Basics: Sauerkraut

Turns out that fermenting your own food is pretty easy. Figures, since humans have been preserving food in this manner for thousands of years. And yet, in our modern, sterile world, the idea of letting bacteria go to town on your food is met with horror and fear.

All chopped and ready to go!

All chopped and ready to go!

Fear not.

This recipe is insanely simple. It requires no special tools or expertise. If you have a knife and a large sealable container, you’re set. And it doesn’t get more elemental than this.

Ready for its massage

Ready for its massage

But first, a bit of science and whatnot. Did you know that you have more microbe cells in your body than human cells? We rely on these bacteria and enzymes to help us digest our food, build our muscles, make new blood — basically everything. And, well, it goes without saying that they rely on us for basically everything too, from the air we breathe to the food we eat.

Feels nice

Feels nice

We’ve all heard that we need more probiotics in our lives (and guts). We know that fermented foods are a great way to get them — but with the exception of yogurt, kefir, and a few other foods you may be lucky enough to come across, all of the beneficial bacteria have been killed off during pastuerization. My (and probably the world’s) most favorite products of fermentation, beer and wine, are almost always filtered and pastuerized as well (an exception would be beers that are bottle-conditioned).

Nice and wilted

Nice and wilted

Say it isn’t so! Yes, I am sorry to say that all those “soured” foods you can find at your grocery store (including sauerkraut and kimchi) are not teeming with the microbes you probably associate them with. You’re better off eating raw fruits and veggies in that case. And even things we think of as “pickled” aren’t even truly pickled. Like…pickles. Yeah.

So juicy!

So juicy!

Plus, if there comes a time when access to our generally safe food supply comes into question (ongoing government shutdown? Zombie apocalypse?), it’s nice to know that you have a supply of food and the ability to make more (and share your wealth of knowledge with your friends and neighbors).

Home fermentation. It sounds daunting. And I must confess that I was quite intimidated at first. I’ve brewed beer and I’ve seen firsthand how crazy some people (i.e., my boyfriend the germaphobe) get over the possibility of a bacterial infection in their beer. Sanitation is key. But with sauerkraut and kimchi, when you want those bacteria, it’s much easier.

All you have to do is: Chop some cabbage, add some salt, massage it (not kidding), pack it into a container, wait. That’s it. And in a few days, you have a delicious, probiotic treat!

Day 0 -- Day 1 -- Day 2 -- Day 4 -- Day 6

Day 0 — Day 1 — Day 2 — Day 4 — Day 6

Basic Sauerkraut

Inspired by The Art of Fermentation and Real Food Fermentation. Don’t be intimidated by the long list of steps; it really is quite easy. I just wanted to break it down as simply as possible.
  • 1 large head of cabbage (preferably organic)
  • salt
  • tall container (I used a half-gallon mason jar)
  1. Wash your hands thoroughly. Wash your container with hot, soapy water or run it through the dishwasher.
  2. Remove outer leaves from the cabbage. Rinse off any dirt that may be on the outside. Cut into quarters and remove the core if desired (I didn’t). Roughly chop the cabbage to your desired thickness. Place in a very large bowl (you may have to do this in batches if you don’t have a big enough bowl).
  3. Add the salt to the cabbage. The normal ratio is 5 lbs cabbage to 3 tbsp salt. I used Kosher salt. Massage the cabbage to draw out the water and wilt it. Don’t rush it! Give it a good ten minutes. A lot of water will come out of the leaves.
  4. Transfer the cabbage and the liquid into your container, really packing it in to squeeze out all the air. I was able to get almost all of my 5-lb cabbage into my jar. Make sure the liquid covers the top of your cabbage. Leave about an inch of space for expansion. If your cabbage isn’t particularly juicy, you can add filtered water (tap water usually contains chlorine, which will inhibit fertilization) to cover. Cap tightly.
  5. Leave it out at room temperature overnight. In the morning, release the lid slightly to let out the pressure and then tightly recap. This will push out any oxygen and prevent unwanted microbes from establishing. If you notice that your kraut is particularly bubbly, you may need to do this a couple of times a day — no one wants a kraut explosion! The warmer your room is, the faster your kraut will ferment.
  6. Start tasting your kraut after 3 days. Once it tastes how you like it, store it in the fridge (or a root cellar if you’re lucky enough to have one!) to severely retard fermentation. It should keep for at least 6 months, if not years (if it lasts that long!)
  7. As you eat your kraut, transfer it into smaller containers to reduce oxygen exposure, which can cause mold to grow.
  8. Feel free to add different spices to your kraut to give it different flavors, like the red pepper flakes I added below!
Spice it up!

Spice it up!

Troubleshooting:

If your kraut is too salty, you can rinse it before you eat it. Next time you can try using less salt (though using no salt is not usually recommended).

If you notice white mold growing on the top, simply discard the top layer of kraut.

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