Fermented vegetable preparations such as sauerkraut, kimchi and lacto-fermented pickles are an excellent condiment at any meal. They are sour and salty and, depending on what they are flavored with, can compliment a variety of dishes. The fermentation process stimulates the production of B vitamins and vitamin C and as well as numerous strains of Lactobacillus. Lactobacilli are pro-biotic bacteria that live in our colon. These organisms help to break down food, aiding digestion and assimilation. Eating foods high in Lactobacillus will help improve colonies of flora living in the gut, which will improve digestion, absorption and immunity. Having healthy gut flora can also help to improve chronic skin conditions, yeast infections and seasonal allergies. Fermented foods are easy to digest and provide good nutrition and energy for the body. A condiment-sized portion of some kind of fermented food at each meal is an important and nutritious addition to any diet.
1 large green cabbage
Unrefined salt (this can be a mineral salt, sea salt or kosher salt, just don’t use iodized salt!)
1. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and rinse, if necessary. Cut the cabbage into quarters (you can remove the core or not) and slice finely (1/8 – ¼ inch thick).
2. As you cut the cabbage place it into a large mixing bowl. Each time after you add cabbage to the bowl sprinkle it generously with salt. I don’t usually measure the amount of salt I use, but if you need a place to start use 1 – 2 Tbs. of salt per large cabbage or 3 Tbs. for every 5 lbs. of cabbage.
3. When you have finished cutting the cabbage add any other vegetables, herbs or spices that you wish to include and another sprinkle of salt. Begin to mix the cabbage and the salt together in the bowl, squeezing and macerating the cabbage by the fistful. Continue to toss and knead the cabbage – it will begin to break down and loose its water and eventually become somewhat translucent.
4. Eventually liquid will drip out of the cabbage when you squeeze it between your hands. This is good – the salt as well as your kneading will pull water out of the vegetable and create the juice/brine that the cabbage will ferment in.
5. Continue this process for 5-10 minutes. The amount of liquid that comes out of the cabbage depends on how long you knead or pound it for, how much salt you used and how much water was in the cabbage. When you have finished squeezing and kneading, pack the cabbage into a crock or into a glass jar. Push the cabbage down and clean any loose pieces from the edges.
6. All vegetable material must be submerged in liquid brine to avoid molding or rotting – cabbage or other material left sticking to the sides of the jar or poking up above the brine will most likely grow mold. If the cabbage did not produce enough liquid to submerge the cabbage pieces you will need to make a salt brine to add. To make a salt brine, mix 1 Tbs. of salt with 2 cups of filtered water and mix or stir until all the salt is dissolved. Then pour this brine over the cabbage until just covered. Place a plate on top of the cabbage and push it down so that the liquid brine rises above the plate and the plate keeps the cabbage below the liquid. I like to place a rock or a jar full of water on top of the plate to act as a weight. A crock is ideal because it has a wider opening and it is easier to fit a plate inside it. Crocks are also preferred because they hold temperature and will keep the kraut at a more stable temperature despite fluctuations in the environment. It is harder to use a plate as a weight when you are fermenting your sauerkraut in a jar…. If you are using a jar, just do the best you can to submerge the cabbage beneath the brine. Once the cabbage is submerged below the brine cover the crock or the jar opening with a towel or cloth, this allows air and gas to be released during fermentation but prevents bugs and other contaminants from getting in.
7. Place your sauerkraut in a cool place, ideally where the temperature does not fluctuate much. You can check on it as often as every day or wait a few days at a time. If there is any mold or bloom floating on top or growing on the edges of the jar/crock, scrape it off and remove it. It is harmless, just a result of contact with air. The cabbage itself is fermenting in an anaerobic environment beneath the brine and the salt is preventing harmful organisms from growing! You can taste your kraut as often as every day to watch how the flavors evolve. It will start to sour after a few days and the flavor will intensify over time. The fermentation process will happen more quickly in warm weather and more slowly in a cold environment. You can ferment sauerkraut in a cool basement for months, while a batch made and left on the kitchen counter in July may be ready in just a week or two. It is up to you how sour you want it to be. Once it gets to a flavor that you like scoop it out of the crock and put it into a jar and store it in the refrigerator. The cold temperature of the refrigerator will slow down the fermentation drastically – so even though it is still a living food the flavor will not change very much.
• The more salt you use the crunchier the cabbage will be.
• Do not use chlorinated or treated water in your brine as chlorine and chloramine (another similar compound used to treat municipal water supplies) kills Lactobacillus. If there are not strong enough colonies of Lactobacillus present in your ferment then putrefying bacteria will grow and cause your kraut to rot! Iodized salt does the same thing, so don’t use that either!
• The leftover brine is delicious, full of Lactobacillus and a wonderful digestive aid. You can drink it, use it as a culture starter in your next batch of sauerkraut or lacto-fermented pickles or use it in soups, stews, sauces, etc.!
Recipes and Variations:
• Use purple cabbage on its own or with green cabbage – this makes a lovely purple/pink colored sauerkraut. Try adding other vegetables such as grated or finely sliced carrots, beets, turnips or radishes.
• Add interesting herbs and spices! Very traditional German sauerkraut is made with caraway seeds (you don’t need much, try adding 1 tsp. for every large cabbage). I like to make kimchi with fresh ginger and garlic; you can also add culinary herbs such as parsley, oregano, thyme and sage or spices like cumin or coriander. Be creative!