Start Your Fermengines: Sauerkraut

Although I’ve been cooking as long as I can remember, I hadn’t really fermented anything on my own until about nine years ago. The idea of taking a hobby in a new direction was appealing, but I saw fermentation as an intimidating challenge. I was used to sauteeing, stewing, frying, steaming, maybe even a little baking: I gained satisfaction from watching raw ingredients change in a matter of minutes or, at most, a couple hours. Flipping through (devouring?) the pages of my newly acquired copy of Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation I was excited by the possibilities, but intimidated by the processes. Many of the ferments took days, weeks, even months to finish and initially seemed to require equipment that I didn’t have around. There was the added element of “cooking with microbes.” Yet the simplicity of the recipe for sauerkraut drew me in. It was often made in a crock, but it could be made in a regular mixing bowl with a plate on top. It only called for two ingredients: cabbage and salt. Although it would take a week or so it seemed simple enough. I thought about it briefly and went for it. It was the heat of summer and all the little microbes in the air and on the cabbage were working at full speed, because the next day I took a look at it and when I stuck my face in close to take a whiff I knew right away that it had already become kraut. It had worked, I was hooked, and after letting it go for another five or six more days, it was delicious.

Below is a Sauerkraut recipe, loosely adapted from Wild Fermentation. It’s a really easy recipe designed to use ingredients and equipment you either have already or can probably find nearby. Plus, if you start in the next few days or so it’ll be ready in time for the fermentation party on April 14.

To start you’ll want:

  • cabbage (any type: green, red, savoy, smooth, asian, euro)
  • salt
  • a glass, ceramic or plastic mixing bowl or large jar (to pack the kraut in as it ages)
  • a glass, ceramic or plastic plate that fits inside bowl
  • a smaller jar (to use as a weight)
  • a clean towel or cloth large enough to cover the bowl

1.  Remove any brown bits from the cabbage. Maybe they’re good to eat, but they’re probably not great in the kraut.

2.  Chop or shred the cabbage however you like: fine or coarse, with or without the heart.

Usually I chop up the hearts a little finer than I did here, but do with what suits you.

Usually I chop up the hearts a little finer than I did here, but the leaves are just as I like them; do what suits you.

3.  As you chop the cabbage, toss it into a bowl with the salt. How much salt? Depends on how much cabbage. Three tablespoons of salt for five pounds of cabbage is a great ratio. Adjust the amount of salt to suit the quantity of cabbage. If you don’t have a scale in your kitchen and you bought the cabbage at a supermarket the weight might be on the receipt. If you purchased it at a smaller market or farmers market they probably have a scale and can tell you the weight when you buy it. If all else fails, just estimate the weight; try and compare it to something else of known (marked) weight in the kitchen, but don’t worry about it being so precise.

Your bowl may seem too full at first, but as the salt softens the cabbage you can more easily pack it into the bowl.

Your bowl may seem too full at first, but as the salt softens the cabbage you can more easily pack it into the bowl.

4.  Mix the cabbage and salt well and let it sit for at least a few minutes to soften the cabbage.

5.  Use your (clean) hands or another tool to pack the cabbage down into the bowl. This helps force water out of the cabbage, which mixes with the salt and forms a brine.

Salted cabbage after being packed into the bowl

Salted cabbage after being packed into the bowl

6.  Place the plate on top of the cabbage and put a jar filled with water on top of the plate.

The whole setup before being covered with a cloth

The whole setup before being covered with a cloth

7.  Cover the whole setup with a cloth. This will keep dust and flying critters out.

The whole setup covered in a cloth, ready to age

The whole setup covered in a cloth, ready to age

8.  Check the cabbage a day later. If the brine has not covered the cabbage and there are just a few pieces of cabbage sticking out of the brine, you can push them under the brine by hand. Otherwise, you’ll want to make up some brine to add in to cover the cabbage. Brine is just salt and water: one tablespoon salt added to one cup water works well; stir until dissolved and add into the bowl.

Continue to leave the kraut to age at room temperature, tasting and enjoying it as it ferments and develops. Temperature and taste determine how long you let it age, depending on these factors you can let it go for just a few days or well over a month. It will develop a deeper sour flavor more quickly in a warm room than a cold one. Once the kraut has reached a point that you like you can put it into the fridge where the fermentation will almost come to a halt and will last for months. Enjoy!

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