Saturday, February 19, 2011

Adventures in Fermentation I

Winter's almost over, and most people still haven't made their own sauerkraut. What a pity. Sauerkraut is one of the simplest and most delicious things you can make at home. It requires only two ingredients, a few minutes of work, and a few days of waiting to provide the basis for any number of healthy, delicious meals. It's also an excellent first foray into the wild world of fermented foods. Fermentation is a lost art of food preservation--and, it increasingly seems, compounding health benefits. From yogurt to beer to kimchi to ketchup, much of the food our ancestors consumed was alive. You can continue eating pasteurized this and flash-frozen that, or you can reestablish the alliance with good germs that kept prior generations all but immune to colds, fatigue, and indigestion. Few things you can do in the home kitchen are as magical as fermenting cabbage, a process whereby a tough, sweet, dry, voluminous vegetable transforms into something tender, sour, juicy, and dense.

Though I do sport considerable German heritage, I never thought much of sauerkraut, because I'd only ever had it out of a can. It was just something to cover a hot dog with. As I developed a taste for beer, and increasingly unusual pork products, I became reasonably fond of commercial kraut, even though it sometimes gave me pretty bad indigestion. This probably resulted from the vinegar used in most commercial varieties, or the excess of pork fat often used to cook it.

Homemade sauerkraut tastes very different from the canned stuff--depending on how long you let it ferment, it can be plenty sharp, but more like horseradish than vinegar. At its best it has a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as "creamy." Yet maybe even more notable is the texture: while the commercial stuff tends to be very limp and a little slimy, homemade kraut is delightfully crunchy.

So how do you make it?

1. Slice half a cabbage as thin as you can with a good sharp chef's knife.
2. In a large bowl, toss the cabbage with several teaspoons of (Kosher) salt. To facilitate blending, layer cabbage, salt, cabbage, salt into the bowl. After you've filled the bowl, stir it all together thoroughly.
3. Cover and let stand overnight. Cabbage should "bleed" several tablespoons of juice.
4. Stir and mash the mixture with a wooden spoon. Let stand a few hours. Repeat. When the cabbage has been reduced to about half its original volume, you're ready to bottle it.
5. Pack the cabbage very tightly into a wide-mouth one-quart glass jar. You should be able to compress it to about half the space it took up in the bowl (or less).
6. Pack the cabbage all the way up to the brim of the jar, just beyond where it seems to fit, turning and mashing with a wooden spoon, so that the juice rises and covers the cabbage, all the way to the lip of the jar.
7. Loosely screw on the lid and wipe up overflow as necessary.
8. Cover with a towel and let stand in a cool, dark, draft-free place for about a week. Above 70, the cabbage will rot; below 60, it won't ferment. I've found a temperature of about 65 and a "rest" of 5-7 days to produce optimal sauerkraut. Less time, lower temperatures, and more salt all inhibit fermentation, producing a less sour product.

The picture shows red cabbage--half a big head of it, which seemed like way more than I could possibly fit in the jar. But the tighter you pack it, the less chance there is of mold. I've also tried white cabbage, and, best of all, half red and half white. Such a blend makes a beautiful swirl of green and purple when you start, but by the time it's done fermenting, it's solid fuchsia.

Serve with pork chops, sausage, ham, spaetzle, potatoes, any of the usual German suspects. Or substitute it for lettuce and make a beautiful winter salad. I get my cabbage at the farmers' market, so it's got a lot more vitamins, and fewer chemicals, than supermarket lettuce and other veggies. You can go on eating summer-style salads all winter and ignore the fact that the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., are flown in from Mexico or Chile, grown in E-coli-infested soil, woody with fertilizer, transported by planes gobbling up precious oil. Or you can embrace winter and enjoy some fermented cabbage. Since I'm not a football fan, Superbowl Sunday has become a celebration of guacamole; I "intercept" the avocados on fire sale for the weekend. Here red sauerkraut does a glamorous understudy for lettuce; with two colors of tortilla chips, the little plate could fetch a pretty price in one of those places where "vertical presentation" is a big deal. What a long way we've come from a can-opener and a frozen hot dog!


  1. This may be the first time in history that anyone has ever advertised a "new look" that was actually worth advertising! :-)

  2. You've got me wondering if I might actually do this. Sounds great, esp. with guacamole.