There are many ways to preserve food and put it by: drying, aging, canning, pickling, root-cellaring, sugar-coating, submerging in vinegar or spirits and fermenting. And while canning and drying just may be in the running for most popular ways to save food, by far the easiest and least implement-demanding is fermenting. No water-bath or pressure canner needed, no drying racks to assemble, no jars and new lids to acquire and it doesn’t take up a lot of space either.
Traditionally the foods used for fermenting were vegetables; their low sugar content doesn’t risk alcohol production like most fruits, and their water content responds to the addition of salt in certain proportions to render an environment hospitable to good bacteria, yet resistant to the harmful sort. Sauerkraut immediately comes to mind when the term ‘fermenting’ is brought up, and while the age-old tradition of naturally fermenting sauerkraut is stilled used today, it should be noted that not all krauts today are made in the traditional way; anything that has been canned or jarred and is bought on a store shelf has been heated to such high temperatures that any good bacteria present are now dead, and many brands are only vinegar-flavored cabbage with added preservatives (like sodium benzoate.) Please, don’t buy mockraut. Especially when it is so easy to make your own from scratch. In its simplest form it is merely cabbage, salt, elbow grease and patience.
Though cabbage is the highlight of the sauerkraut ingredients, many other vegetables can come into play from beets and carrots to horseradish and juniper berries to onions and even seaweed! (And though sauerkraut is of German-origin, many other fermented veggie combinations from other cultures exist; Spain’s ‘cortido’ and Korea’s ‘kimchi,’ each of which have their own twist on vegetable combinations.)
In his book, “Wild Fermentation,” Sandor Katz lists the basic sauerkraut recipe to be 5 pounds of cabbage to 3 tablespoons of salt; that’s about 2 large heads of tightly-wound cabbage to just under 1/4 cup of salt. There are many variations of the cabbage:salt ratio, and often my recipe includes the term “eyeballing” (in the most scientific and tested form of the word, to be sure.) Nonetheless, what the salt actually does for the ferment is draw the juices (water content) out of the cabbage and form a brine in which to let the cabbage sit for anywhere from 1-4 weeks or longer, so I often find myself sprinkling in a layer of salt, working with it a bit and adding a bit more later if I find the kraut isn’t becoming ‘juicy’ enough.
So, while the basic idea for making sauerkraut is to finely chop/grate the heads of cabbage into a large bowl (*you don’t want to use a metal bowl for this) or ceramic crock, or a gallon-sized jar, toss in an amount of salt and pound, massage, work, crush, batter, clobber, wallop, pummel and pulverize until the water is leaking out of the cabbage and starting to look like cabbage stew. At this point you want to press as hard as you can to completely submerge the cabbage beneath the liquid (this is key: you want at least an inch of water sitting above the top of the cabbage.) Adding weight to the top of the cabbage is also helpful; a plate that fits just inside the crock or bowl weighted with a water bottle is the simplest method, though I’ve used plastic molds, tupperware lids and even a mortar and pestle for weight. Cover the jar/crock/bowl with a thin towel or layer of cheesecloth, just enough to keep the bugs out, rubber band it on and set the soon-to-be-kraut in a corner out of the way, perhaps a closet or lower kitchen cabinet (you don’t want a lot of temperature changes or direct sunlight.)
After about a week you can come back and there will probably be some frothy bubbles and white mold spores on the surface of the liquid (THESE ARE NOT HARMFUL) but to preserve the image of your sauerkraut and encourage further good-fermenting, you can scrape off these bubbles and white areas with your fingers, a spoon or a cloth. From here on out, it’s all a matter of taste. Start tasting your kraut everyday to see how acidic you like the flavor; the longer it ferments, the stronger and more acidic it will become. Once you like the flavor and intensity, simply transfer it to a jar (if not already in one), screw a lid on and place in a cool place like the refrigerator or a basement (or spring house or root cellar if you are so endowed.)
Easy as pie, which ironically, isn’t nearly as easy as sauerkraut.
Fermenting is a great place to experiment and try new combos and flavors! Some of my favorites have been:
Green cabbage and Granny Smith apples
Napa cabbage, hot peppers, carrots and garlic (a version of kimchi)
Carrots and jalapenos (that’s right, no cabbage in this one!)
Green cabbage, kelp and onions
Purple cabbage, beets, carrots and garlic
Turnips and onions (called sauerruben)
About 10 days ago I began a ‘Winter Harvest” kraut which includes cabbage, leeks, carrots, beets, parnsips, garlic and a couple of Brussels sprouts. I skimmed off the foam and froth 4 days ago and will start tasting in a couple of days.
Making and eating sauerkraut is great not only because you’re filling your belly with good-for-you-bacteria (probiotics,) but you can stretch the life of fresh vegetables to last, well, nearly indefinitely.