I became interested in making fermented vegetables, specifically sauerkraut, by way of brewing beer, which I've been doing now for over five years. Although I have over a hundred batches of beer "under my belt", each and every one of them has been unique, and that's mostly because the fermentation process is a living thing that cannot be easily controlled. Mostly we can initiate it, or expedite it, or encourage it, but I like to just sit back and watch it happen. My favorite part of brewing beer is waiting for the first evidence of fermentation, and my co-brewers know that the first thing I'm going to say is, "Is it bubbling yet?"
Making sauerkraut is much easier in a number of ways, especially the fact that it doesn't require vigilant levels of sanitation. I've had my heart broken a dozen times or more when a batch of beer became contaminated and had to be discarded, and it was invariably due to negligent or incomplete sanitation. Kraut is infinitely easier, and while I like to pride myself on keeping a clean kitchen and washing my hands before doing kitchen chores, I haven't lost a batch of kraut yet despite plunging my arms up to the elbows in a big bowl of freshly-shredded cabbage slaw.
Fermentation has become trendy, particularly fresh unpasteurized kraut that contains probiotics, much like yogurt and kefir and kombucha and other "whole foods". In many ways it mirrors the popularity of microbrewers, so that whereas ten years ago there was a very limited choice of beers in most retail stores, now even the smallest mom-and-pop beer joint is carrying a much wider variety, and people search out new and limited brands. I'm not as adventurous yet in my kraut as I am in my homebrew, but I'm starting to make batches of kraut that have a lot of, say, fennel, or chopped tomatoes and horseradish. Many of my ingredients come from nearby Dawson's Market
, which carries a variety of fresh organic locally-grown produce.
Please follow along while I show you how I recently made a "basic" kraut.
A food processor with a shredding blade can process cabbage very quickly, by putting wedges down the feed tube. The cabbages must be pre-treated: remove a few outer leaves for later, cut the cabbage into quarters with a large knife, core the quarters, and then cut the quarters into wedges.
I used three cabbages for this batch, and after shredding it I was left with six quarts, which is the capacity of my large metal bowl. The average grocery store cabbage weighs between two and a half and three pounds each (prior to coring), so three cabbages will produce between five and six pounds of shredded cabbage.
Additional fresh vegetables can be sliced/chopped and then added to the cabbage base. A traditional kraut also includes one or two sliced onions and some sliced garlic cloves. I've been experimenting with fresh fennel bulbs, red onions, carrots, turnips, and green peppers. Almost any fresh vegetable can be pickled, but this is not pickling - it's fermentation, and the lactobacilli that naturally occur on the leaves of cabbages are fundamental for making kraut.
I'm now moving handfuls of cabbage from the large metal bowl to my slow-cooker's green crock and two other bowls, adding pinches of kosher salt as I go. The kosher salt is used because regular table salt has iodine (an antibacterial chemical). Three tablespoons of salt is the recommended amount for five pounds of cabbage, but I prefer to use my little kitchen scale for weighing it in grams. There are many tables online showing the correct ratio of salt per weight of vegetables.
I also like to cook up in advance a quart or two of 2% brine, using distilled water and kosher salt, just in case I need some to 'top off' the kraut, which needs to remain submerged during fermentation.
Spices add flavor, and here are a tablespoon each of mustard seed and coriander seed. Caraway seeds are the traditional spice used in German sauerkraut, but the possibilities are as endless as your spice rack and your personal tastes. Fresh herbs and spices also work well, and can be incorporated along with other supplemental fresh vegetables.
Squeezing and mashing the salted cabbage in the various bowls. The salt draws out the liquid from the cells of the cabbage.
The volume of the cabbage has now been reduced to about a third of its initial size. This is the original six-quarter metal bowl.
Adding the cabbage and layers of onion and spices and brine to the crock, packing it down, placing cabbage leaves on top, then the half-stones (which came with this particular brand of crock), and finally a plastic bag filled with brine to add some more weight.
Three weeks later: ready to open the crock. The water in the well creates a negative air pressure, so that fermentation from within forces out CO2 gas, and no air enters the crock. This is not a necessary component though, just a special feature of this brand of crock, and sauerkraut can be fermented in any glass or glazed clay container that's large enough to hold the cabbage, brine, and something to weigh it down and keep it submerged.
The opened crock shows the cabbage outer leaves on top, which helped to keep the kraut submerged under the brine.
A forkful of fresh sauerkraut with a nice translucent yellow color. It's ready to be packed in containers and stored in the fridge, where fermentation will proceed only slowly (but still enough that jars should not be tightened, and refrigerated containers should be occasionally 'burped' to allow built-up gas to escape). Kraut can be stored in glass or plastic or glazed crockery, but not in metal, as the acid will react with the metal and cause pitting. It can be stored indefinitely in the refrigerator, but remember to keep it covered in brine as kraut exposed to the air will turn mushy and unpalatable. Tap water is not a good item to top off your kraut, since it contains chlorine which has strong antibacterial qualities, so invest in a quart jug of distilled water and then keep that around to top off your kraut.
More on the qualities of sauerkraut
It's a very healthy food, low-carb and low-fat, with one cup containing only about 30 calories while providing four grams of fiber and 30% of the RDA for Vitamin C. Those of us with hypertension, however, should eat it in moderation, since that single cup contains a huge amount of sodium, at 40% of the RDA. That can be diminished by placing the kraut in a colander or strainer and lightly rinsing with water.
Eating fresh unpasteurized kraut gives the benefit of probiotics, those important bacterial helpers for our gastrointestinal systems, which have increasingly been demonstrated to have an important effect on the immune system. The naturally-occurring lactobacilli that cause the fermentation are also beneficial to the gut. It's not necessary to eat a large amount of it to get the probiotic benefits: just a cup or less a day, or every few days, can provide the necessary 'dose', and even drinking the kraut juice can also provide the benefits without the need to chow down on the vegetable itself. During World War II while British children were given cod liver oil for vitamins, German children were being told to drink their Sauerkrautsaft for the same reason (although, technically, cod liver oil provides a large dose of vitamin A, and kraut juice has only negligible amounts of that one).
There have been some outrageous claims about the health benefits of sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables, touting it as a "miracle food", but there's really no such thing. (I'm old enough to remember when they said that about alfalfa sprouts, which were subsequently discovered to be an excellent medium for growing salmonella and listeria.) In fact, excessive consumption of fermented vegetables can possibly have adverse health effects. The fact that Korea and north China and Japan have some of the highest rates worldwide of stomach cancer may be associated with their consumption of kimchi and other pickled and fermented foods. It's a demonstration of the fact that substances can have both beneficial and dangerous qualities, and that moderation is the best approach in diet.