Have you heard how awesome fermented foods are? (if not, check out this story or this one on NPR or this longer article in the New York Times) If you are trying to fit more fermented foods into your diet, and you don’t have unlimited money, try making your own at home! A cabbage and two tablespoons of salt, the ingredients of sauerkraut, cost a buck or two. A quart of “live” sauerkraut can easily set you back $10. Sandor Katz, one of the most famous advocates of fermentation, recommends “starting with sauerkraut,” and I agree!
It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut and you can do it without buying any unusual or extra tools or ingredients for your kitchen. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never look back! Here’s how:
1) Gather ingredients (1 organic cabbage, 1 tablespoon sea salt), containers (1 half gallon ball jar, or equivalent, and a bowl it can sit on), and tools (knife, cutting board, big tupperware container or pot, washed log with flat end). Yes, the tools include a washed log with a flat end! Instead of buying a “tamper,” we went out to the wood pile and selected a nice maple log that was about 1.5″ diameter, brought it in, and washed it off in the sink.
2) Rinse cabbage and remove any really yucky outer leaves. Outer leaves that are simply wilted are fine to leave.
3) Cut up the cabbage. Any shape will do. I like halving the cabbage, laying each flat half down, cutting strips, and then cutting those strips into shorter pieces. I leave the core in – it’s just as delicious when pickled.
4) Fill big tupperware or pot, no more than 1/3 of the way up, with cabbage pieces. Add a proportionate amount of your salt. If you fit half the cabbage, add half your salt: 1/2 tablespoon. If you want to add spices, now’s the time to do it.
5) Hold the container between your feet and mash, over and over again, with your tamper or log. You want to break the cell walls and mash in the salt. This will cause the cabbage to release liquids – enough to cover your sauerkraut with brine! When you’ve mashed enough, you’ll notice that the pieces don’t pop around in the container as much when pounding. They’ll be limper and less firm than when you started.
7) If you still have un-pounded cabbage and space in your jar, repeat chopping and mashing process until the (tightly packed) cabbage rises to one or two inches below the top of your jar. Don’t go higher than that. Liquid should be covering mashed packed leaves. If it doesn’t, let everything sit for ten minutes and try pushing the leaves down into the jar again. The salt will work its magic helping the leaves release juices.
8) Cover and put in a bowl in a warmish place in your house where you’ll notice it. A kitchen counter works well for us. When you’re just starting, you’ll want to keep an eye on things. Check your kraut every day. The bowl is important – juice may leak out the top and you’ll want to catch it.
9) KEY SECRET STEP: This seems to be left off of most sauerkraut how-to lists. It can make the difference between limp stinky kraut and a crunchy yummy final product. Stick a butter knife down into your kraut each day in a bunch of different spots to allow any air bubbles to come to the top. If any liquid came out of the jar and was caught in your bowl, pour it back in. Push kraut back down, making sure all the cabbage remains covered in liquid every day. The key to good kraut is to make sure it sours in an anaerobic environment. You can use all sorts of expensive tools for this, or you can do daily check-ups, using a butter knife to remove air bubbles and a spoon to push leaves back below the brine.
10) Taste it! After 4 or 5 days, taste a piece! Sauerkraut will sour at different rates based on the sugar content of the cabbage, the quantity of bacteria present, and the temperature in your house. Plus, YOU need to decide when it has soured enough for your taste. Everyone’s perferences are different.
11) When you love it, stick it in the fridge. Naturally fermented veggies will last for a long time in the fridge. Just make sure to keep the leaves submerged in brine. If it starts to dry out and there isn’t enough brine to cover the leaves, add a bit of water and maybe a sprinkle of salt. If the top layer gets a white filmy mold, don’t worry! If it grosses you out scoop it off. It won’t hurt you. When you’ve finished the kraut, any remaining brine can be used in recipes (salad dressing, soup flavoring, etc.) or used to inoculate your next batch of pickles.
Want to pickle other veggies? It’s easy! Check out this blog post to learn more.
Love to play around with flavors? Try pounding in a traditional combination of caraway and juniper berries to your next batch. It’s delicious!