Monday, April 14, 2008

Real Food V: Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is part of a tradition of fermented foods that reaches far into human prehistory. Fermentation is a means of preserving food while also increasing its nutritional value. It increases digestibility and provides us with beneficial bacteria, especially those that produce lactic acid. Raw sauerkraut is a potent digestive aid, probably the reason it's traditionally eaten with heavy food.

Sauerkraut is produced by a process called ‘anaerobic’ fermentation, meaning ‘without oxy
gen’. It’s very simple to achieve in practice. You simply submerge the cabbage in a brine of its own juices and allow the naturally present bacteria to break down the sugars it contains. The process of ‘lacto-fermentation’ converts the sugars to lactic acid, making it tart. The combination of salt, anaerobic conditions, and acidity makes it very difficult for anything to survive besides the beneficial bacteria, so contamination is rare. If it does become contaminated, your nose will tell you as soon as you taste it.

Typical store-bought sauerkraut is far inferior to homemade. It's soggy and sulfurous. Raw homemade sauerkraut is crunchy, light, and tart.

My method is inexpensive and requires no special equipment. I've tested it many times and have never been disappointed.

  • Wide-mouth quart canning jars (cheap at your local grocery store)
  • Beer bottles with the labels removed, or small jars that fit inside the canning jars
  • Three tablespoons of sea salt, pickling salt, or Kosher salt (not iodized table salt)
  • Five pounds of green cabbage
  1. Chop cabbage thinly. Ideally the slices should be 2 mm or so wide, but it doesn’t matter very much. You can use a food processor, mandolin or knife.
  2. Put all the cabbage together in a large bowl and add the salt. If the salt is not very dense (sometimes finely ground sea salt can be fluffy), you can add up to 5 tablespoons total. Mix it around with your hands. Taste some. It should be good and salty.
  3. Let the salted cabbage sit in the bowl for 30 minutes or so. It should be starting to get juicy.
  4. Pack the cabbage tightly into the canning jars. Leave 2-3 inches at the top of the jar. When you push on the cabbage in the jar, you should be able to get the brine to rise above the cabbage. Try to get rid of air bubbles.
  5. Put water into the beer bottles and place them into the canning jars. The weight of the bottles will keep the cabbage under the brine. It’s okay that some of the brine is exposed to the air; the cabbage itself is protected.
  6. Let it sit for 2 weeks at room temperature! As the fermentation proceeds, bubbles will form and this will raise the level of the brine. This is normal. You might get some scum on top of the liquid; just check for this and scrape it off every few days. It won’t affect the final product. If the brine drops to the level of the cabbage, add salt water (1 tsp/cup, non-chlorinated water) to bring it back up.
  7. Taste it! It should be tart and slightly crunchy, with a fresh lactic acid flavor. If fully fermented, it will keep in the fridge for a long time.
Here are some photos from making sauerruben, which is like sauerkraut but made with turnips:


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing that! Always loved sauerkraut but didn't realize it was so easy to make.

Scott Kustes said...

Great stuff Stephan. I did a similar post some time ago for a batch of kraut that I made here. I'm about to make some tonight actually...exciting!


Stephan Guyenet said...

Glad you liked the post, gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

Here's a very simple old recipe from mom that tastes great. Made it the other night for friends and it was devoured.

Sauerkraut & spareribs

- You'll need about 2 quarts of kraut, whether you make yourself of get in bottles (I like the refrigerated Bubbies from Whole Foods -- no sugar, vinegar, or preservatives).

- 1-2 whole yellow onion(s), chopped lengthwise.

- 4 pounds pork spareribs (you can use other pork cuts as well -- probably just as good).

- 1/2 standard spice bottle of caraway seeds.

Depending on how "sauer" you want the kraut, you can use most, some, or none of the brine, or you can even rinse it. I generally just drain the brine and use a cup of white wine and the remainder water (sometimes with a little chicken or vegetable broth too) in order to cover the whole thing in the pot.

Just toss everything in, bring to a boil, and simmer until the pork is falling off the bone. You can also do it in the crock pot. The other night I used the pressure cooker 'cause I was short for time. Recipe called for 20 minutes once under full pressure, but I let it go about 30 minutes and it was fantastic.

It's all in the caraway seeds. That is THE essential flavoring ingredient. Don't be shy. My mom's original recipe reads: "Caraway seeds: LOTS."

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Richard,

That sounds delicious. I just made ribs for the first time in 6 years the other night. I'm drooling just thinking about it.

psychic24 said...

I was just reading nourishing traditions where they say that sauerkraut is ready in 3-4 days if you use whey as a starting liquid. Does that mean that after 3-4 days you're mostly just ripening the 'flavor' of the kraut, instead of significantly adding to the bacterial population?