Sauerkraut, it's one of those foods that you either love or hate, at least from my experience. I've never met anyone that has a lukewarm opinion about it. It's one of those foods that always seems to illicit a strong response. I happen to fall into that category of those that love the stuff. While I've always liked sauerkraut, at least as far back as I can remember, it wasn't until I learned to make my own that I came to truly love this German staple.
Here, in Wisconsin, making sauerkraut has been an autumn tradition for generations, with families often gathering together to turn 100 pounds, or so, of cabbage into kraut. But, sauerkraut is gaining popularity all across the country as people discover the joys, and health benefits, of making and consuming fermented foods.
Fermenting foods is one of those things that sounds like it would be difficult and people are often hesitant to try, but once they do, they find it's really easy and often kick themselves for not having experimented with it earlier. Like any preserving technique, fermenting foods requires a bit of detail when it comes to ensuring that your equipment is well sanitized, but beyond that it's extremely simple to do, and in the case of sauerkraut, really only requires 2 ingredients, salt and cabbage. Nor does it require any specialized equipment although there are a few items that are nice to have as they make things even easier.
So, let's make some sauerkraut! First we will need some green cabbage, preferably locally grown and as freshly picked as possible. This is important as we need the water that is trapped in those cabbages and the older they are the more dried out they become. Remove the tough, dark outer leaves of the cabbage, quarter it and remove the core. Weigh the cabbage and for every 5 pounds of cabbage measure out 3 tablespoons of kosher salt. Do not use table salt as it contains iodine and anti-caking agents. You could use canning salt but I like the coarser texture of kosher salt as it will help during the pounding process.
Shred the cabbage as thinly as you can. This is where a kraut cutter would come in handy, especially if you are making a lot, but I usually only make 5-10 pounds and find my knife works just fine, although your arm will get a bit of work out. As the cabbage gets cut place it in a large bowl and sprinkle it with some of the salt. If doing more than 4-5 pounds you will probably have to work in batches, which is fine. Don't worry about dividing the salt evenly, as long as you end up with the right ratio (3 tablespoons salt to 5 pounds cabbage) in the end.
Once your bowl is full it is time to pound the cabbage. Again, you can purchase a large wooden tamper made for this purpose, or you can use a potato masher, like I do. The idea is to pound and bruise the cabbage to get it to start to release its juices. The salt will also act on the cabbage, helping to draw out moisture. After a few minutes of pounding your cabbage should have wilted significantly and liquid should start to accumulate in the bottom of the bowl. Pack your cabbage into your fermentation vessel (more on that in a moment) and repeat the process until all the cabbage and salt are used up. Press the cabbage firmly into your fermentation vessel, continuing to pound it until it is packed tightly. At this point, if you have used fresh, recently picked cabbage, you should have created enough brine to cover the cabbage by about 1-2 inches. If not, you can make additional brine by bringing 2 quarts of water to a boil and dissolving 3 tablespoons of salt in it. Cool to room temperature before adding to your cabbage. Weigh down the cabbage to ensure it stays underneath the brine, cover your fermentation vessel and set in a dry, room temperature, out of the way area.
There are a number of options for fermentation vessels. If you just want to experiment with sauerkraut and only want to make a pound or 2 then you can use a 1/2 gallon glass canning jar with a wide mouth lid. Keep the cabbage submerged underneath the brine by wrapping any store bought canned item in plastic wrap and using that.
If you want to make larger batches then earthenware crocks or a 5 gallon plastic bucket are your best bets. For a traditional crock or 5 gallon bucket the best way to submerge your cabbage is a large plate topped with a brick wrapped in foil, or take a medium sized trash bag, fill it with about a 1/2 gallon of brine (see above for recipe), tie it tight and place that in another trash bag and place it in the bucket ensuring it covers the entire surface area.
The final, and easiest, although most expensive way to ferment your cabbage is to by a fermentation crock, like the one I reviewed for ChefTalk here.
Once your cabbage is safely tucked away in its fermentation vessel, cover it, to keep dust and debris out and let it sit for 1 week. After a week check it. By then the cabbage should be slowly bubbling away as the fermentation takes hold. Skim off any white mold that might have developed on the surface of the brine. Also, if it looks like any of the brine has evaporated add a little fresh brine to ensure the cabbage remains safely underneath the surface. Check at least weekly, but no more than every 5 days as each time you check its progress you introduce oxygen and other micro-organisms that can possibly ruin your sauerkraut.
After 4 weeks, start tasting your kraut. As the fermentation continues the sauerkraut will become less salty and more sour. Your personal preference will dictate what level seems most balanced to suit your tastes, but don't let it go longer than 7-8 weeks. At that point, your sauerkraut can quickly go from good to spoiled.
When it is done to your liking it's time to stop, or at least slow down the fermentation process. I usually just pack the kraut into canning jars, top with a little fresh brine and refrigerate. I have also, occasionally frozen extra that I know we will not consume within 4-5 weeks. I, personally, do not can my sauerkraut, as I feel I lose a lot of the great crunch that comes with fresh sauerkraut, It also kills off all the probiotic bacteria that you have worked to create and which supposedly provide a number of health benefits.
I've given a lot of information here, and it might seems daunting, at first, but read it again. While there is a lot of information given, the steps are pretty simple and straight forward. If you have any desire to experiment with fermented foods I highly encourage you to start with sauerkraut. It's simple to make, has only 2 ingredients, and tastes great.
When not writing for ChefTalk you can find me blogging about food over at www.onceachef.com.