We’ll start by talking about those microbes. Specifically, bacteria. There are two basic types of bacteria: aerobic, which require oxygen; and anaerobic, which can survive without it. Sauerkraut is made by tossing thinly sliced cabbage with salt and pressing it into a container. The salt draws water from the cabbage, creating a brine under which the cabbage is completely submerged. When this happens, the anaerobic bacteria begin to multiply and feed off the sugars in the cabbage, producing lactic and acetic acids and carbon dioxide. The acids and the increasing numbers of lactic acid-producing bacteria (including the always popular Lactobacilli) prevent any other bacteria from getting their foot in the sauerkrauty door. Those lactobacilli are an example of the beneficial probiotics mentioned earlier.

One last thing before we jump from theory to practice: the vessel of fermentation. You don’t need any special equipment, only a large container like an earthenware crock, a plastic food container or a large mason jar. Figure that a 1-gallon container will hold about 5 pounds of cabbage. Whatever container you use, don’t seal it: The gases formed by the fermentation have to escape.

1. Start with the freshest cabbage you can find. Straight from your garden or local farmers market would be perfect. Peel away any loose or damaged leaves and wash the head under cold water.

2. Cut cabbages in half through the core, then into quarters, again through the core. Cut the core away from all four pieces and discard. Slice the cabbage as finely as you can.

3. Toss the cabbages with sea salt or pickling salt, roughly 3 tablespoons for every 5 pounds of cabbage. Sea salt also has trace elements of minerals that can enhance the nutritional value of the finished product. Avoid iodized salt or salt with anti-caking elements, which can interfere with the fermentation. While you’re tossing, squeeze the cabbage to crush it as much as you can. You could also smash it with a rubber mallet if your love of food gets all tied up with your need to release your inner aggressions. The idea is to extract as much water as you can from the cabbage, so that it combines with the salt to create a brine.

4. Pack the cabbage into your container as tightly as possible, then weigh it down. How you do this depends on your container. If it’s an earthenware crock, set a clean plate onto the cabbage and weigh it down with jars of water. If it’s a large mason jar, use a slightly smaller mason jar filled with water. It’s vitally important that none of the cabbage slips above the surface of the brine during the fermentation, as that will attract some nasty aerobic bacteria. Cover the whole thing with a clean towel to prevent dust or bugs from getting in. Store out of the way at room temperature.

Note: For the first 24 hours, there may not be enough brine to cover the cabbage completely. That’s OK. Every few hours, press down on the cabbage to release more water. After 24 hours, if there’s still not enough brine to cover the cabbage, add salt water to cover (1 teaspoon salt for every cup of water).

5. Check the ferment every day to make sure the brine is covering the cabbage completely. Skim off any scum that may form on the surface and remove any stray bits of cabbage that may have drifted up out of the brine and gotten moldy. Leave the cabbage for 3 to 4 weeks. It should be wonderfully floral and sour. At this point, pack it into smaller jars and store it for up to several months in the fridge. Eat it fresh out of the jar, and you’ll get all the benefits of its great taste and its probiotic beasties.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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