Thursday, December 1, 2011

How to Make: Homemade Sauerkraut (Lacto-fermentation)

Life – a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. – Ambrose Bierce 

First, get yourself a cabbage... Photo: thskyt, Flickr ccl
It's not too late in the season for the excess of summer's crop to be preserved. So let’s try a “pickle.” Not literally pickles, but the technique of preserving foods by "pickling." This recipe is a bit of an experiment. I made this just yesterday so the final result isn't in, but my technique and info comes from impeccable sources, so I have high hopes.

This is what I'm shooting for. Photo: JaBB, Flickr ccl
Pickling is also known as brining or corning. It’s a process that is widely used for both meat and vegetables. We have all heard of quick-brining a turkey or chicken to keep in the moisture. We also are familiar with the preservation of meat through “corning.”

Pickling is the process of preserving food in two distinct ways. The first is by preserving in brine (salted water) to produce lactic acid. This is called lacto-fermentation. The second is by preserving in an acidic solution – usually vinegar. Usually the food is brined and then vinegar is added.

For this post I’m going to stay on the lacto-fermentation side of things. That is, preserving in brine – no vinegar.

If you think about it, humans have been preserving foods past their season for millennia. This was a necessity in an age before refrigeration, canning and our current (VERY fragile food delivery model) just-in-time (JIT) shipping. 

Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits bacteria that causes rot. Starches and sugars are converted into lactic acid by lactobacilli organisms. Lactobacillus are also present in fermented milk products like kéfir and yogurt.

Like the fermentation of dairy, preservation of vegetables (and fruit) by lacto-fermentation has many advantages beyond just preservation. The lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances.

Before I kneaded in the salt this large bowl was full to the top with sliced cabbage.
This was from one (what I would call) "medium" head. It reduced down to less than half
of its previous volume and lots of liquid came out of the cabbage.
Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of preservation, but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestines. If you couple eating preserved vegetables with regular consumption of kéfir or yogurt you are well on your way to naturally helping your body ward off many of “societal” diseases with which we seem to be currently inundated.

You can lacto-ferment nearly any foodstuff. The usual one is cabbage (sauerkraut), but you can also lacto-ferment (not vinegar pickle) cucumbers, beets, turnips, greens, herbs, grape leaves… In Asian cultures they also ferment cabbage (kimchi) as well as carrots, radish, eggplant, carrots, etc. It is (or at least was) a common practice world wide.

Just purely from a health standpoint, if you’re smart you’ll learn some preserving techniques. It’s not that difficult or time consuming. Not only do preserved foods aid the body but that “JIT” food delivery model is unsustainable in the long run and when it breaks down….

That sounded a but doomsday, didn’t it. But it’s not far from the truth. Our foods are delivered within days of harvest, even if it's harvested on a different continent. On a happier note, I found preparing this quite therapeutic, and it only took 1/2 hour of my life.

By the way, I just realized this is another post about "Brassica." If you're a regular reader you'll remember yesterday's mustard post talked about this important vegetable family of which both cabbage and mustard are members.

Homemade Sauerkraut
Makes nearly two 1 L jars
The green colour will change to white as the sauerkraut
matures. This will take quite some time. It won't be within the
first three days. Taste will develop as it matures as well.
1 medium green cabbage
2 tbsp celtic sea salt 
(+ 1 tbsp salt and 1 cup water additional)
2 1L mason jars

Cut the cabbage into quarters. Remove the hard core from each wedge. Slice the remaining cabbage quite thin into long strips. Try not to chop it into small pieces, just thin long pieces.

Place the cabbage in a large ceramic bread bowl (not metallic) and sprinkle with 2 tbsp of the salt. The bowl should be nearly full of cabbage, perhaps 12 cups.

Slowly “knead” and squeeze the salt into the cabbage. Lift the cabbage up from the bottom to ensure you are getting all of the vegetable. After about 20 minutes the cabbage will be quite soft – almost as if it were partially boiled – and there will be a greenish brine in the bottom of the bowl.

Prepare two 1 L Mason jars by washing and sterilizing both the glass and the tops.

Divide the cabbage between the two jars and tamp down as much as you can. Divide the brine between the jars.

This is after 1 week. The sauerkraut is significantly whiter.
If the brine doesn’t come up over the top of the cabbage, mix the remaining salt with the water in the bowl until the salt is dissolved. Add enough brine to cover the cabbage.

Cover tightly and let rest. After a few days you may see bubbles coming up the sides inside the jars. This is a natural occurrence of the fermentation process. Just crack the jar to let some of the pressure off. Recover and continue to age the sauerkraut.

Let the sauerkraut age on your counter for 3 days. Afterwards it can be cellared (any colder place) and allowed to age further.

After the first three days it is ready to eat, but will continue to develop more flavour and become paler if left to age longer.

Lacto-fermented sauerkraut will last for several months in cold storage.


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