As of late, I have been appearing with loving regularity in your newsletter, iterating and reiterating the importance of eating locally across the seasons in our northern climate here in beautiful Wisconsin. And you are responding! You echo my desires to keep money in our local economy, and to preserve and maintain long-term business relationships with others in our community. You critique the national norm of trucking food across thousands of miles when you know that some of the best food on earth is grown right here in our fertile Wisconsin soils, by farmers you know by name. You have stopped me on the streets, asking me my opinions about dilly beans and pickles, or telling me that you made pesto and froze it for the first time in anticipation of the long winter months. You have yelled across Willy Street, “Hey, Canning Girl! I’m canning corn tonight!” The stories that most warm my heart are from those of you who have ventured tentatively into the kitchen this summer with your first case of mason jars and tomatoes armed only with my article, trusting that I would not lead you astray on the adventures of canning. I love the accomplished smiles you give me, and the confirmation that it wasn’t that intimidating after all, because you started small. Thank you. This makes me so happy.
Though the summery heat of this early September day beats in through my window as I write, I know that things will be different come October when this article is published. The elusive sun will be slipping away earlier and earlier in the evenings, and lush greens will give way to crisp browns. Much to my chagrin, the local season will be winding down rather rapidly and our opportunities to extend it through home food preservation will be slimming. We, will, however, still have options available to us.
One crop that is available to us locally throughout the fall is cabbage. Though cabbage does tend to store pretty well throughout many of the colder months, through the process of fermentation we may extend its shelf life even further while increasing some of cabbage’s nutrients and aiding our digestion. This is where I must confess my past apprehension with you. Up until last fall I was completely intimidated by the process of home fermentation. Looking back it seems so silly, because now that I’ve done it I can’t imagine ever feeling so reluctant, but there was a time when I found it prohibitively intimidating. I thought that in order to make sauerkraut at home I needed special kitchen equipment and a 10-gallon crock, as well as some esoteric knowledge about fermentation processes. I was totally wrong. I have a customer to thank for educating me about this as she shopped casually in the produce aisle.
The complex process of fermentation can be explained very simply. In the words of Linda Ziedrich in her useful book, The Joy of Pickling: “Fermentation is a controlled decomposition of food, involving yeasts, molds, or bacteria in an aerobic or anaerobic process.” It sounds a little counterintuitive to preserve something by hastening its decomposition, I know. But the science actually makes sense. The bacteria that break down the cabbage in the fermentation process are actually converting the cabbage’s sugars into acid, which “preserves the food for some time in its partially decomposed form,” according to Ziedrich. Additionally, the partial decomposition (fermentation) process makes cabbage much easier to digest. As someone who thought I didn’t like cabbage for that reason, I have found kraut to be a great way of incorporating it into my increasingly local diet.
Though there are many ways in which one may go about making sauerkraut, I suggest this method for its incredible ease and flexibility. You need no special kitchen equipment, nor must you acquire a crock. All you need is as little as one head of cabbage, non-iodized salt, some quart-sized mason jars with lids, a cutting board, knife, and large bowl. That’s it.
- Chop the cabbage into any shape you like. I personally like to give it a rough chop, keeping the cabbage strands thick. To easily do this, I quarter the cabbage and cut crosswise, creating long, crisp strips. As I chop, I transfer the shredded cabbage to a bowl. As soon as the bottom layer of the bowl is covered, salt heavily. I use coarse sea salt, which is lower in salinity than table salt, and also has no additives such as an anti-caking agent. Apply salt very, very liberally, especially if using a lower salinity salt. As the salted cabbage rests in the bowl, it will eventually begin to emit liquid. This is a good sign. This liquid is the beginning of the brine in which your cabbage will ferment.
- Continue chopping, layering, and salting until all cabbage is completely shredded. Then let the cabbage sit for a while at room temperature to encourage the development of more liquid. Go have a beer, check the Internet for a while, do whatever strikes your fancy. Unlike canning, which requires the use of boiling water and timers, this process is very flexible, allowing you to take your sweet time doing it.
- Once you’re ready, begin to fill your cleaned mason jars with your salted, shredded cabbage, taking care not to spill or waste the liquid the salt has extracted. As you fill the jar, attempt to crush the cabbage down into the jar to fit as much as possible. Once full, top with remaining liquid from your cabbage bowl. Don’t worry, there will not be enough liquid in which to submerge your cabbage. That’s okay. Top with water, making sure that all of the cabbage pieces are submerged beneath the water’s surface. Repeat this process with remaining cabbage. Screw tops on mason jars, and set them on the counter somewhere where you will remember to check them daily. And don’t screw the lids on tightly. I’ll explain why in a bit.
- Now you wait. Your cabbage will begin to ferment, but the rate at which it will do so will be determined by a number of variables, most significantly the temperature in your home. If your home is very warm, the temperature will hasten the fermentation process. Conversely, a cooler home will ferment your cabbage more slowly. If you’re new to this, it is important to check your jars of cabbage daily in order to observe and therefore better understand the process. Eventually you will see a change in the color and texture of the cabbage and liquid. White cabbage will yellow, while purple cabbage will become pink. The volume of cabbage in each jar will decrease. Some water may evaporate, in which case you must be sure to add more so that the cabbage remains submerged at all times. The liquid in your jars will also begin to bubble. This is why it is important not to screw the lids of your mason jars on tightly. In my inexperience last winter, I thought I was being smart to screw the lids on tightly. When I next approached my jars, I was met with a vigorous eruption of stinky cabbage juice all over my face, hair, clothes, counter, ceiling, and floor. The worst of it was not that it made me late for school, but was rather the smell that lingered throughout the week, all the way until Friday when I had quite a little dinner date planned at my house. I never made that mistake again.
- During this process, I encourage you to eat a bite per day, as you will begin to determine how fermented you like your kraut. I prefer it to be a little on the less-fermented side, while my football-watching companions (who eat my sauerkraut atop local bratwurst on game days) prefer it to be very, very fermented. Once it gets to your desired flavor and texture, pop the jars into the fridge for use at your convenience. The cabbage will continue to ferment in the refrigerator, but at a much slower pace. I still have kraut in my fridge that I fermented last autumn with cabbage from the garden, and it tastes great.
Some people can their kraut after fermenting it. Though an avid canner, I do not. The beneficial aspects of fermented foods for our health are the live active cultures, otherwise described as microorganisms, causing and resulting from the fermentation process, which are destroyed by heat in the canning process. These microorganisms aid our immune system by fighting off pathogens, and are often referred to as our first line of defense against infection. They also aid digestion, and may prevent some cancers. Because canning kraut is not necessary in order to keep it safe for my consumption, I opt to leave it in the refrigerator raw for optimal nutrient absorption.
Once your first jar of kraut has been consumed, reserve the remaining liquid for use with your next batch. This brine will already contain valuable microorganisms that will hasten the fermentation process in your next batch of sauerkraut.
Of course, sauerkraut, like many other foods, can mold and spoil. Trust your eyes and your sense of smell. If a small bit of mold develops on the top of your kraut, it is completely safe to skim it off the top and consume the kraut below. Likely the kraut that became moldy did so because your cabbage was not completely submerged. Cover with water and store.
On rare occasion, sauerkraut may putrefy. This is most likely to happen if you are fermenting in extreme heat, such as during the summer months. In that case I suggest storing the jars with fermenting cabbage in a cool, dark area such as a basement. Don’t forget to keep an eye on them despite their out-of-the-way location.
For further information
If the topic of fermentation interests you, there is a great book that we sell that you may want to explore. It is called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. He also has a very useful website, http://www.wildfermentation.com which provides basic information about the benefits of home fermentation.