Monday, May 19, 2014

Sauerkraut: Want It, Love It

When I was 16, I spent a few weeks touring around Europe as part of a youth orchestra. It was unforgettable.

My strongest culinary memory from that trip (aside from Italian gelato and a certain restaurant on the Champs-Elysées) was the sauerkraut in Switzerland. Knowing nothing about it, I wished then that I could forget it. It was rather sour. It smelled funny. I didn't like it. I didn't want it. And I couldn't wrap my mind around its immense popularity.

I wish I could see my teenage self peer into the future and observe in disbelief my love affair with this fermented cabbage now. It is deliciously sour and impressively complex. I love it. I crave it. I eat it almost every day. If it runs out—tragedy.

A standout in the repertoire of lacto-fermented foods, sauerkraut packs a powerful punch. The fermentation occurs as tiny little bacteria called lactobacilli happily feed on the starches and sugars in the food, producing lactic acid (thus lacto-fermentation). This amazing, transformative process
  • perfectly preserves the food
  • enhances digestibility
  • increases vitamin levels 
  • creates new nutrients 
  • removes toxins from the food
  • produces beneficial enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances 
  • inhibits growth of bad bacteria, not only on the food but also in your gut (that is, it would give E. coli a good fight if it happened to show up down there)
  • breaks down phytic acid, even in the gut
  • promotes healthy gut flora (probiotic), thereby strengthening your immunity
  • produces a complex flavor that evolves with age

Wow. Raise your hand if you want some of THAT!

Whether you want it or not, you do need it. As you make it and eat it, little by little you will start to crave it and love it. Your body will recognize the good it's doing and keep reminding you. When I have encountered sugar cravings, taking a few bites of sauerkraut instead has been both satisfying and healing. My body sings its praises after every little bite.

A caution: many brands of sauerkraut available in stores have been pasteurized, killing the beneficial microorganisms we so desire. In order to reap the deep benefits, you have to make it yourself.

Fortunately, it's easy! If you've never lacto-fermented anything before, sauerkraut is a great place to start. I suggest reading the whole recipe before starting. Here we go!


For every pound of organic cabbage, use 2 tsp. sea salt

  • A sharp knife
  • A cutting board
  • A scale (if you don't have one, weigh your cabbages at the market, keeping in mind that you'll be coring them) 
  • A large mixing bowl
  • Fermentation vessel of choice (you can use a regular mason jar)*

1) Technically this step is optional, but I like to start by sharpening up my knife a little to expedite the cutting, especially if I'm making a big batch (which is always).

2) Remove outer cabbage leaves. Cut and core the cabbage.

3) Shred the cabbage. (You can use a food processor if you want, but I prefer the consistency I achieve with a knife.)

4) Weigh the cabbage, adding the salt as you go. The salt preserves the cabbage as the pH drops during the first few days of fermentation.

5) Squeeze and press the juice out of that cabbage! You can go nuts and do it all at once OR you can let the cabbage and salt sit together for a while to help draw out the juices before pressing (which you can do right in your fermentation container, if you like). This can take hours or even a whole day if it suits you.

6) Using a small implement (e.g. a little jar, meat hammer, potato masher, one of these fancy crushers, or your fists), pack the cabbage tightly into your fermentation container, getting rid of as many air bubbles as possible. Leave at least one inch between the juice and the top of your jar (the sauerkraut will expand). If you're having trouble getting the juices to rise above the cabbage, you may add some salt water (1 tablespoon sea salt dissolved in 1 cup filtered water) as needed. I have rarely needed to add water, but it won't ruin your ferment to do so. :)

My Harsch crock, stored under the sink

7) Sauerkraut requires an anaerobic environment to ferment, so you need to keep the cabbage submerged under the brine to avoid spoilage. If you're using a mason jar without an airlock, use one of the two following methods:
  1. Leave the jar open, but weigh the cabbage down with something heavier so the brine stays well above it. Keep your eye on your kraut. If you notice a thin white film forming atop your brine, just skim it off. You're welcome to taste and stir your sauerkraut whenever you like. 
  2. Close the jar tightly and put it in a cool, dark corner of your kitchen. The lactobacilli put off CO2 that needs to be released, so if you choose this method, you should "burp" the jar every few days by loosening the ring and allowing the CO2 to escape. You can also take this opportunity to taste your kraut. You will notice the flavor changing as the fermentation progresses.
8) Wait. You have to be patient. Sauerkraut goes through three stages of fermentation, and you get the most benefit out of it if you wait a minimum of four weeks (see "mistake #1" in that post). Remember, the cabbage must stay submerged under the brine.

9) When you taste the sauerkraut, trust your instincts. Sauerkraut has a high success rate (I don't think I've ever botched a batch), but occasionally one might go bad. This post includes some visuals that might warn of an improper ferment (see "mistake #2," though if you use any purple cabbage to begin with, then "pink cabbage" is not going to be an indicator of spoilage). Above all, trust your gut!

10) There are lots of ways to eat it. Like this:


Or even this (the juice is an amazing digestive tonic!):

Or whatever tickles your fancy or tempts your palate. It can be eaten plain or added to just about anything—salads, sandwiches, smoothies, warm soups—and it's notoriously good with meats.

I hereby wield the power of the Daily Dare and challenge you to make some sauerkraut and eat it! I promise that if you make it, wait patiently for it to transform, and consume it regularly, you will reap tremendous health benefits. You will want it.

Once you've made it a couple times, you'll be ready for sauerkraut's foreign cousins, kimchi and cortido (coming soon!).


Some of my resources on lacto-fermentation:
  • Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (he has a couple other good ones, too)
  • Real Food Fermentation by Alex Lewin
  • Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (just a section dedicated to it in this book)
  • Lacto-Fermentation eBook by GNOWFGLINS (Wardee also recently published a book called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods, which I don't have)
  • Lacto-Fermentation eBook by Cultures for Health (free online!)

*An Important Word on the Vessel
Some recipes call for using a plain old mason jar. I fermented this way many times before a wonderful person gave me a 10-liter Harsch crock a year ago. Everyone seems to have a different idea about fermenting in mason jars. Some think it's best to have a container that can release the gases produced by the lactobacilli without allowing more oxygen into the jar (using something like these, or here's a more economical DIY for attaching an airlock to your mason jar lid).

At least one blogger has stirred up some controversy regarding the safety and efficacy of lacto-fermenting in mason jars. Here is another blogger's responses to those circulating concerns. Traditional fermentation expert Sandor Katz is not at all concerned about using an open ferment method, as long as the food is clearly submerged beneath the brine. The post I referenced above (with the three common fermenting mistakes) contains good information on how to ferment optimally (staying totally anaerobic, avoiding mold, getting consistent results, and increasing lactobacilli) as well as lots of interesting discussion in the comments. Also, do check out this cool experiment (18 different vessels for 28 days).

All that said, I personally think mason jars are a fine place for someone to start out their fermentation journey. Better there than not at all! I did it many times before using a crock, and I never experienced anything but wholesomeness. :)