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The Wonderful, Pungent World of Sauerkraut

Although fermented cabbage has been around in some form or another since ancient times – Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote of the stuff in the first century A.D. – modern methods for making sauerkraut were developed sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries. It’s primarily known as a German staple, but most other European countries use it in their traditional dishes. It’s pretty easy to understand why it was so popular: it keeps for a long time without refrigeration. Dutch, German, and English sailors found that the vitamin C-rich kraut prevented scurvy on the open seas, and the fact that it was salted and fermented made it ideal for long voyages without other preservation methods.

As the name would suggest, sauerkraut is quite literally sour cabbage. The sour flavor comes from the process of lacto-fermentation, similar to the pickling of cucumbers. But instead of soaking the cabbage in a vinegary brine solution, sauerkraut preparation requires only salt and the lactic acid bacteria already present on raw cabbage. More than just a delicious, tangy flavor, the beauty of sauerkraut also lies in its considerable health benefits. I already mentioned the great vitamin C content, but there’s also tons of lactobacilli, a healthy probiotic that aids in digestion and immunity. The fermentation also produces isothiocyanates, compounds shown to prevent cancer growth in animal tests. Even cabbage itself is a good source of manganese, vitamin B6 and folate.

But most of us get our kraut at the grocery store. Going that route means you’re probably losing all the good stuff through pasteurization, so why not make your own? It’s incredibly easy. All it takes is some cabbage, whatever other vegetables or fruits you’d like to include (carrots, different colored cabbage, garlic, onions, beets, even apples), a sealable storage vessel, a bit of sea salt, and patience.

The Basic Method

Gather the necessary items:

–    Cabbage (red and/or green)
–    Miscellaneous vegetables
–    Sea salt, fine (about 3 tablespoons is good for about 5 pounds of vegetables)
–    Storage vessel (ceramic crock, large glass jar – just no plastic or metal)
–    Mixing bowl

Begin by chopping up your cabbage. I used green, but you can throw in some red cabbage to make the batch pink. Include the heart or remove it. Chop it coarsely or finely; it’s your choice. What we’re going for is high surface area, because more surface area means more fermentation and exposure to the juices. Dump it into the mixing bowl and add salt as you go.

I’m including some carrots and garlic here. I like intense flavors, so I’m going to grate the carrots and dice the garlic to get the most out of both vegetables. I didn’t peel the carrots, but that’s just me. Peel the garlic though. Dump these into the bowl and add some salt as well.

Get in there with your hands and squeeze and press the ingredients together. Squeeze hard. You want to stimulate the natural juices of the vegetables, because they’re going to be your brine. The salt will already start pulling the moisture out, but you can certainly help the process.

Start packing your mix into your vessel. I used a mason jar, but you can use a larger ceramic crock for a bigger batch. Just make sure you can cover whatever vessel you use. Pack it down good and hard, going slowly to make sure each addition is completely compressed in the jar. This will extract water and ensure the fermentation process goes smoothly.

Cover it with a snug fitting cap, or a plate if you’re using a larger crock. Top that with something heavy to weight it down, like a bottle of water or a rock. You want to make sure the weight is enough to keep the mix packed tight and submerged in the brine. Cover the whole thing loosely with a cloth or towel to keep bugs out.

Every few hours for the next day or so, press down on the top and make sure the mix is submerged in brine. If it isn’t by the next day, you might have old cabbage. That’s fine. Just add a bit of water to cover everything, along with a teaspoon of salt.

Check your kraut every day or so. The volume will reduce as fermentation begins, and that’s exactly what you want. Mold or scum might appear on the surface every day; just skim that stuff off. As long as you stay on top of it, your sauerkraut is totally protected by the brine.

Start tasting your kraut after a few days. It should be tangy by now, and you can begin to gauge just how pungent you want it. The taste will get stronger as time increases. Every time you eat some, make sure you pack the rest of it in just like before: tightly packed, submerged, and with a weight pressing down. Though sauerkraut is usually ready to eat in 3-7 days, if it’s cool enough, like in a cold cellar, sauerkraut can improve for months. If you live in warmer climes, you might want to move your kraut into the fridge after a few weeks. Just stay on top of it, keep tasting it, and you’ll be able to decide what to do with it.

So really, it’s all about waiting. The actual preparation takes just a few minutes.

Stay tuned for some great sauerkraut recipes. Start making your own today so you’re ready!

Further Reading:

How to Make Dried Fruit [1]

How to Make Your Own Jerky [2]

10 Delicious DIY Salad Dressings [3]

“Primalize” Your Pantry [4]

10 Ways to Forage in the Modern World [5]