To celebrate the new year, I’ve taken a cue from my German heritage (heh) and have embarked upon the making of sauerkraut. While I’ve had success with my kimchi experiments of late, I recently purchased The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz which has given me greater insight into the fermentation process, as well as opened my eyes to a whole new world of fermented foods. Of the many types of fermentations, sauerkraut is one of the best examples of a lactic acid fermented vegetable and one of the most simple. It can be made in three steps:
Shred the cabbage. I initially shredded the cabbage using a knife but the end result turned out a little too chunky for my liking. I have since used a mandoline which makes a preferable shred and produces wonderful results—the perfect kraut to top hot dogs.
Salt the cabbage. I use a sea salt blend my mother-in-law picked up in Germany specifically made for sauerkraut, though any salt will do. I don’t measure but ensure the cabbage is liberally salted, as the salt draws out the moisture, making a crisp kraut, and creates an environment hostile to both bad bacteria and molds. I let the salted cabbage sit in a strainer with a bowl placed underneath to collect the moisture. After about three hours, I squeeze the cabbage with my (clean) hands to break down the cell walls of the cabbage and extract as much water from the shredded leaves as possible.
Let the cabbage ferment. The shredded, salted cabbage is then packed tightly into a container (I use a bail-top jar) and cover with the juices from collection bowl and non-chlorinated water. (Chlorine, often added to city/tap water, has the potential of killing the lactic acid bacteria responsible for the fermentation process. Adding water without chlorine eliminates this risk.) After the water is added, I’ll taste the brine to ensure it’s salty enough; if not, I’ll add more salt.
Since lactic acid fermentation requires an anaerobic environment, you’ll want to make sure the cabbage isn’t exposed to air. If you’re using an open container, you can place a clean plate (smaller than the opening of your container) on top of the cabbage, weighted down to keep covered in the liquid. You can also sit a sealable plastic bag full of brine (in case the bag breaks, it won’t dilute the fermenting liquid) on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged. If you’re using a bail-top jar, the rubber seal should keep air out while letting gas escape (though as I tend to use cheaper containers, I keep an eye on the jar daily to make sure no mold is growing, and to make sure that gas isn’t building up inside, which could potentially cause the jar to explode).
I let the kraut sit on the counter for several days (less in hotter weather, longer for colder weather) at room temperature. Once the sauerkraut has a nice bite and the traditional sour taste, I place in the refrigerator, where it will last several weeks, if not longer.
Making sauerkraut is an unbelievably easy process and the end result eclipses anything that can be bought at the grocery store. And unlike the pasteurized store-bought product, naturally fermented sauerkraut is a living food that is rich with probiotic microbes. The only effort involved in making a delicious, homemade sauerkraut is providing the proper materials and environment; nature takes care of the rest.