Monday, January 24, 2011

Hands On - Sauerkraut

Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years for a reason - they are tasty and nutritious and they store well.  If you want to learn about fermentation, a good place to start is sauerkraut. This is a living food.  Another example of how bacteria - properly managed - can be our friends.

What you will need:
5 pounds of green winter cabbage - the kind that has a dense head - not loose cabbage like napa.  Five pounds of cabbage will make about a gallon of kraut.
2-3 tablespoons kosher salt or pickling salt
A sharp knife and cutting board or a mandoline or other tool for thinly slicing the cabbage
A clean crock or other large nonreactive (glass, food grade plastic, enamel or stainless steel) container
A plate and a weight or other system for weighting down the cabbage
A cover for the crock
A location for the crock that is consistently about 65-70 degrees fahrenheit

The steps  (See the steps in pictures - below)
1.  Cut up the cabbage.  Quarter and core.  Slice as thinly as possible.  (Make sure you start with a little more than five pounds of cabbage to allow for waste.  Please compost the cores and other waste.)
2.  Put the sliced cabbage in a large bowl or pan, sprinkle on 2-3 T. of salt.  Some say use a little more salt in summer and less in winter.  Mix the salt and cabbage with clean hands - squeezing and pressing hard - for a few minutes.
3.  Let the cabbage rest about half an hour.
4.  Pack the cabbage into the crock or container.  Press down hard.  You can use a potato masher to do this.
5.  Put a clean plate on top of the cabbage - ideally one that just fits inside the cabbage container.
6.  Put a weight on top of the plate - you can use a heavy plastic bag full of water, a clean jar full of water or even a clean rock.
7.  Cover the crock with a clean towel or plastic wrap.
8.  Set the crock in a place that is 65-70 degrees for 7-28 days.  Check the crock after the first day - the brine should completely cover the cabbage.  You do not want air to reach the cabbage.  Fermenation needs an anaerobic environment.  If the brine does not cover the cabbage then add more brine -- one cup of water to 1 T. salt.
9.  After the first day, you don't need to check the kraut more than once every 5-7 days.  Some mold may appear on the surface.  If it does, just skim off what you can.  Don't worry about this - it is just a result of surface contact with the air.  The kraut is under the "anaerobic protection" of the brine.  If some brine evaporates, just add more brine to keep the kraut covered.
(Note - the temperature should never go over 72 degrees in the fermentation process.  Lower temperature means slower fermentation.)
10.  Tasting - after a week or so, remove the weight and plate and taste a bit of the kraut.  It is possible to stop the fermentation process at this point if you like kraut this way.  You stop the fermentation by lowering the temperature and refrigerating the kraut.  You could decide to take some out and eat it and leave the rest to continue fermenting.  If you remove some kraut make sure you repack the rest, smooth the top and make sure there is enough brine to cover.

You don't want to let the process continue for more than four weeks.  Three weeks is probably ideal.  It depends on the temperatures your crock is living in. It is not good to let the kraut become soft.  The flavor will be less pleasant.

11. Storing - when the kraut has reached the flavor you like, just pack it into clean glass jars, with the brine,  and store in the refrigerator.  It will keep for months.  Kraut can be canned but the heat processing will change it.  I prefer "living" sauerkraut.

12.  Sauerkraut juice - it is okay to drink the brine.  Yes it is salty but some consider it a "digestive tonic".

Sauerkraut recipes - You can even join a sauerkraut club at this site.

Here are pictures of the steps I use to make sauerkraut.

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