Homemade Sauerkraut

With all of the warm weather lately (we’ve had over a week of mid- to high-70’s) I’ve been lukewarm about eating traditional “winter” foods, but our bodies still need the deep, hearty nourishment and especially the extra liquids. Winter here may not be especially cold but it is dry. Stews, soups and braised dishes are good ways to get the extra liquids we need to stay hydrated.

Inspiration is a funny fickle thing. Several delicious-looking braised dishes with sauerkraut showed up on Chowstalker a few weeks ago and I thought “Oo, we haven’t had sauerkraut in a while”, but then moved on to other dishes for that week’s menu because I did not, indeed, have any sauerkraut on hand. Then one of the farmers at the market was selling heads of cabbage the size of basketballs last weekend, and I remembered seeing those sauerkraut recipes, so I bought the largest head of cabbage he had.

I know that some people find sauerkraut laborious, but I enjoy the meditative chopping and pounding involved. If you have a large sharp knife, the chopping isn’t hard. The pounding is an excellent meditation, too. I haven’t found the perfect pounding tools or technique yet, so I try something new every time. This time I tried an empty wine bottle as the pestle and a two-quart plastic measuring bowl as the mortar. I had to move the bowl to every counter and table before I found a spot sturdy enough to not rattle things off adjacent shelves! Once I started though, this combination worked almost perfectly. If I kept pounding in the exact center, the cabbage would be broken down and then slowly creep up the sides of the bowl. When it reached almost the top, it fell in to the center to be pounded again. This is how a mortar and pestle is supposed to work. I had some problems holding on to the bowl while it tried to slide around the counter, so it’s not quite perfect yet. Everyone’s body mechanics are different. Experiment with what works best for you!

Homemade Sauerkraut

1 very large cabbage, organic if possible
2-quart clean glass or ceramic jar or crock, or several smaller
2 tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt
The microbes in your kitchen

First wash the sauerkraut jar and lid in hot soapy water. You want it really clean. Sterile is not required, just clean. Leave it to dry on a clean towel.

Remove the dark green, tough outer leaves of your cabbage. You might find tiny fruit flies, snails, or other little bugs near the core when you do this. That’s okay, it just proves that your produce is organically raised. Just wash them down the sink. If the inner leaves look dirty, rinse the cabbage in cold water and drain out as much water as possible. Then get out your largest, sharpest knife, or sharpen the largest knife you have. Lay the whole cabbage on a sturdy cutting board. Slice the cabbage through the stem and continue cutting it in half. Then turn each piece and cut it in half again through the stem. Then cut the thick stem away with a shallow diagonal cut in each quarter. Then thinly slice half of the cabbage.

Now comes the pounding. Many people use a bowl and a meat-tenderizing mallet. I use a deep bowl and a wine bottle. Use whatever you can get a good grip on. Half-fill the bowl with cabbage. Look at how much of the cabbage you’ve used and add that percentage of salt to the bowl. (if your bowl holds 1/4 of the cabbage, add 1/2 tbl of salt). Pound the cabbage+salt until the cabbage is greatly reduced in volume and very wet. Scrape the cabbage and all of the cabbage juice into the clean jar and pack it down loosely. Repeat until the jar is full of cabbage. If you’ve used all of the salt, that’s great! Otherwise, sprinkle the rest of the salt into the jar and stir.

Now comes the important part. The cabbage juices+salt become the brine. The brine must cover the cabbage, or bad bacteria and fungus can get in and spoil the sauerkraut. Using a clean spoon or your very clean hands, push the cabbage down in the jar. Pack it down as far as it will go. Do the juices cover the cabbage? Is there a lot of room left at the top of the jar now? You want at least an inch of headspace at the top of the jar. If the liquid doesn’t cover the cabbage, add just enough water (purified water if possible, chlorine here is bad) to cover the cabbage.

When you’re done, put the jar in a shallow container, cover the mouth of the jar with clean cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel, and put it in a cool corner of the kitchen or pantry. Watch it for 24 hours. The liquid should rise up, and little bubbles should appear in the cabbage. When that happens, stir it down with a clean spoon, put on a tight-fitting lid, and put it in the fridge. Taste it in two weeks. As soon as you like the flavor, it’s ready to eat.

As soon as mine’s ready, I’ll be posting sauerkraut recipes. What are your favorite ways to eat sauerkraut?

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