I have to admit it…I love sauerkraut. The tangy taste, the great floral aroma, offset with a great caraway seed finish….what’s not to like? Sauerkraut goes great with pork, sausages, beef roasts, and believe it or not, even chicken, turkey and fish. There are few things in life better than a thick corned beef sandwich on homemade bread, with homemade sauerkraut. And don’t don’t forget Rueben’s…. Even some Asian countries learned about the joys of sauerkraut…surprise! Kimchi is just spicy hot sauerkraut.
Although it may seem that sauerkraut is just pickled cabbage, it is actually fermented cabbage. Pickling is a different process altogether, and I’ll cover that in another article. But it may be helpful to understand the difference between pickling and fermentation…
Fermenting foods has been around so long we can’t be sure when it started, but it was probably by accident. Someone most likely salted a veggie, and forgot about it. Later, they found the salt and friendly bacteria had converted the sugars into lactic acid…a natural preservative. We do know, from writings of the time, that workers on the Great Wall of China, built around 2000 years ago, pretty much lived on a Chinese version of sauerkraut. Around 1000 AD, Genghis Kahn and his Merry (and murderous) Men plundered the secrets of sauerkraut from the hapless Chinese, and brought it to Europe. It really caught on, especially in Eastern Europe. The word sauerkraut means, “Sour Cabbage” in German. What the Germans lacked in imagination, they more than made up for in skill, because in my opinion, Bavarian-Style sauerkraut is a good as it gets….
Fermentation vs Pickling
Many people are confused by the difference between pickling and fermentation. They are two very different entities. A pickle is not normally fermented (although there are some special types that are…), and a fermented vegetable is not pickled.
Both methods use an acidic medium to preserve foods. Foods spoil because of bacteria and enzymes breaking down the food to it’s component cellular parts. By creating an environment hostile to these bacteria, we slow down, or even stop the process completely. All food preservation methods work this way. Some use heat, as in canning, some remove the water in the food, which bacteria need to survive, as in drying and dehydrating, some use the antibacterial properties contained in wood smoke, as in smoking, and others use an acidic medium that the troublesome bacteria cannot survive in, as in pickling, and fermentation.
Most bacteria, or at least the ones responsible for food spoilage, can only survive in environments with a PH level of 4.5 to 10. If you remember from High School chemistry, PH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity, measured on a scale from 1 to 14, with 1 being totally acidic, and 14 being totally alkaline. 7 is neutral. Humans can tolerate more acidity than most undesirable bacteria. For pickling and fermenting, we want to shoot for a PH of 1.7 to 3.0.
The difference in pickling and fermentation is that in pickling, vinegar is used to create an acidic medium. It changes the acidy of the food itself, making it unpalatable for the hungry little microbes. Fermentation uses the natural enzymes contained in the food, and a helpful bacteria called Lacto bacillus, to create alcohol and lactic acid, both of which are lethal to most bacteria. Lacto bacillus can survive in very acidic environments that would kill other protozoa.
Since we are talking about sauerkraut, which is fermented, we won’t mention pickling again. That will be for a future article. Making sauerkraut is super-easy. All we have to do is to cause the cabbage (the main ingredient) to expel the excess water contained within it’s cells, which will then attract the Lacto bacillus, and also kick on the veggies own natural enzymes to start the fermentation process. So the main ingredients are cabbage, salt, and time…..that’s it.
Sauerkraut Is Cheap, Why Should I Make It At Home?
Sauerkraut is a live (or supposed to be) food. It is loaded with probiotics, Probiotics are microorganisms that we need in our bodies to make things like digestion, and food absorption work right. Without them, we could die. When they are out of balance, we get things like heartburn, ulcers, and a whole host of unpleasant physical ailments. In the modern world of prepackaged, processed foods, most of our food is dead, and has greatly reduced nutritional value, all so it can be transported and sit on shelves for a long time. Sauerkraut is no exception.
Homemade sauerkraut is loaded with probiotics, vitamins, minerals, and at just 45 calories per cup, will fit into almost any diet, unless you have a problem with sodium. Since it is made with salt, there is no getting around the sodium issue. But hey, nothing is perfect. Also, there is no comparison in taste between homemade live sauerkraut, and dead processed sauerkraut. It’s like day and night.
Commercial sauerkraut has been canned, pasteurized, and has added preservatives. These kill the probiotics, ruining it completely. Homemade sauerkraut is nice and crunchy. Commercial sauerkraut is usually mushy, and cooked. You can, of course, cook your homemade kraut, but you can control the level of cooking to preserve the ‘crunch’ and flavor. And homemade kraut has natural preservatives in it, so there is no need to can it, unless you don’t want to keep it in the fridge. It will last for 6 months in the fridge, and a year or more in the freezer. Home canned sauerkraut is still better than the commercial kraut, because you can control the process. Food Producers way over do it on everything, mostly due to FDA regulations, many of which are arbitrary and unnecessary in modern times.
The bottom line is that homemade kraut tastes incredible, can be tailor-made to your individual taste, and is a lot of fun to make. It also gives you a great sense of empowerment, knowing you don’t have to depend on a company to supply you with food.
So, How Do We Do This?
Making sauerkraut is very easy, but it will be even easier if you get all your stuff together before starting the process.
First, decide what you want to make it in. You can use anything you want except metal, because metal and acid react with each other in an undesirable way. Glass, plastic, ceramic…all work equally well. Unless you plan to make 20, 30, 40+ lbs of kraut at a time (and a lot of us do….), you can save a lot of time and trouble by making it in the glass jars you plan to store it in. There is no limit to how many jars you can use. I usually use gallon-sized used pickle jars (after I have emptied them, of course…). Most stores sell Vlassic, Mount Olive, and other brands of pickles in the large gallon jars, so if your going to buy pickles anyway, why not get them in a great re-usable jar? Of course, for convenience, you can also use quart jars. Mason jars work great, as well. You can also use the traditional ceramic crock. Whatever get the job done. We’ll also need a large mixing bowl (again, not metal), so be sure to sterilize it as well.
Once you have decided on a container, all you need is cabbage and salt. You can add anything you want to your kraut, such as spices, other veggies, fruit, onions, garlic, hot peppers… It’s your kraut. Make it like you want it. I like Bavarian-Style kraut, so I always add some onions, garlic and caraway seeds…mmmmmh! You can find all kinds of recipes online, or be brave and experiment with your own.
One caution here….Never, never, never use iodized salt. It will make your kraut turn black and rot. Only use pickling salt, Kosher salt, or any other non-iodized salt. You can even use rock salt (you know, like for making ice cream…) if you grind it up. It’s OK if it’s a little coarse. It will dissolve.
You can use any kind of cabbage you want…purple, Naptha, Bok Choy, Kolrabi, or just plain cabbage. You can even mix and match….For the best results, select the largest cabbages you can get. The larger the cabbage, the sweeter it will be. You can add anything else you want. I have used apples, garlic, caraway seeds, and onions. I have heard of people adding carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, parsnips, radishes, collard greens….the list goes on forever. One large head of cabbage will make approximately 2 quarts of kraut. Since sizes are relative, it’s best to go by weight. A large cabbage will average around 2-1/2 lbs. I wouldn’t make less than 5 lbs at a time. That’s enough for a gallon jar. Trust me, this stuff goes fast, and it takes a few weeks to make really great kraut, so you will want to make large batches. I normally make 20+ lbs at a time, and it is usually gone in less than 2 months.
Now, we have all of our stuff together. If using jars, you will want a tray to set them in to catch any overflowing juice, but anything will work. Start by sterilizing all of the containers with a 5% chlorine solution and hot water. Rinse them well, and let them dry completely before use.
Next, shred your cabbage. You can just cube it if you want, but traditionally, kraut is shredded. Besides, it makes it stay on hot dogs and Ruebens better. Shred it about 1/8” thick. Any finer and it changes the texture.
We’re ready to start. Working in batches, place the cabbage in the mixing bowl, add the salt, and toss well. You need at least 1/4 cup of salt for every 5 pounds of kraut you intend to make. A little more is better. Add any extra ingredients and spices you want at this point. Now, using your clean hands, mix the salt and cabbage by tossing it, like a salad. You will find that your hands will get wet. This is from the salt drawing out the juice from the cabbage, and it is a good thing.
Once you have the salt and cabbage well mixed, stuff it into your jars, and pack it down very tightly. Fill the jars about 8/10ths full. You need a little room at the top for the liquid to completely cover the cabbage, when it forms. Set the tops on the jars, but don’t screw them down. Excess liquid needs to have somewhere to go, or it will bust your jars. Continue working in batches until all of your cabbage is jarred.
If using a crock, pack the cabbage down as tight as you can, place a plate or other non-metal flat object (sterilized, of course) on top of the kraut, then weight it down with a water-filled jar, or other heavy object (non-metallic). You can cover the whole thing with plastic film.
Check on your kraut often. After about an hour or so, there should be enough juice expelled to completely cover the cabbage. This is important. All the cabbage must stay submerged to prevent spoilage. If not, you can top the jars off with a brine mixture of at least 15% salt dissolved in cold water. But I would hold off on that until I was sure it was necessary. Only do it if the juice does not cover the kraut in about an hour and a half. You can also try packing the cabbage tighter in the jars first. Keep the containers in a place that stays between 65ºF and 75ºF degrees.
Once everything looks like it is going right, just wait….and wait…and wait. You’ll see liquid overflowing the top of the jar, and going into the tray. This is normal and means everything is working as it should. The minimum time for kraut is usually 2 weeks, but it is much better at 1 month, or even longer. As long as you see little bubbles, it is still working. If you see some white ugly-looking stuff on top, don’t worry. It’s normal. Just scoop it off. It is a harmless by-product. Likewise, if you see mold on top, it can also be scraped off. It too is harmless, and is caused by the temperature being too warm. Move the containers to a cooler spot, or turn up the AC. The only problem might be if you see the kraut turning pink, or grey. This means it has been contaminated by not-so-nice microbes, and it will have to be discarded. All you can do is start over. Que será, será. It happens to all of us occasionally, so don’t let it throw you.
The kraut is safe to taste at any stage in the process, so feel free to sample it to see if it is done like you want it, anytime. When you are happy with it, screw the jar lids down tightly, and move it into the fridge, which stops the fermentation process. If you made it in a crock, then place the kraut, and the juice, in jars, then refrigerate. It will keep for around 6 months in the fridge, or a year or more if you place it in freezer bags and freeze it. If you want to store it at room temperature, you can can it, but this will have an adverse effect on the taste. I don’t advise doing this unless you have no other options. It’s still better than store-bought….. Do not discard the juice. It is super-healthy for you. Drink it, use it for upset stomachs, or add it to other foods for a little tang.
You’re done. You can now use the kraut any way you wish. It can be cooked, or eaten raw (my recommendation). You are now officially a Krautmaster. Give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve earned it.
Check back with us often for more great articles.