Sauerkraut: the secret life of cabbage

Welcome to the wonderful world of fermentation. Below you will find step by step instructions on how to make sauerkraut. Before we get there, however, please read the general safety recommendations below. Fermentation is part science, part biology, part art, and part magic. It involves a transformation of elements that releases the nutrient potential of many foods, increases shelf life, and imparts an incredible array of flavours and textures. For many who grew up with the bland, soft flavours typical of a North American pallet trained by fast food, the pungent, earthy flavours of fermented foods can be off-putting or scary. The process, which at times involves skimming mould blooms, has an ick factor that is undeniable. You are nurturing a living creature, and in the case of ferments like sourdough, the starter culture can be quite old. I started my sourdough culture in 2004 and think of it like a pet. Feed it, give it a good home, and it will provide you with plenty in return. The more you understand about the process, the better care you can take of your new friend.

The following are influence by Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation. This is an incredible book with so much information for the home fermenter and I highly recommend it if you end up catching the fermentation bug.

Fermentation Basics

Cleanliness and safety. When you work with any food, you want to make sure that you follow common sense hygiene rules. Unlike traditional canning, sterilization is not required, but make sure everything is cleaned with hot soap and water. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization promotes traditional, non industrialized forms of fermentation as a way of increasing nutrition, reducing food waste, increasing food security, and decreasing harmful or anti-nutritional components in food. This is an ancient practice that, although not without risks, is generally considered very safe. Fermented foods may go “past their prime” and not taste good, but the acidic and alcoholic environments you have created is generally quite noxious to pathogenic bacteria. That said, be wise and use your nose and trust your gut. If it smells noxious, skim the top layer, sniff again, and if in doubt, throw it out.

Using the right equipment: Make sure you use the right equipment. Ceramic, glass, stainless steel or food-grade plastic. Do not use aluminium containers as they can leach metals when in contact with acid. Wide-mouth mason jars make for excellent vessels and allow you to keep your ferments going in stages. You can use a smaller jar to press the ferment below the surface of the brine.

Frequent tastings: there is no correct stage of ripeness. You need to be flexible and attentive. This is the beauty of fermentation—it tunes your body to a different world, to the microscopic exhalations and symbiosis of bacteria, fungus, and humans.

Salt: most fermentation uses salt to preserve food. This can be in the form of a brine, where salt is mixed with water, herbs, spices, and then vegetables are submerged and pressed down with a lid, or, as in the case with sauerkraut, the salt is used to draw out moisture. The more salt you add, the slower the ferment and the more sour the final product.

Lactobacilli: salt is used to inhibit the growth of noxious and pathogenic bacteria and favours the growth of lactobacilli. This is what preserves the food and gives it the wonderful, sour flavour.

Temperature: the ambient temperature of the room and fermentation vessel has a great effect on the speed of fermentation and so you must use your nose and tastebuds to judge the product. The warmer the room, the quicker the ferment. Sometimes you want this, other times you don’t.

Overall, you need to pay attention. Any recipe or technique is but a template. Follow the proportions, but keep in mind that the timeline will depend on many factors. The reason home ferments taste so much better than factory-created ones is because they take a skilled hand to make. Be patient and open to the living creature you are nurturing. Remember, it is alive and has a personality you must get to know. All the factors I mentioned above may change the timeline significantly, so your senses are your best friend. Taste frequently and take care of your friend.

Sauerkraut: Theme and Variation

Sauerkraut is about the simplest ferment you can make. At its most basic, it takes nothing more than cabbage and salt.

Timeframe: 1 to 4 weeks or more.

Equipment:

Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket

Plate that fits into bucket, or a Ziploc bag filled with brine

4-litre jug filled with water (as a weight for the plate)

Cloth cover

Ingredients

5 lbs/ 2 kg of cabbage, white or red

3 tablespoons salt (45 millilitres)

You can add carrots, turnips, or beets to this mixture. Simply keep the ratio of salt to vegetables roughly the same, but don’t worry if your not precise.

Process:

Saurkraut ingredients

Chop or grate cabbage as you like. The finer the consistency, the softer the final product. If you use red and white cabbage, you will get a lovely pink kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl or in the crock as you chop.

Savoy cabbage is a bit drier than green cabbage and will require some extra work to draw out the moisture

Savoy cabbage is a bit drier than green cabbage and will require some extra work to draw out the moisture

You can use a knife, or if you have a shredder attachment for your food processor, this is a real time saver.

food processor

A couple of pulses and the cabbage is ready for the salt.

It's a good idea to keep the cabbage as uniform as possible, as this will help the texture in the end. This is where the cuisine art comes in handy.

shredded cabbage

Sprinkle with salt as you go. This is how you make the brine, as the salt draws out water from the cabbage and creates the brine. You can add more salt, but do not add less, as it is required for the fermentation process. Salt, massage, and repeat until the cabbage starts to sweat. Remember, you are not adding any water to this, ideally. You want the salt to draw out the liquid from the cabbage.

The liquid brine is starting to form after 20 minutes of vigorous massage

The liquid brine is starting to form after 20 minutes of vigorous massage

Add other vegetables. I like to add grated carrots, but you can add Brussels sprouts, turnips, beets, seaweed, onions and various spices such as caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries. My favourite is cabbage, carrots, and caraway. Try to keep roughly to the 3 tablespoons to 5 lbs of veg, although as with all ferments, temperature of the room is a factor. Use more salt in the summer, less in the winter.

purple cabbage

Massage all the ingredients in the crock and really get the salt worked into the vegetables. You want to bruise everything a bit to get the brining process going. Depending on the moisture content of the cabbage, this may take multiple rounds of squeezing. Don’t be afraid to get your hands in there and really squeeze.

This is a traditional ceramic crock and mandolin combo.

This is a traditional ceramic crock and mandolin combo.

Once there is enough liquid that you think you may be able to submerge the veggies, its time to taste. It should taste a bit too salty. Once the process gets going, things will mellow out as the lactobacteria does its magic. If it seems too salty, you can add some more fresh veggies.

slaw

Cover the crock with a plate and put a heavy, clean weight on it. This is crucial as you need to draw the moisture out of the cabbage. It can be hard to find a plate that fits inside the crock. You need to keep all the fermenting vegetables under the level of the brine. Anything up above will rot as it comes in contact with air. The fermentation process is anaerobic, meaning it takes place in the absence of oxygen. The mould on top is just a surface phenomenon. One of my favourite new ways is to fill a large Ziploc bag with salty brine (in case it leaks and dilutes the brine below) and use that to seal the surface. Cover with a cloth to keep the flies off.

You can see the foaming at the top. Don’t worry. Skim that off

You can see the foaming at the top. Don’t worry. Skim that off

Every few hours (during the first day) press down the weight for a minute. This helps draw out water. It will start to foam a bit. The brine should be covering the cabbage within 24 hours. If it does not, make a brine by mixing 1 tablespoon of salt with 1 cup of water and add enough to completely cover the cabbage.

 

I usually keep it somewhere warmish until the process is started and then move the crock in the basement or a cool room to slow down the process. Check the kraut every few days and skim the scum on the top. Don’t worry if you cannot get it all. Rinse off the plate, and cover.

This is the mould bloom. I use a ladle to skim it off and then clean the plate and ziplock bag with soap and water.

After about a two weeks, less in the summer, you can start to scoop out the kraut and place in the fridge or eat as you want. It will change from day to day, eventually getting soft and mushy. Keep skimming and eating, but you want to inhibit the process before it gets too soft, the easiest way is to put it in the fridge. This allows you to have the benefits of the live culture, which will die if you try to heat process and can the product. You can put it in Ziploc bags and freeze as well if you simply have too much to consume. Enjoy the different flavours as it evolves.

ready to eat

Here is the finished product ready to eat! Yum. About one month old and it is tangy and has lots of crunch.

Bon appetit!