I have been enjoying real, fermented sauerkraut this past week. There are apparently a number of reasons why eating real fermented vegetables might be real good for you – probiotics, bio-availability of nutrients, yada, yada, yada. Check out this link from Mark’s Daily Apple if you want a good overview of the health benefits. I was just looking for new additions to my low carb diet that could become staples. The problems to this are:
- A relatively small jar of Bubbies sauerkraut is $4.99. That’s a lot for about 25 cents worth of cabbage. It just bothers me
- A much larger and cheaper jar of Claussen sauerkraut contains additives ‘to preserve flavor’. I’d rather not do the preservatives – and it’s still way expensive for what is probably 50 cents worth of cabbage.
- I’d also like to be able to have my sauerkraut made from organic cabbage and avoid pesticide residues and GMOs – but that’s just me.
So I began to research making your own sauerkraut. It seemed kinda easy, only requiring cabbage, a little technique, and a little patience. I found a recipe on About.com and on Mark’s Daily Apple. I also found a link and a video for ThePerfectPickler.com which offers a nifty-looking kit that I might buy sometime in the future – but I wanted to experiment first.
Briefly, the science as I understand it. Please – if anybody reading this knows more than I do and I got it wrong, please correct me. The cabbage will ferment all by itself just by the naturally occurring bacteria on it. The fermentation process is an anaerobic process, however, so air is bad. The fermentation process, however, will create carbon dioxide gas, so there needs to be a way that gas can escape.
The problem here is that if gas can get out – air can usually get in. This problem requires some creativity on the part of putting the shredded cabbage in the jar. First, you want to keep the cabbage itself under the liquid to keep the air off of it and to ensure it ferments. With the jar open to allow air to escape, however, white mold can or will form as a film on top. This is supposedly harmless and can be skimmed off when it’s done. There’s a huge YUCK! factor to this, of course, and this, I believe, is solved by the Perfect Pickler and its unusual glass tube out the top.
The twisty glass or plastic tube (I don’t know which) can be filled with water and acts like the drain in your kitchen sink. The U in the glass will let gas out, but no air in, which I think keeps the air out, and the mold from growing.
Clever idea – but I wanted to try anyway without. So for this experiment I used:
- 1/4 head of organic, locally grown cabbage, with one outer leaf washed and reserved (you’ll see why)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (which ended up being 1.5 tsp)
- Old peanut butter jar
- French rolling-pin – really just a flat stick
- My mandoline – what I consider to be my most dangerous kitchen gadget
I first used the mandoline to shred the cabbage, being careful due to the fact that the mandoline, in order to use it, requires you to push your fingers toward a very sharp cutting edge repeatedly. That safety guard they sell it with? They don’t actually intend you to use it – it’s useless – their lawyers just make them put it in the box to defend against the lawsuits from people missing bits of fingertip due to these things.
I placed the shredded cabbage in a bowl, washed it, and drained it as best I could, then I salted it and mixed it about a bit. In one of the instructions, I think, it said to let it stand for a bit, but I don’t follow directions.
Now, as the video on the perfect pickler website showed, I placed the cabbage in and pounded it with the end of the French roller:
Once all the cabbage has been added, there is the challenge of keeping the cabbage below the level of the liquid. I borrowed a bit from the Perfect Pickler guy, but I’m lazier than him. He uses 2 layers of cabbage leaf, seemingly cut to high precision. Me – I just used the lid of the peanut butter jar to cut out 2 rounds of cabbage leaf.
This gave me 2 perfectly round cabbage-leaf ‘covers’ – these would help keep the shredded stuff under the liquid.
Now they went into the top of the jar to cover the shredded cabbage.
The next thing was to make sure it was under pressure – pushed down below the line of the liquid. There is also the notion that the liquid will expand, and this also explains why it’s not filled to the top – to leave room for expansion.
To hold the stuff down, I found a little glass ketchup bottle – a mini size, meant for restaurants to give out to individual customers. I put water in and boiled it in the microwave to sterilize it. I knew it was sterilized when I heard a small ‘boom’ in the microwave and saw that the majority of the water had exploded out of the bottle, leaving it mostly empty.
I then put this in the jar on top of my circular leaves. Before doing so, I wiped the sides of the jar to remove the stray cabbage shred, thinking this might reduce the grossness later.
Here’s the finished product, with the top only just threaded on so as to allow gasses to escape.
I now had to find a place to put this so it will remain unmolested and at about 68 degrees. The back of my cupboard seemed to be a good place, so it went there.
The next morning, surfing about on the topic still, I noticed I made perhaps a fatal flaw – too little salt. I checked out the jar and honestly, it looked exactly like it did yesterday, and did not seem to smell of anything other than what shredded cabbage would smell like.
While less than ideal, I added another teaspoon, making the total number of teaspoons 1.5. I put the top back on and shook it, which I thought less than ideal, but the best it was going to get – I wasn’t going to take the entire thing out and remix at this point.
One week later I checked out the jar. It looked fine, actually. None of the harmless mold that I was told would form was there. I gave it a sniff – smelled like sauerkraut. I took out the little bottle holding the contents below the liquid line, wiped the inside surface of the glass above the liquid clean just in case there was any mold I couldn’t see, and stuck it in the fridge.
The next day I got up the courage to try it. I briefly thought of googling ‘death by improperly fermented cabbage’ but forged ahead and filled a small bowl with the stuff.
I ate some. Actually, pretty good. The salting was uneven due to my putting in more salt at the last-minute, so some parts seemed a bit salty, but other parts were just fine. The fermentation flavor I got was less intense than the store-bought types, but still prominent, with slightly different flavor notes, but definitely prominent, and not half-bad. I finished that cup and went back for more. Good stuff.
It’s the next day and I did not die in my sleep from improperly fermented cabbage, which encourages me to try this again. I now have some mason jars I got for $1.00 each, a technique that seems to work. I’ll have to try this again.
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