Fermenting 101 – Sauerkraut

   

The importance of gut health is finally getting the attention it deserves. Trillions of bacteria and micro-organisms make up the microbiome in our gut. Studies show that these little guys play a critical role in maintaining health by aiding in digestion and strengthening the immune system.  They keep the bad bugs at bay – dangerous bacteria like Campylobacter or Clostridium difficile (C.Diff), which can cause serious illness.

So many of today’s health issues may be traced to what’s going on inside the gut. Poor diet, illness, stress, antibiotics, and environmental toxins disrupt the ecology of the microbiome, which puts it into a  “dysbiotic” state. When the system is out of whack, it shows up in different ways:  obesity, type-2 diabetes, irritable bowel disease, and colon cancer (), periodontal disease and dental decay (), atherosclerosis and endocarditis (), anxiety, and depression (). 

It’s crucial to bring the good bacteria back in to rebalance the microbiome and get it back to work as it should. (Guess why fecal transplants work?) Naturally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh do exactly this – they reintroduce good bacteria – the probiotics – to help diversify and “feed” the helpful flora in our gut.

One of the easiest foods to ferment for beginners is cabbage. The end result, sauerkraut, is the perfect introduction of beneficial bacteria into the microbiome. 

Equipment

My family has been making sauerkraut for decades. I inherited a vintage cabbage shredder from my parents, at least 60 years old. It came from Poland, travelling in a trunk on the Stefan Batory in the mid-1950s.   It continues to shred today and will always remain a family heirloom. I recently discovered newer versions, handmade in Poland and distributed by a company out of British Columbia – https://cabbageshredder.com/.  

New shredder has arrived, but I will never part with the vintage one!

Using a regular mandolin works fine for small batches, but these big shredders make short work of cutting a whole head of cabbage in minutes, in the perfect, classic, consistency for the best fermented sauerkraut.  A food processor isn’t ideal. When I tested using a Cuisinart, the shreds were a bit too short and thick for my liking, but if that’s all you have, it will still ferment just fine.

You will also need a large bowl for mixing the cabbage with the salt. I use a giant salad bowl I found at IKEA. A stock pot could work too.

Next is the fermenting vessel. Back in the day, my parents used a wooden barrel, making enough sauerkraut to last the whole winter and then some. Smaller ceramic crocks with weighted plates are wonderful alternatives. They come in different sizes and although a bit pricey, should last a lifetime. Although I pine for one of those, it is completely unnecessary and you can make your sauerkraut in a mason jar. 

A 1 Litre / 1 Quart mason jar is probably the smallest size to use and this is big enough for one medium head of shredded cabbage. A large head will fill at least two jars, or alternatively,  one bigger 2L jar.

I use weighted glass disks to keep my cabbage submerged (to avoid mold), but if you don’t have these, you can use a folded cabbage leaf packed at the top before you screw on the lid. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium to large head of cabbage
  • 1-3 carrots, peeled (depending on size and your own preference) 
  • Non-iodized sea salt or Himalayan pink salt

Sterilize Jars:

Wash and sterilize your jar(s) using one of these options:

  • In your dishwasher on sterilize cycle 
  • In your oven – heat to 275 F for at least 20 minutes
  • In your microwave – place wet jars in the microwave for 60 seconds on high. 
  • Boil lids for 5 minutes or use new ones.

Let jars and lids cool before filling.

Shred:

  • Remove and rinse the outer leaves of the cabbage. Set them aside.
  • Cut the cabbage into quarters for shredding
  • Shred using cabbage shredder or mandolin into a large bowl or stock pot. Be very careful as you get close to the ends. The blades are extremely sharp!

  • Peel and shred the carrots using the large holes in regular box grater. Add to cabbage.

 

Salt:

  • Add approximately 1 measured tablespoon salt for every 1.5 lbs of cabbage. It should taste salty, but not gross. If you don’t add enough salt, you may get mold and soft (not crisp) sauerkraut. Too much salt will inhibit fermentation and will also taste bad.
  • To be more precise, use a digital scale to weigh the shredded vegetables and use the 2% guideline. Multiply the weight in grams by .02 ( 2%) to get the required amount of salt in grams. 900 grams of vegetables would require 18 grams of salt. In my real life example, my very large head of cabbage/3 carrot mixture weighed 2283 g (X .02) = 45.6 g of salt, which, after weighing, I measured as 4 flat tablespoons.

Mix, Squeeze and Pack into Jars:

  • Mix the carrots and cabbage until the carrots are well distributed. Squeeze and toss the mixture with your hands for several minutes. This breaks down the cell walls so the cabbage can release its liquid. The volume will reduce a fair bit as the liquid is released. If it drips when you squeeze it, it is ready to be packed into the clean jar(s). 

Pack the squeezed cabbage mixture into the jar firmly to eliminate any air pockets. Push it down super hard. For the 1L jar, it may be difficult to fit your hand in to pack it down, so you may wish to use the pestle from a mortar & pestle, or the handle of your potato masher or other kitchen tool. Keep filling and packing until you near the top of the jar.

The cabbage must be submerged under the liquid. Top this with one of the large outer cabbage leaves removed earlier, folded to fit into the top of the jar. Alternatively, use a glass weight. This air-lock keeps the oxygen out which helps to keep mold and slime from forming. (Please note if you purchase the weights, they come in two sizes – for both regular or wide-mouth jars.)

Screw the lid onto the jar and place jar out of direct sunlight. I leave mine in a corner on the kitchen counter. Please note that the fermentation process creates carbon dioxide, so for the first few days in particular, make sure to “burp” the jar, loosening the lid briefly to let the gas out. It’s a good idea to keep your jar on a plate or tray, as the liquid sometimes seeps out a bit as it starts fermenting.

Warning

Fermenting cabbage has a natural, gassy smell. Bubbles rising in the jar mean it’s working. A little bit of a white film on top is nothing to worry about. BUT if you see black, green or grey mold or if the smell is unbearably bad, something has gone wrong. To be safe, dispose of it and start a new batch. 

Ferment Time

Fermentation speed depends on temperature. If it’s warm, it will ferment faster or vice-versa. Taste is the next variable as some prefer a light ferment, while others (like me) prefer a more sour, acidic flavour. You can start tasting after a week, but it’s safe to leave it for up to a month or even longer, tasting a little every once in a while. When it tastes good, refrigerate to slow any additional fermentation. The last batch I made was perfect after exactly one month on the counter.

Recipes and suggestions on how to use sauerkraut to follow soon! 

Enjoy!  

 

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