I like to get up close and personal with my food preparation. I’m not afraid to don my apron and get my hands right in there for the sake of something yummy. And, making sauerkraut is the perfect way to be both hands on and hands off. Let me explain.
Sauerkraut is a form of controlled decomposition. If you wonder why it smells so funky, that is because healthy bacteria are digesting the cabbage and breaking it down — this is the process of fermentation. If the idea of fermentation grosses you out, then you’d better abandon yogurt, beer, coffee, cheese, chocolate and even bread. Fermentation is everywhere, propagating good bacteria and it is a natural way of preservation. Now we are learning about how helpful these beneficial bacteria are to our bodies. Instead of trying to eliminate all bacteria, we need to better understand how to cultivate the good microbes and add them to our diet.
But I digress, I became interested in making sauerkraut a few years ago because I actually enjoy the taste. It is tangy and I enjoy it on a grilled cheese with sauteed mushrooms, almost like a reuben. It’s also a great condiment with perogies. Making sauerkraut is quite simple. The process involves a lot of smashing and then a lot of letting it ferment without intervention. To make, first take a cabbage and chop it roughly into small pieces, or you can use an antique kraut board, but this device looks to me like a surefire way to visit the local ER doc. Place the chopped cabbage in a metal bowl, add some coarse kosher salt and then start smashing it. For a smashing implement, you can use the flat end of a rolling pin (pins/handles removed), or make something out of scrap wood. The main thing is that you need to speed up the breakdown of the sauerkraut by smashing it up. Once you get to a point where your cabbage is covered in liquid, you can then loosely pack the cabbage into mason jars, leaving at least an inch from the top to allow for air. I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t pack your jars too tightly — it creates a pressure during fermentation and will rupture the glass. I did this once, arriving home to a hissing sound from my cabinet and when I opened up a jar under pressure, it spewed partially rotted cabbage all over my ceiling. Oh, and this was when I was experimenting with red cabbage and living under the roof of a supremely neurotic landlord. Not awesome, but lesson learned: don’t pack the container! Once in the jar, you can add a bit of spicing. I prefer to add a couple of juniper berries and some caraway seeds. Now, you just let nature do the rest. Store in a cool, dark place for at least 2 weeks. Check on the kraut often to make sure it’s not drying out; if dry, add a brine solution of salt and water to top. Check on the actual fermentation and when it’s done and tastes like sauerkraut, transfer to the refrigerator to slow the fermentation and preserve.
Why make your own sauerkraut when you can buy it? For one, with a single cabbage you can make at least two quarts of kraut for a fraction of the price. Second, you can experiment with different types of cabbage, and still the best I’ve ever made was from an heirloom dark green Jersey cabbage varietal. And, it can be a stress reducer for what is more therapeutic than smashing something to smithereens for the sake of good food? Finally, because it is homemade, you are getting all of the beneficial probiotics out of the food that are lost in the commercial production of sauerkraut. Fear not the fermented cabbage! By making your own kraut, you are continuing a long tradition of food preservation.