The first time I tasted sauerkraut I fell in love. It was at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and, foot-sore and cranky, my family stopped for lunch at a food court. I ordered a reuben sandwich, and it broke across my taste buds as a revelation. The blandness of my diet of white bread, Hunt’s tomato sauce, overcooked frozen vegetables and TV dinners was eclipsed by that sandwich and I never looked back.
Fast forward to 2011, when I attended a workshop on lacto-fermentation led by Real Pickles founder Dan Rosenberg, and a Cabbage Fest skill-sharing event at the home of Gabor Lukacs, where I learned how to make sauerkraut. Armed with the additional instructions in Sandor Katz’s book “Wild Fermentation,” I now launched on my own adventures in making this delectable fermented cabbage.
First, I shred the cabbage. For several years I laboriously cut the enormous fall cabbage heads into shreds with a knife, but that was tough on my aging hands, not to mention a strain on my patience. Then I found a purpose-built cabbage shredder at my neighbor’s tag sale (see photo above). Her Polish family used this to shred cabbage, and it speeds up the shredding process immensely.
I weigh the shredded cabbage and mix it with salt in a non-reactive vessel at the rate of 1/2 tablespoon of salt per pound of cabbage.
Next it gets packed into a vessel. I use either a gallon food-safe plastic bucket, a ceramic crock or wide-mouth quart canning jars. At this point I really tamp it down hard. You can use your fist or some other good pounding tool. I use a large wooden pestle I found at the Take it or Leave it at our town’s recycling center.
At this point, I place a plate over the cabbage and a water-filled jar on top of that to weigh down the cabbage. Over the next 24 hours, the salt releases the moisture in the cabbage. As the fluid level rises, the weighted plate holds the cabbage down below the surface of the liquid to keep it from spoiling by exposure to air. I cover it all with a dish towel to keep out dust and insects.
If the cabbage is old, you may need to add more liquid to cover the vegetables. Make a brine using filtered water (chlorinated water kills organisms needed for fermentation) and salt at the proportion of 1 Tbsp salt to 1/2 cup water. I push down on the jar as often as I think of it – daily or every other day – to keep the cabbage covered by liquid.
Over the next few days, keep the kraut at room temperature, ideally between 62 and 78 degrees F to create an environment conducive to the work of the lactobacilli. These helpful microorganisms create an acidic environment that keeps the cabbage from spoiling. If it is cool in the house, I might leave the sauerkraut on the kitchen table up to six weeks to continue maturing. If it’s too warm, I often put the container in our cooler basement. Sometimes, as the days turn into weeks, a mold or scum grows on the surface of the brine. If this happens, no worries. Just remove the scum, wash off the plate and the jar, and as you replace them, push down hard to make sure the cabbage is submerged.
My daily lunch is an open-face sandwich made on whole wheat toast, spread with organic peanut butter, a dab of Miso and a heaping pile of sauerkraut! Um-Um Good! If I have them, I might top this delicacy with a few Chili-dilly Beans preserved from last summer’s garden. I hope the microbiota in my gut are happy, because my taste buds sure are!