1 – 2 – 3 – Sauerkraut!

Sauerkraut setup

 

I’m still planning on writing more about preserving food by canning, but I’m so excited about my fresh batch of sauerkraut right now, I thought I would highlight that first.  Preserving by lacto-fermentation, it turns out, is extraordinarily easy!  I’m hoping to try cucumber pickles by this method later in the summer.  Maybe kimchi someday.   At the moment, I have just jarred up my 2nd batch of kraut.  (First batch was made at the farm last summer and lasted into the winter.)  2nd batch just finished its two-week fermentation and went into the fridge yesterday.

I am a big fan of kraut… but I have not always been!  I had always avoided store-bought sauerkraut in the past — it seemed absolutely disgusting, vinegary and stinky and gross.   In 2002 when I was visiting Germany I had my first good sauerkraut experience when I ate some street-food sausages and grilled kraut at a Christmas market in Nürnberg.  The combination of sausage, sauerkraut, mustard, and a toasty roll was SO delectable – an absolute peak food experience – that it made me reconsider fermented cabbage as a  possible friend.

Then, a few years later, in Seattle, I met Ross Meyer.   Ross was my fitness coach (personal trainer, but not one of those meathead weightlifting dudes) and is now my friend.  Ross looooooves the sauerkraut.  Give him half a chance and he will bend your ear about the superb nutritional qualities of fermented cabbage.  Invite him to a potluck and he will bring a jar of home-made kraut and present it to you with reverence.  He will tell you about how we actually owe this food to the nomadic tribes of ancient Mongolia and not the Germans as most people assume.  Ross taught me what I know about making kraut, and I owe him big time.  It is easy and fun.  When Ross came over to my house in Wallingford this last time for our 2nd annual cabbage party, my roommates were enthralled by the process and wanted to help.  Ross and I ended up sitting back and letting roomies Noe and Gerry do the shredding, squeezing, and packing.

With that intro, here are the steps to making your own sauerkraut.

1. Prepare it

2. Wait

3. Eat it!


Haha, Ok, I guess step one needs a little more fleshing out.

SAUERKRAUT INSTRUCTIONS.

What you need:

  • Several heads of cabbage (This time I had 4 and it was just a bit too much for my 1-gallon crock)
  • Salt (kosher suggested)
  • Sharp knife and cutting board
  • Food processor (optional but really really really really nice to have)
  • Container(s) — large glass jars or crock
  • Weight and covering for top of crock (see below)
  • Pounding implement (see below)
  • Latex gloves (optional – to protect against getting salt in wounds)

Process:

– Determine your fermentation container(s).  I found a lovely one-gallon crock (see pic at top) for $20  at the Ace Hardware.  It makes things a bit easier.  But you can also use glass mason jars – half gallon or even quart size.

– DO NOT RINSE CABBAGES.  We want as little chlorinated water as possible and as much natural bacteria from the environment as possible.  Trust me.  Peel off and discard any grimy outer leaves.  Cut out and discard the cores of the cabbages.

– Cut cabbages into chunks that will fit down the food processor tube.  Feed them into a thin slicing blade to shred.  Or shred by hand with a knife.  That sounds like an awful lot of work though 🙂 Find someone who has a food processor you can borrow.

– When the food processor is filled with shredded cabbage, dump it into your crock, or into a bowl if you’re using jars.  Pour salt on top.  It’s hard to say how much salt; I read about 3 Tablespoons per 5 lbs of cabbage but it is just kind of a feel-and-taste thing.   It’s quite a bit of salt, so when in doubt add more.

– Mix the cabbage and salt together with your (optionally gloved) hands.  Use a squeezing, wringing motion to work the salt into the cabbage and make it release its juices!  This is the fun, kraut-party bit.  Get your friends to help.  The shredded cabbage will reduce in size A LOT.  You want the level of the cabbage to be BELOW the level of the juices!  It can take a little while working it until it’s ready.

– When the first dump of cabbage has been thoroughly massaged, pound it down FIRMLY with your hands (in a crock) or with any sturdy kitchen tool into the mouth of your jar.  Ross has a super-cool wooden  tamper that he uses; see if you can find something similar.  Tamp it into a flat layer at the bottom of the container.

– Shred some more cabbage. Add another layer of cabbage, more salt, and repeat the squeezing, squeezing, tamping process until all the cabbage is used up.

– When you’re done, THE LEVEL OF THE CABBAGE should be BELOW the level of the brine (salty juices).  If it’s not, you’ll have to add salt water (1 tsp salt dissolved in 1 cup water) until it is.  This is so that the brine protects the cabbage and keeps it anaerobic (without air) so the proper bacteria can go to town and the bad bacteria stay out.

– If you’re using jars, throw a two piece lid on there and you’re done.  HOWEVER, you will have to tamp the kraut down once or ideally twice a day in your jars.  Each day, open the lid (there may be a bit of pressure buildup) and tamp it down firmly.

– If you’re using a crock, put a weight on top.  This can be a plate that just slightly smaller than the diameter of the crock opening, with a glass jar full of water on top.  I used a Pyrex container with lid, filled with water, that was just a bit smaller.  Set the weight on top of the cabbage and the liquids will rise up almost to the top of the crock.  Put a pie plate underneath in case of spillage and a plastic baggie over top to keep dust out.   You can leave your crock alone for 2 weeks and let it ferment.  There’s no harm in tamping it down too; I did rather frequently just to make sure the level of the liquids was good and that things were smelling good in there.  You’ll probably see some bubbling up over the first few days; this is normal and good.  Dump any spillage out of the pie plate and leave it be.

– Leave it in a corner of the kitchen or somewhere relatively cool, to ferment for 2 weeks.  You can go shorter or longer but this seems like the ideal length of time to me.  I read that if you see mold on top you just scrape it off.  I haven’t gotten mold on either of my two batches and I feel like if I did, I would throw it out 🙂  We’ll see.

– You can taste the kraut every day if you want and decide when you like the flavor and want it to stop fermenting.  At 2 weeks or whenever you want to stop, take the weight off the crock and shovel the sauerkraut out into glass mason jars and put them in the fridge.  This stops the fermentation and holds the sauerkraut just as it is, for quite a long time.  I ate my first batch gradually over a period of probably August til January.  It was delicious!!!

My latest batch. Some of it has carrot slices mixed in.

The end!  Give it a try, even if you think you don’t like sauerkraut.  Try a shorter fermentation than two weeks.  This will be mild tasting, crisp, fresh and juicy cabbage goodness.  You can heat it and have it with sausage and potatoes, throw it on top of any sandwich or in a tortilla wrap, mix it with other pickled vegetables on top of a salad, etc etc etc.  I have to admit that I’ve been eating my hot corn-and-oat breakfast cereal for breakfast with a poached egg and sauerkraut on top.  It’s super weird and hippie-ish, but I wake up craving it.  Make some homemade kraut and join the fermentation fun.

Food preservation: Reviving a lost art (Part 1 of 2)

The following magazine clipping hung on the door of our kitchen cabinet at the apprentice house all season.

The caption reads, “In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration assigned photographer Dorothea Lange to travel around Oregon documenting agricultural communities at the height of the Great Depression.   Here we see Mrs. Botner of Nyssa Heights in Eastern Oregon tidying her storage cellar, where she had placed 800 quarts of home-canned food to sustain her family through the winter.”

Mrs. Botner looks like a sturdy farm wife, but I enjoy her outfit: she’s wearing some stylish leather heels with her plain summer housedress.  She’s been working in the field and in the kitchen all day, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be lookin’ good while putting by some provisions in her root cellar!

Last January, I had the pleasure of taking a class on food preservation at a farmer conference in Stanwood, WA.  The instructor of the class, Mrs. Vivian Smallwood, was of the right age to have been this Mrs. Botner’s daughter.   White-haired and in her 70’s, Vivian came into class using a walker to teach us the canning methods and recipes she had learned from her female relatives of this bygone era.   Vivian is a “certified master food preserver” with the WSU extension agency.  She explained that she is the only one left with this title; there used to be others but they have retired and for a long time young people were never interested in achieving the certification.  Just recently, though, she pointed out, there is a resurgence of interest in her area of expertise.  In the past few years, the demand for her classes has increased to where she can’t keep up with it.   She told us that she’s pleased to know that people are coming back to an interest in preserving their own food, and she’s eager to share her knowledge.   “Feel free to call me on the phone,” she offered sweetly, giving out her home number in case we had any questions come up while we were doing our own canning.

I think this is such a telling example of the cultural shifts that have happened around food over the last century in America.  In 1939, people were still preserving their own food because they needed to do so to survive.  They raised their own meats, grains, fruits and vegetables and ate them fresh when they could; then they used preservation techniques so they could continue eating the rest of the year.  Packaged foods,  freezing, and even refrigeration were either unavailable  or too expensive to depend on.   Over the next several decades, the entire food system changed dramatically.  For my grandparents and parents, packaged and shipped foods became the norm, and why wouldn’t they?  Who would want to spend time harvesting and processing their own food when so much variety was cheaply available at the grocery store?

There have always been those that did canning at home.  Growing up, I remember seeing the jars of peaches and pears entered into competition for a blue ribbon in the community fair.   My mom made the YUMMIEST freezer jams and tried making cucumber pickles once.  But overall the practice of, and knowledge about, food preservation has been decreasing steadily over the generations.  Until, perhaps, now.

Based on Vivian’s experience and my own observations of happenings around Seattle, people are getting back into canning in a big way.  It makes sense for this to go hand in hand with the current upsurge of interest in local & sustainable food.  An increased number of people are growing their own gardens; similarly, home canning is gaining popularity.  Even more people have switched to buying  produce at a farmers’ market over a grocery store.  These folks are also discovering that delicious, small-batch, artisan products like jam, honey, pickles, and sauerkraut can be had at many farmers’ markets.  These are a much higher quality, more “real” product than the Smuckers, etc, from the supermarket.  It seems to me that we can have the luxury of all that grocery-store surplus and still crave a more authentic taste and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing the origin of our food.  We’ve hit a point where we are starting to realize that the extra effort that goes into making your own can be worth it.

I tried my own first forays into canning last fall with a jam project and some green bean pickles.  They turned out well enough to give me confidence to try a bunch more this year with farm produce.  Unfortunately, the time of year when all the extra produce is available for canning is the same time of year when you have zero time to do any canning because you’re so busy harvesting and selling all that produce.  But I managed to get some stuff into cans:

Pickled green beans, pickled cucumbers, pickled carrots, mixed-vegetable pickles. Raspberry jam, peach jam, plum jam. Tomato sauce, sauerkraut, and one can of chanterelle mushrooms.

 

I planned to write this post about my actual experience with canning, what I learned, and some recipes.  But I got a little wrapped up in some historical analysis and now I’ve written enough for one day!  So in part 2, I will share some canning basics so that we can all help carry on Mrs. Botner’s tradition and see our families through the winter with home-canned goodies.  In the meantime, here are some essential items for your canning Christmas wishlist.  Stay tuned!