Some of our favorite foods are fermented, such as beer, wine, bread, cheese, pickles, salami, yogurt, tempeh, vinegar, kombucha, kimchi and many more. And whether you are a devoted foodie with a well-stocked fermentation station on your kitchen counter or just somebody who loves a Reuben sandwich, one of the simplest and most satisfying fermented foods to make at home is good, old-fashioned sauerkraut.
If you've never experimented with home ferments, sauerkraut could be the gateway. It is easy to make, hard to mess up, and once you've got the hang of how to make a good kraut, you'll be set up with the tools to branch out into more complex recipes like kimchi and kefir. Myself, I prefer kraut to all the rest. I learned this recipe during a hands-on workshops with fermentation guru Sandor Ellix Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved. For a labyrinth of delightful fermentation recipes, visit his website www.wildfermentation.com.
All of your supplies should be freshly cleaned in hot water. Don't bleach them but make sure they are free of dirt and debris.
Large stainless steel bowl
Sharp kitchen knife, not serrated
Large cutting board
A ½ gallon Mason jar, wide-mouthed
A smaller glass jar, narrow enough to fit easily into the mouth of the larger jar
A sanded and boiled 2-inch-wide, 10-inch-long wooden dowel or a clean, empty Tabasco bottle with the label removed
A clean, lightweight cotton cloth, such as a dish towel or pillowcase.
Ingredients and method:
1 large head of green cabbage
1 medium head of red cabbage
3 tablespoons non-iodized natural sea salt
(Optional ingredients could include juniper berries, radishes, daikon, carrots, garlic, horseradish, bok choy, onion, goji berries, currants, hot peppers or any range of small fruits, seeds and veggies, but I recommend starting with just a simple kraut of only cabbage and salt and then experimenting with other ingredients later on down the line.)
Wash the cabbage, remove the largest outer leaves and set it aside. Slice the cabbages in half and carve out the small, hard core. Some people include this in the kraut, but I find it doesn't ferment as well as the rest.
Taking your time, slice up the cabbage into very thin strips. Mix both colors into the large bowl, adding a dash of salt to each handful of cabbage.
When all of the cabbage is in the bowl, sprinkle the remainder of the salt over the top. Squeeze and rub the cabbage with your hands, using your thumbs to work the salt into the leaves. Keep doing this until the cabbage feels wet and slippery, and the colors darken. This is the "cabbage massage" — the most important part of the kraut-making process.
DO NOT add water, vinegar, or any other liquid. This will cause your kraut to mold. Use only vegetables and salt.
Pack the cabbage into the large Mason jar, using the wooden dowel (or Tabasco bottle) to smash down each layer. If you have been thorough with your cabbage massage, a foamy liquid will start to form around the leaves as you pack them into the jar. Keep smashing and packing until all of the cabbage is rammed into the jar. Leave an inch or two of space at the top.
Rub salt on both sides of a few of the large cabbage leaves set aside at the beginning and place them over the top of the packed cabbage to create a leaf-lid that sits just under the top of the liquid level.
Now fill the smaller jar with water and seal it with a tight lid. Place this jar inside the mouth of the larger kraut jar to weigh the large leaves down on top of the kraut.
Wash and dry the steel bowl and place it under the jars to catch any liquid that overflows during the fermentation process. If you have ants, put a little water in the bottom of the bowl to trap them before they can crawl up into your kraut.
Drape your cotton cloth over the whole contraption to keep out bugs but allow in the happy ambient yeasts and bacteria that will help your kraut thrive. Keep it in a cool, dark place. Warm temperatures speed up the fermentation process, cold weather slows it down and super-hot weather could kill it.
Once or twice a day, uncover the kraut and remove the smaller jar and large lid-leaves. Smash the cabbage down. Smash, smash, smash! Wipe away any overflow liquid, replace the lid-leaves and smaller jar, and re-cover.
After about 5 days, begin tasting the kraut. My preferred flavor usually happens around 7 to 10 days. Longer fermentation time will usually yield stronger flavor and softer kraut. Shorter time means lighter flavor and crunchier kraut. But if you let it go too long, it will get mushy and not so yummy. When it gets to the place where you love it, cap the large jar with a snug lid and refrigerate it.
If a murky film or fuzzy mold forms on the top or sides of your jars, don't worry. Just wipe it away with a clean cloth or carefully remove it with a spoon. If the kraut seems too dry, smash it more and perhaps add a pinch more salt.
That's it! My favorite way to eat it? Try mixing 1 part fresh kraut, 1 part chopped avocado and 1 part grated beets. Scoop this mixture into a boat of Romaine lettuce for a delectable, rainbow-colored, crunchy raw food snack.
Heather Jo Flores is the author of Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community. She lives in Whitethorn.