Sauerkraut: All it’s crocked up to be
Perhaps I picked up my love of sour cabbage products during college, or shortly thereafter, when I was hanging around with Ukrainian Jewish fellows. The Slavs do love their fermented food products. I certainly acquired my disdain for refrigerating, well, anything, from that time. It may also have been from the three months I spent eating in China. I mean, studying in China. My exchange program was in Harbin, the old Manchurian capital, where it was cold enough through the winter that Fahrenheit vs. Celsius didn’t make a difference (for reals), and where Korean food had a huge influence. And where I first experienced freezing snot. Just saying.
I lived in a dorm with other American and Chinese students, and since we were lacking anything beyond basic cooking facilities, I ate out ALL. THE. TIME. Don’t even ask me how much I still miss the hand-shaven noodle, tomato, and egg soup from the dining halls. Or half-spicy hot pot with local Harbin beer. At restaurants, while waiting for dishes to arrive, waiters would bring over little dishes of peanuts, and sour cabbage (suān cài). As you might guess, I avoided the latter for a few weeks. Once I finally gave it a try, there was no looking back.
One of my strongest memories of the Ha Gong Da campus, where I studied, was seeing Napa cabbages lining everyone’s rooves. It seemed like overnight that people bought up the entire stock and put them outside their windows for storage, it being cold enough, you see, to make refrigeration unnecessary. I can only assume that the oblong vegetables eventually made their way into some wicked kimchee. Or at least suān cài.
I’m a long way from China now. I can barely remember how to say “My name is Plum Dependable Plum” (thanks, first year Chinese teacher), and I certainly can’t read a character to save someone else’s life. I still love me some sour cabbage though, so when I moved to the Bay Area, where everyone and their pug has some sort of deliberate fermentation going on in their eensy apartment, I knew it was time to try my hand at lacto-fermentation.
Sauerkraut is, in its simplest form, nothing more than cabbage pickling in its own juices. It takes very little equipment, and less skill. My first few batches fermented in mason jars, the shredded cabbage held below the surface of the liquid by canning jar lids bent in half to get them into the jars, then awkwardly re-bent inside the jars and weighted down with shot glasses. Btw, lactic acid eats off whatever the designs on shot glasses are made from. Just a heads up.
I have now graduated to slightly fancier equipment, as the old man & I were lucky enough to be gifted a German-made, real, honest-to-golly Harsch crock. If you like water-locks and other ingenious feats of kitchen engineering, you’ll geek out hard over these crocks. What can I say, they had me at moat.
Plain & Simple Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut doesn’t really need a recipe. Shred cabbage, add salt, pound, weight, wait. That being said, I read all over the internet, and took directions liberally from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions.
The first few batches of kraut that I made had embellishments: onions, garlic, carrots, peppercorns, red pepper, green onions (don’t try that one unless you like mucilaginous ooze). Partly out of a desire to stay simple, and partly out of lack of preparation, I did this batch with nothing but cabbage and salt. Experiment and see what you like.
Note: If you want to do a sample batch, or don’t have a big crock, use a single head of cabbage and a quart-sized mason jar. Cover the jar with a cloth during fermentation to protect it from direct light.
4 cabbages (2.4 kg) – the crock could have fit at least 6
sea salt (20-25 gms) (5-8 gms/kg cabbage)
Harsch crock (or jars)
large bowl (for pounding cabbage in)
Leave the cabbages at room temperature so you can get the most liquid out of them. Don’t wash the cabbages – this retains lactic acid bacteria for fermentation. If there are big flecks of visible dirt, remove them, just don’t scrub the cabbages hard. Remove the large outer leaves from each cabbage, saving two leaves for later.
To each cabbage, do the following: slice off the small ugly part on bottom, cut the head in half, and remove cores. Cut halves in half and chop the quarters into thin shreds. Tare (zero out) your scale with a bowl on it. Fill bowl with cabbage. Add salt in proportion to weight of cabbage (see above).
Now comes the fun part. I’d suggest you do this one cabbage at a time. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Don’t stop until it beeps. No cheating. Reach your hands in the bowl and squeeze the cabbage. And again. Now pound it with your fist. Mash it in your fingers. Push it up against the side of the bowl and really press hard. At first it’ll seem like nothing is happening, but don’t give up. Smash, pound, squeeze, and generally mangle the cabbage without relenting. Over time, the salt will draw more and more liquid out of the cabbage. Keep going after that first liquid comes out, more will come later. At the end of the 10 minutes, there should be enough liquid to cover the cabbage when it’s pressed down.
Put this sad limp cabbage into the crock or jar and pour the liquid after it. Repeat with the other cabbages.
Once all cabbages have been crushed and put into the crock, spend another 5-10 minutes pounding down the cabbage in crock. That’s right, kick it when it’s down. I used my fist, but you could use a wooden pounder if you have one.
Clean the inside of the crock with your hand, pushing all the little bits of cabbage down the sides to join the others. Take the two reserved cabbage leaves and lay them on top of the shredded cabbage, covering the shredded mass. Take the stone or other weights and lay them on top of the cabbage. Push down the stones so that the liquid comes up over them. The liquid was only ~.75 cm over the stones for me, so I made brine by boiling 2 cups water with 7 grams salt, cooled it, and poured it into the crock.
If using a Harsch crock, put on the lid and pour water into the moat (!). Check this every other day or so, and add water as needed. Make sure water is always covering the opening in the lid to maintain the waterlock.
Now wait 4-6 weeks.
When you’ve lost patience, or waited the proper amount of time, remove the lid, remove the stones, remove the cabbage leaves, and jar your kraut. Pour some brine into each jar to help keep it preserved in the fridge, and save the remainder to inoculate your next batch.
Store in fridge. Enjoy on hot dogs, with pork of all kinds, mixed into rice, over ice cream, or in a sinful concoction involving bacon and beer, if you’re German or wish you were.