Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Homemade Sauerkraut

Fall is the best time to grow cabbage in Albuquerque – spring gets too hot too fast, but fall lingers a bit longer with warmish days and cold nights. Planted in August or September, cabbages and lots of other cole crops (like broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, and bok choy) are maturing right now. Cole crops are very cold-hardy, and can survive uncovered until November or December, but a cover of garden cloth will help them continue to mature for another month or so.

Sauerkraut is easy to make, full of Vitamin C and probiotics, and a traditional Christmas food in many Eastern European cultures.

The basic recipe has only two ingredients – cabbage and salt – but traditional embellishments include garlic, onions, bay leaves, caraway, juniper berries and wine. I made a small batch with just one cabbage, in a tiny crock I found at a vintage store, but glass quart jars are really nice because you can really see what's going on in there. This recipe is adapted from one given in Linda Ziedrich's excellent book, The Joy of Pickling.

1 to 1 1/4 lb. cabbage
2 t. pickling or kosher salt
1/4 t. juniper berries, dill seeds, or caraway seeds, or one bay leaf, crumbled
Additional water and salt for brine

Quarter and core the cabbage. Slice very thinly (about 1/8 inch), using a sharp knife or the slicing blade of a food processor.


Add the salt and juniper berries and mix thoroughly in a large bowl, with clean hands. Rinse a small crock or quart jar with boiling water – one pound of cabbage fits easily into a quart jar. Pack the cabbage in tightly, so the juice comes to the surface. To seal air out, fill a food-grade bag with brine (1 1/2 tablespoons salt per quart) and push it into the top of the jar so that all the air bubbles out. 

The salt is the key to getting the right kind of fermentation; use brine in the bag so that if the bag leaks, it doesn't ruin your sauerkraut. Not enough salt can result in soft texture, or even sliminess - if it is slimy, you've got the wrong kind of fermentation going on, and this is pretty much the only case in which you truly have to throw the whole thing out. So just don't skimp on the salt. Set in a cool spot, or just leave it on your counter to start fermenting. You may want to set the jar in a bowl in case it starts to bubble over.

After about a day, the cabbage should be submerged in its own brine. If not, pour a little of the brine from the bag into the jar and replace the bag. After about 2 weeks, little bubbles should be rising along the side of the jar from the fermentation. You can adjust the amount of water to give just enough pressure that it keeps the cabbage submerged; take some out if it's bubbling over. If any scum forms, skim off what you can, then wash the bag in hot water and replace it, but it's really not a big deal – the good microorganisms always win.

You can taste it at any point, to see if it's tart enough, and take it out a bit early if you like it less sour. Sauerkraut fermented at 65° or below has the best flavor, but it takes longer (five weeks or more). At 70° to 75° it takes about 3 weeks. When fermentation is complete, the bubbling will stop. Store in refrigerator, tightly covered.
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