My new friend and fellow blogger Amy is wise in the ways of fermented cabbage. Her Croatian-bred family has a long history of kraut making, and she is the proud owner of her grandmother's kraut board. A few weeks ago, she led a great demo at the Minneapolis Farmers Market about how to make sauerkraut. I was awestruck by her sense of humor, her knowledge of kraut, and that amazing kraut board! After the demo, I approached her about getting together for a kraut-making party. She gave me a quart of her homemade kraut, one thing led to another, and soon we had a date. We invited a couple local food loving friends, and decided we'd eat sausages, make kraut, and have fun. Female sausage-fest, here we come!
Finally, this past Sunday, the big day came. It was an unusually warm October day, with temperatures soaring into the upper 70s while golden leaves fell from the trees. We met at Amy's house at 8:45 am, then hopped in her car and drove to the Minneapolis Farmers Market in search of the perfect cabbages. After investigating all the cabbages at the market, we found the goldmine: 50 pound bags of cabbages for only $12. The cabbages were wet under the outer leaves, and were still moist ('bleeding') on the stem where they were cut. Perfect! We bought a bag. I hopped up and down with delight at the thought of all those cabbages, giggling like a little schoolgirl, while Amy hoisted the entire 50 pound bag of cabbages onto her shoulder. She hauled that whole bag of cabbage back to the car on her shoulder through crowded farmers market aisles and busy sidewalks; it was like she was carrying a battering ram. I was impressed. Amy is hardcore.
With all that cabbage weighing down the back of her car, we made a quick stop back at my apartment to get a big plastic tub (more on that later), then went back to her house. Since it was such a beautiful day, we decided to set up our cabbage shredding operation on her back patio. While we got our ingredients and equipment together, we made sure the cabbage was set up comfortably in a lounge chair.
How to Make Sauerkraut
The Basic Framework
- 5 pounds cabbage
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon something fancy
- Cutting board
- Sharp big knives
- Kraut board (if you don't have a kraut board, use a mandoline or those nice, sharp big knives)
- Large bowl or tub
- Crocks or plastic bags to ferment in
We also chose to ferment in plastic 1-gallon bags instead of crocks. This is Amy's most recent favorite method of fermenting. The nice thing about fermenting in plastic bags, according to Amy, is that it requires less maintenance. No scraping, no evaporation, just periodic squeezing of the bag to release excess air.
STEP 1: Select Your Cabbages
Your cabbages should be as fresh as possible, ideally, harvested the same day. Fresh cabbages have more natural moisture, which will create a better brine and will allow for better fermentation and better flavor. If you can't ask the farmer when it was harvested, you can check the bottom of the cabbage where it was cut from the stem. You want the cabbage to still be bleeding, meaning that you feel moisture (or even better, see it) at the cut location. When you peel back the outer leaves, you should see little water droplets hiding under the surface. If you see these things, you have a good cabbage.
The size of the head varies, depending on how dense it is, so weight it if possible, or buy a couple decent size heads (or one really big one) if you are making a single 5 pound batch.
STEP 2: Prepare & Weigh the Cabbage
Peel off the outer layers of the cabbage to reveal clean, unblemished, tender leaves. Then quarter the cabbages, and slice out the tough inner core and any large and thick pieces.
Weigh the cabbage to see how much you have, so you can add the corresponding proper amount of salt. We divided our cabbage into small 5 pound batches, in order to make different flavors and keep track of a proper cabbage:salt ratio. If you want to ferment a larger batch, don't bother sorting - just keep track of your overall weight so you know how much salt to use.
STEP 3: SNACKTIME
This step is very important, because you will need to be strong for the impending shredding extravaganza - especially if you are crazy like us and have 50 pounds of cabbage to process.
Being a bunch of food people, we had an autumnal feast centered around local, seasonal foods. The anchor of the meal was a variety of locally made sausages. I am a freak for good sausage, and volunteered to get some from the gorgeous meat department at the Seward Co-op. I chose four flavors that were perfect for grilling: Lamb Umbrian Sausage (lamb, pinenuts, herbs), Chicken Curry Apple Sausage (chicken, curry powder, apple), Elk, Cherry, & Mushroom Sausauge (elk, dried cherries, mushrooms, herbs), and Polish Sausage (pork, spices, love). we devoured a buffet of grilled green beans from Untiedt's Farm, homemade kraut flavored with juniper berries, homemade catsup, homemade cornichons, homemade pickles, homemade pickled vegetable salad, local cheese, local apples, roasted candied pecans, Terra chips (um, not local), and four varieties of mustard (also not local). It was pretty much the best thing ever. Even though we were all stuffing our faces, we still found opportunity to tell a seemingly endless stream of bawdy sausage-fest jokes...
STEP 4: Shred
Instead of slipping into a food coma, we got our blood pumping after lunch with a little (um, a lot of) kraut shredding. We used Amy's grandmother's krautboard, a beautiful relic of days gone by. If you don't have a kraut board, use a very sharp knife or a mandoline. You can use a food processor, but I think it feels a little impersonal and mechanical for a process that is so ancient. As Amy says, "You need to put your hands on the cabbage." I agree. Because we were shredding such a massive amount of cabbage, we shredded into a big plastic tub instead of a bowl. It worked like a charm, and was much less messy.
Any scraps that become too small to shred can be thinly sliced using that trusty big knife, and thrown in the bin with all the rest of the cabbage. Waste not, want not!
We took turns shredding and slicing, and did dramatic readings from Nourishing Traditions to pass the time. We also made lots of bawdy and off-color jokes, spoke in horrible German accents, and discussed everything from health issues to local food economy. It was like a conversation dream come true.
STEP 5: Salt
After each 5 pound batch was shredded, we added the salt (3 Tbsp), mixed it around with our hands, and squeeze and pounded the cabbage a bit to soften it. You should notice that the cabbage starts to sweat out liquid. This is the brine that your cabbage will ferment in, so save every little drop! Fresher cabbage = more brine = better kraut. Look at the way our cabbage was juicing all over the place! See those drips? It was perfect.
STEP 6: Season
After adding the salt, we added seasonings of our choice. For each 5 pound batch, it is recommended you add 1 Tbsp of some kind of seasoning. You could also add other things, like garlic, onion, shredded carrot, etc. The options are endless and the measurements are all pretty flexible.
We made two batches of unflavored kraut (one with Canning Salt and one with RealSalt, to test the difference in flavor/color/texture/etc). Then we let our creativity go wild: we flavored one with juniper berries, one with a mix of seaweeds (about a half cup of mixed nori, laver, dulse, and wakame), one with caraway, one with garlic, onions, and red pepper flakes, and one with dill seeds. I chose a mixture of fennel and for the batch that was lovingly titled "Kim's Mix", since I sliced my thumb open on the kraut board while shredding and we had to stop production in order to dispose of tainted cabbage and disinfect the board (while food and blood are never a good combination, it is upped by the fact that I'm a potential infectious disease biohazard. There isn't a definitive statement on whether Lyme can be transmitted human-to-human through blood, but I'm not taking any chances.). Thankfully, our kraut making commenced quickly, although my bandaged thumb sidelined me for the rest of the party. Our last batch was flavored with mix of juniper, clove, bay leaf, sage, and cumin, inspired by a recipe in the book Preserving Food Without Canning or Freezing.
Note: After each batch, we rinsed out the bin with a hose, so there wasn't any mixing of seasonings.
Step 7: Pack
After you salt and season the cabbage, you want to pack it into the vessel that you are fermenting in. This can be a traditional ceramic crock, a 1 gallon jar, some other large container, or gallon size plastic bags (our chosen method for the day). Press the kraut firmly into the container or bag. If using a bag, press out excess air and seal tightly. If using a container, put a plate or disc that fits inside the container on top of the kraut, then put a heavy jar or a rock to weight it down. Oxygen is not the friend of fermentation. More brine will develop the longer the cabbage sits and softens.
Step 8: Wait
Check back regularly to make sure the kraut is fully covered in brine and that nothing funky is happening. if fermenting in crocks, you may need to scrap the top every few days, if using bags there is reportedly no scraping needed (so says Amy) - just make sure to press out any excess air every once and a while. Let it ferment for 6-8 weeks for best results. Then you can choose to repack in jars and refrigerate (maintaining live bacteria!) or can it (kills bacteria, but makes it shelf stable). A 5 pound batch of cabbage will yield about 2 quarts of finished kraut.
At the end of it all, we ended up with 9 gallons, which will yield about 18 finished quarts of kraut. Split four ways, that's a pretty great kraut haul, don't you think? Amy is going to tend the kraut the next 6 weeks, then we'll get back together and repack our jars for eating. I'll be sure to update and let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, you must go over to Amy's blog Cook 'Em if You Got 'Em and read her latest post: Cardoons: Once is Enough. I had the pleasure of hearing her recount her experience with the mystical cardoon in person, but her blog post is nearly as side-splitting hysterical. How often do you get to hear food writing like this: "A high note of baking soda sang above a base taste of overcooked silage, followed by a convulsive sourness."? Yeah, that's what I'm talking about! Read her blog. And stay far, far away from cardoons.
While making your own kraut is a lot of work, it makes up for it in the fact that it is crazy inexpensive. We paid $12 for 50 pounds of cabbage (12 heads) and used probably $5-$7 in other equipment and ingredients. That's about $2 per gallon, which translates to $.25 per pint. When a pint of raw kraut at the co-op averages $8-$10, I'm happy to spend a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon having a cabbage-laden sausagefest with three awesome women.
So here's a thought - why not organize your own kraut party? Cabbages still abound at the market, you only have a couple weeks left! So, get some friends together and make kraut. You'll be happy you did.
One more thing - don't forget to enter the giveaway for my new recipe project, A Year to Eat Freely: 2011 Allergy-Friendly Recipe Calendar. Deadline is Saturday, 10/16, check out this post for all the rules and to enter. Good luck! [THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSE]
Want to see how this all this kraut turned out? Check out my follow-up post HERE!