Make Your Own Sauerkraut
Cabbage is one of the easiest vegetables to grow, especially in the winter here in Zone 8. I usually buy little cabbage plants already started and set them out around September or October. The heads are ready to harvest in a couple months. I like to: steam cabbage and serve with butter; cook corned beef, adding cabbage in the last 10 or 15 minutes; and make my own sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut is nothing but fermented cabbage with a little salt to draw out its moisture. If any other vegetables are added to the cabbage and salt it is called kimchi.
Cabbage is fermented by a bacteria that already occurs naturally on its surface. The Lactobacillus bacteria converts some of the sugars in cabbage to lactic acid which acts as a preservative preventing the growth of other (possibly harmful) bacteria. The fermentation process changes the flavor of the cabbage, and the living bacteria provide health benefits much as yogurt does. (If you cook sauerkraut you kill the bacteria and lose those probiotic health benefits.)
To make your own sauerkraut, pick out some nice fresh cabbages and slice thinly or shred in a food processor. Weigh the shredded cabbage then toss with pickling salt, using 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pounds of cabbage (1.8 teaspoons of salt per pound of cabbage). Don’t use too much or too little salt. Next, cram the salted cabbage into a jar or crock, using your fist to push it down. You’ll be surprised at how much the shredded cabbage compacts and how much liquid is produced. Continue to tamp the cabbage down until it is submerged in its own liquid. You may have to do this periodically over several hours.
Once the cabbage is completely submerged, fill a large plastic zipper bag with water and place it in the jar on top of the cabbage to weigh it down and keep it submerged. Cover the top of the jar with cheese cloth so air can get in but not critters or dust. Set the jar in a cool dark place for 3-8 weeks. The warmer the temperature, the faster it ferments. The best tasting cabbage is fermented around 50°-65° F (10°-18° C) for around 6 weeks. I set my sauerkraut jar on the porch in winter and wrap a towel around it to keep it in the dark. When making sauerkraut later in the season, when the temperature on the porch is too high, I keep the jar in a closet. At 70°-80° F (21°-26° C) the fermentation is speeded up and just 3-4 weeks is enough time.
When I think the sauerkraut is ready, I transfer it to a container with a lid and store it in the refrigerator. Sauerkraut is a living culture and it will continue to ferment, albeit slowly, in the fridge. Theoretically the sauerkraut could last for many months stored this way, but it rarely does.
You can experiment with other vegetables and flavors in your sauerkraut, such as beets, carrots, dill seeds, etc. But remember that the necessary bacteria for the fermentation process is only on the cabbage, so any concoction you want to ferment must contain at least 50% cabbage.
Steve Christman 1/10/14