Cabbage, Salt & Gramma’s Secret Ingredient

“Time.”

That’s all she ever asked for.

Once glasses were filled, grace was offered, and platters were passed, “Time” was Gramma Crawshaw’s stock answer to any host’s query, “What does anyone need?”

You could count on it. Just as you could count on her bringing the finest, hand-cut coleslaw to every holiday gathering. Itsy bitsy little slivers of cabbage and carrots. Uniform, too. Without the aid of Kitchen-Aid.

Bunny Band
Easter at Gramma’s meant ham and coleslaw — and also the Bunny Band, which now lives at my brother’s house.

I thought about those shreds last fall as I was breaking down four giant heads of cabbage for my First Ever batch of sauerkraut. And as I looked at the elliptical ingredient list on the recipe card that came with my fermentation crock—cabbage, salt, time—I also thought about her regular requests for the time simply to enjoy what was on her plate (she did, after all, live to see her 93rd birthday).

I don’t know whether the former Margaret Mary McAfee would be that into ‘kraut (my German roots are on Mom’s side), but I do recall that, in addition to coleslaw, Gramma C made an awful lot of pickles. I like to think she’d get a kick out of all my canning and preserving adventures.

Kraut
A jar of ‘kraut will last a good 6-9 months in the fridge.

Anyhow, since October I’ve made three batches of sauerkraut—two raging successes and one abject failure that turned brown and ended up in the compost (I think I started with an iffy piece of produce). Because my winter CSA has also provided a few quarts from the co-op’s kitchen, I probably won’t do another batch of my own until this coming fall, when the big, sweet, second-blush cabbages tend to fill the swap box, but there’s no reason you can’t put some up anytime you have access to a good looking head or two. Say, in about six weeks, when the first spring crop comes in.

Sauerkraut

Last summer, I splurged on a 5-liter, stoneware fermentation crock. It’s got an internal weight that keeps the cabbage submerged in its brine, plus the lid fits in a well you fill with water to create an airlock. No oxygen, no scummy mold (and no fruit flies). You could do the same with any stoneware crock; just use a small plate weighed down with a jug of water (and cover the the whole thing with a towel or cheesecloth to keep flies out). If you don’t have a crock, you can use a little mason jar filled with marbles or pie weights fitted into a larger mason jar. 

Quantities are up to you, since you just sprinkle the salt (and other optional ingredients) as you go. I’ve found you get about two pints of finished sauerkraut for every medium-sized head of cabbage.

Heads
Don’t believe what they told you in art class. In this case, green + red = pink
Ingredients
  • green or red cabbage (or a mixture)
  • kosher salt
  • filtered water (only if necessary)
  • juniper berries, caraway seed, dill seed or other goodies (all optional)
Equipment
  • heavy-duty knife and cutting board
  • large bowl
  • fermentation crock or large jar
  • something that fits inside the crock/jar to weigh the cabbage down
Instructions

Make sure the crock (or jars), weights, and bowl are very clean. Your hands, too.

Remove and discard the first layer of tough, outer leaves from the cabbage head(s). Peel off the next layer, too; wash those leaves and set them aside for later. You’ll use them as a “tarp” inside your ferment vessel to help corral any loose shreds and keep them below the brine’s surface.

Cut the cabbage in half and then again into quarters. At the stalk end, you’ll see the hard, bitter core. Cut that out, and then start slicing as thin or as thick as you like. If you’d rather, you can use a box grater or a food processor.

Heads and Knife
I like longer, crunchier pieces—plus I have a rational fear of box graters— so I use a sharp knife. And patience.

Once you’ve shredded the first quarter-head of cabbage, toss it in the bowl, sprinkle a bit of salt (maybe a quarter-teaspoon) across the top, then add a pinch of the spice blend, if you’re using it. Layer in the rest of the cabbage, sprinkling with salt and spices as you go. Stop before you fill the bowl so full that you can’t get your hands in there without its spilling all over. It’s okay to work in batches. In fact, it’s probably necessary.

With your hands, toss to fully incorporate the salt, and begin, well, kneading the cabbage. Just grab fistfuls of the shreds and squeeeeeze. The salt and the pressure of your grip will begin to break down the cell walls, and the cabbage will start releasing its moisture. Voila! Instant brine. I had the best success when, after my initial knead, I let the bowl sit, covered, for about 10 minutes, and then got up on a chair for leverage and pressed everything down, hard, with my fists. (If you’re taller than 5’4″, you can probably skip the chair part). You’ll be surprised at how much water the cabbage gives off—and at how little space a whole head of cabbage smooshes into.

Ingredients
That’s all your ingredients. And everything but cabbage and salt is optional.

Move the wet cabbage—and any liquid—to your ferment vessel, and keep punching it down until the liquid easily covers the compressed cabbage. Repeat the whole process in batches until you’ve used up all your cabbage. Ideally, your vessel will be a half to two-thirds full.

Unfurl one or two of the large leaves you reserved, and spread it over the top of the shredded pieces. This’ll keep smaller pieces from floating to the top and bobbing above the brine, where they’re at risk of turning brown and icky.

Now add the weight. And the lid. And wait.

Check it in 8-12 hours. If the weight isn’t submerged in the brine, top it off with enough salt water to do the trick (use 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of water). If you’re using a crock with a water seal, fill the rimmed well and set the lid atop.

Bubbles
Depending on the ambient temperature, fermentation will take 10 days to a month or more.

Peek in on your kraut’s progress every few days, especially at first. Make sure the brine level is good (add more salt water if you need to), and skim off any scum. What’s below will be just fine—the lactobaccilus that’s kicking your ferment into gear is also standing guard against harmful bacteria.

How will you know when it’s done? Just stop when it tastes good to you. I started poaching a forkful a day starting on day 10. I declared my small batch done after just 18 days, but I let my big, four-head crockful go for 29.

Carrots
With about half my jars, I added a little shredded carrot for color and crisp.

Once you’re happy with it, load the the sauerkraut into jars (again, press down to keep as much of the pickled veggies submerged as possible), and put the jars in the fridge. The cold will arrest (or at least really, really slow down) further fermentation and will buy you months of preservation. The jar I finished with my sausages the other night is nearly five months old, and it still tasted terrific.

I’ll admit it, home fermentation as a concept was a little scary to me at first. But I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. A few sources (beyond my brewer and vintner friends) gave me the confidence to jump in:

Sandorkraut
Feed your inner science geek—and your gut.
  • Sandor Ellix Katz’s fine book, The Art of Fermentation, is a great, geeky read on the benefits of cultured and fermented foods.
  • He also has a number of instructional videos out on youtube, including this one specifically on sauerkraut.
  • Amanda, of the Philly-based blog Phickle, also oozes can-do. I read her regularly, and if you’re into preserving, you should, too.

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