I love sauerkraut. Being vegetarian, there weren’t an awful lot of hot dog opportunities to enjoy this condiment in my youth, so I didn’t fully appreciate this delightful way to enjoy cabbage until I learned how to make it myself.
One of the best resources out there to help with fermenting foods in your own kitchen is Sandor Katz’s, Wild Fermentation. In his book, Sandor mentions the benefits of eating fermented foods including food preservation, enhanced digestion, and increased nutrition.
“Fermentation not only preserves nutrients, it breaks them down into more easily digested forms… [For example] wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest that unfermented wheat. A study in the journal Nutritional Health compared unfermented and fermented versions of a mix of barley, lentils, milk powder and tomato pulp and found that ‘starch digestibility almost doubled in the fermented mixture.’ According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization… fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals present in food.”
“Fermentation also creates new nutrients. As they go through their life cycles, microbial cultures create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and biotin… Some ferments have been shown to function as antioxidants, scavenging cancer precursors known as ‘free radicals’ from the cells of your body. Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids, essential for cell membrane and immune system function.”
We really find that eating sauerkraut on a fairly regular basis helps out a lot with digestion. Instead of taking probiotic pills or overdoing it on singing/dancing yogurt products, there are tons of probiotics in naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut. Building up a healthy gut flora even helps with your overall immune system — especially important during cold and flu season! If you’re going to eat fermented foods for the probiotics though, make sure you are getting unpasteurized products — the heat processing to pasteurize most commercially available ferments kills off all of the beneficial bacteria.
Making your own sauerkraut
For sauerkraut, texture is key. Peel off the first couple of outer leaves on the cabbage and leave them aside for later. Chop your heads of cabbage very thinly and place in a bowl. Sprinkle a good helping of salt (at least two tablespoons per head of cabbage). Massage the chopped cabbage. Actually forget texture — massaging is truly key to a good kraut. It takes a surprising amount of muscle to massage cabbage thoroughly, so let time help you with the work. Chop a head of cabbage, massage in the salt and let it sit for a bit while you chop the next head. Before adding more cabbage, massage the first batch again. It should be nice and juicy by then.
Once it’s nice and juicy, pack the kraut into a crock meant for fermenting, or a wide-mouth mason jar. Really jam the kraut in the jar and press down on the cabbage so that at least an inch of salty brine is covering the top of the cabbage. Use those outer leaves to put a couple layers on the top (to protect from moulds) and add a weight on top of the kraut (like a smaller jar filled with water or the weights that come with a proper crock).
If you’re serious about sauerkraut, you may want to invest in a crock, or a really big jar, because it seems like you need a critical mass of sauerkraut to really get the fermentation process going. A small mason jar just really isn’t going to get you great results. If you’ve got a crock, make sure there is water around the outside lip and set the lid in it. The water acts as a seal, not allowing any air into the crock, but allowing gases that are created in the fermentation process out. Ahhhh, science! If you’re doing this in a jar, just make sure you’ve got a way for the gases to escape — don’t put a tight lid on the jar.
The kraut should be ready in anywhere from 5 days to 3 weeks, depending on how warm of a place you are storing it in. Remember that the fermentation process will be incredible slow (and may not even start) if your kraut is too cold, so don’t store it on a cold basement floor.
You can check on the kraut every few days and test the flavour until you get the right amount of fermented ‘tanginess’ that you like. Once it’s there, you can transfer it to individual jars and then keep them in a cold place to halt further fermentation. This process isn’t like canning where you kill off all the bacteria so that you can store it indefinitely, naturally fermented krauts will have a shelf life, so enjoy it regularly. Let your nose be your guide to determine if things are getting too sour!
My favourite sauerkraut adds dried nettle, juniper berries and caraway seeds to the cabbage. Don’t forget that fermentation will increase the intensity of any herbs and spices, so if you’re adding garlic or chili, err on the side of caution the first time you make your kraut. (Ahhhh, everyone around our apartment at the time will remember the garlic and turmeric kraut attempt of 2010.)
And eating kraut with dinner helps curb farts… just saying’.