Fermentation Basics – Sauerkraut (and a variation)
Sauerkraut is undoubtedly one of the simplest and best known ferments in America, especially if your family is a Polish/Ukranian/Austrian/northern French hodgepodge like mine is. I also think sauerkraut is a gateway ferment. People think they’ll try to make it once as a lark, or maybe they give in to peer pressure. Then they realize how simple and delicious, how fun it is and they go to town. Before too long has passed they’re making kimchi in the bathtub, finding themselves passed out in a pool of their own vinegar, stashing flasks of kombucha in that old pair of boots in the back of the closet and sneaking out of bed to make mead and miso by moonlight. I’ve seen it happen. (No, I haven’t.)
Sauerkraut isn’t something I make every week. I really like it, but it tends to be a seasonal treat for me. Its salty tang inevitably brings delicious memories of Christmas Eve eve (yes, two eves) to mind: watching my dad prepare the kielbasa and sauerkraut before sitting down to roll an imperial amount of gumpke (stuffed cabbage) over the course of an evening.
As with every ferment I make regularly, I like to tweak the recipe whenever I make it. With sauerkraut, I usually prefer caraway over juniper and I generally use mustard seeds if I have them on hand.
When I heard Sandorkraut speak at the Free Library in June, he mentioned talking to someone who included mashed potatoes in her sauerkraut. Neat, right? Never done it before. I’m more of a sweet potato person than a potato person, so that’s what I used when I made this batch. As always, use your discretion. Too salty? Add less salt! Not enough “rye bread” taste? Double the caraway. Like it to remind of you of gin? Add a few juniper berries. Feeling funky? Add some sliced or pureed ginger or a load of garlic! The only essentials are cabbage and salt* so make it your own!
Note: This recipe is for one quart jar. My usual quantity is about 8 lbs of cabbage (other ingredients adjusted proportionally), which makes a gallon. You can find the sweet potato variation below the basic recipe.
1 head/ 2 lbs cabbage per quart you want to make
4 t salt (adjust to taste)
1 T caraway seeds (optional)
2 t mustard seeds (optional)
1. Cut out the core (or not) and rinse your cabbage well. Remove 1 or more yucky outer leaves. Reserve one, if you want. (see step 7)
2. Slice cabbage according to your preference. Smaller pieces will require less time to release their liquid, larger pieces will take a bit longer and need more massaging. I sometimes slice by hand, sometimes with the grater blade of my beloved Cuisinart and sometimes with the slicer blade. This is completely a question of preference.
3. Put the sliced cabbage into a large bowl. Mix in salt.
4. Massage the hell out of your cabbage. You want it to release its liquid and change texture a bit. If you have weak or arthritic hands or are just a lazy person, you can let your salted cabbage sit for 10 minutes. That will get the cabbage to start releasing its juices, and make your squeezing efforts easier.
5. When your cabbage feels a bit softer, and you have a decent amount of liquid in the bottom of your container, toss in your seeds, berries or other seasonings.
6. Get your clean wide-mouthed jar and a wooden spoon and start packing! Push that kraut in there as much as you can. You want to end up with an inch of space at the top of your container. You want your cabbage to be completely covered in its own juice.
7. (optional) Use the skanky outer leaf (especially the hard rib) to hold the cabbage beneath the surface of the liquid. Just press a large piece of leaf into the jar until it fits above the kraut and below the jar ridge. The leaf can be composted after fermentation has transformed your kraut. The cool trick is that if there is surface mold, it will be on the leaf you’re going to toss anyway. Preservation bonus! You can also add a tiny bit of liquid from another, healthy ferment (older sauerkraut, kimchi, ginger beer starter, etc) to get things bubbling. This is especially helpful in the winter when your space might be chillier than usual, but it is in no way necessary.
8. Use a jar filled with water, a boiled rock, a plastic bag filled with leftover kraut juice or some other weight to keep your kraut below the surface of the liquid. Set your jar aside in a place outside of direct sunlight. If you don’t want to deal with weighting it, you can look in every couple days and push everything back down below the surface. Be aware that if you forget to do this you will likely get mold. It’s okay. You can totally skim it and toss it, but it does freak some people out.
9. Wait four weeks to a couple months. Feel free to taste along the way and find your perfect acidity level and texture. Mark it down for next time.
SWEET POTATO VARIATION
Yes, the taters need cooking. Raw potatoes are unsafe to eat, even fermented.
2 small/medium sweet potatoes
1. Prepare kraut as above, through step 5.
2. While cabbage is dropping its water weight, make your mashed sweet potatoes.
3. I make mine by microwaving (egads) for 10 minutes or until very tender, flipping once, but you can boil or bake them if you’d like. I also removed the skins once they’ve been microed, but that’s up to you too.
4. Puree or mash sweet potatoes.
5. Now start filling your jar. This amount of sweet potatoes will give you enough for two layers, so I start with kraut, then a thick layer of sweet potatoes, then kraut, then potatoes then kraut. You want to make sure you have a very good thick layer of kraut on top, so that when you push down to bring up the juices, the kraut and potato don’t mix (like mine did). Alternatively, you could mix it all together before packing it into your jar
6. Make sure that cabbage liquid covers the jar contents and go back to steps 7-9 above to finish it off.
I’m always happy to help with troubleshooting!
*salt may be optional