Chances are, the words "fermented foods" don't exactly make you salivate in anticipation of culinary goodness. But the traditional process of preserving food through fermentation is enjoying something of a comeback as more people get interested in canning and other forms of back-to-the-land food movements, because it's easy, it's better for you, and it actually makes your food healthier.
Many traditional, and even modern, diets include fermented food, whether it be yogurt and cheese (forms of fermented dairy) or sourdough bread (made with fermented yeast). For one, fermenting food keeps it edible for many months. A second reason the method has survived is that our ancestors probably realized that they felt better when they ate fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, beneficial bacteria that aid in digestion and also ward off viral and bacterial illnesses. A recent study even suggests that certain strains of probiotics ward off colds and fevers in children. The fermentation process also boosts nutrient and protein content while lowering the fat content of some foods, and it improves the body's ability to absorb vitamins and minerals from food.
One of the most common fermented foods in Europe and North America is sauerkraut, a.k.a. fermented cabbage. Simple to make and tasty to eat, sauerkraut is a great way to preserve cabbage in the fall and make a good-for-you food taste even better.
Making sauerkraut (or any fermented vegetable) is easy and requires no special tools or supplies, and homemade sauerkraut is much more flavorful than the sorry pasteurized stuff sold in cans on the supermarket shelf, which may be nothing more than cabbage cooked in vinegar, rather than naturally fermented shredded cabbage. And in a San Francisco Chronicle article published last year, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist was quoted as saying that fermenting is a great way for inexperienced canners to start preserving vegetables because the process doesn’t require hot-water baths, thus there's less of a chance that they can contaminate their food with botulism.
All you need to get started are two glass jars, one quart-size wide-mouthed jar and one the right size to fit through the neck of the larger one, and your cabbage of choice. In as little as a week you can be eating the fruits of your labors.
1 head green cabbage, about 1½ pounds
1 Tablespoon sea salt (non-iodized)
Wash your jars well. Cut the cabbage (with or without the core, your choice) into bite-size bits. Long, thin strands are traditional, but any size and shape will do. In a bowl, mix the cut cabbage with the salt—it will start to weep water, which will dissolve the salt and make your brine. Pack the mixture firmly into the quart jar (you want to force out any air and push the cabbage down so the brine will cover the top). Fill the smaller jar with water and push it down inside the bigger jar on top of the cabbage as a weight, to prevent the cabbage from floating.
Drape a towel over the jars to keep out dust and flying insects and set it on the back of your counter. A couple of times a day, push down on the inside jar to further pack the cabbage and raise the level of the brine until it is over the surface of the cabbage. If the brine doesn’t cover the cabbage after about 24 hours, dissolve a teaspoon of salt in 1/3 cup of water and pour it on top of the cabbage to raise the brine level. Then you can stop pushing down the weight jar.
Watch this video how-to on making sauerkraut from Organic Gardening magazine!
After that, take a look at your kraut jar every day or so. In a few days, you may see some mold floating on the surface; this is normal and harmless. Your cabbage is safely out of reach under the brine, where more desirable organisms are working their magic. Scoop out as much of the mold as you can, wash the weight jar, and you’re good to go again. (If the thought of letting cabbage sit unrefrigerated on your counter for days at a time is unsettling, just know that all the lactic acid bacteria being generated by the salty brine is killing off any harmful organisms while bringing out the flavor and nutrient content of the cabbage.)
Taste your cabbage every day thereafter. It will start to get tangy after just a few days at room temperature. When the flavor is perfect, put a lid on your jar and put it in the fridge (the cold slows the fermentation process), and eat it up within a few weeks.
The sourness of sauerkraut pairs well with sweeter meats, which is why it's often served with pork. According to Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day will bring you good luck all year long—the pig is a forward-thinking critter (all four hooves point forward), and the long strands of kraut symbolize long life.
If you have any brine left in the jar when the kraut is gone, use that, too! Kraut juice is a popular digestive tonic in some parts of the world. When I worked at a grocery store in a national park, the German tourists would stream off their buses and make a beeline for the canned sauerkraut juice we stocked for them. Sip it straight up or use it as stock in soup.
Salt is commonly used to help manage the fermentation, but you can make good kraut with reduced or even no salt. Low- or no-salt kraut isn’t as tangy and won’t keep for as long, but if you are watching your sodium or prefer a less-tangy product, try the following recipe.
1 head green cabbage, about 1½ pounds
½ cup white wine (red is fine, too, if you don’t mind pink kraut)
OR 1 teaspoon each caraway, celery seeds, and dill seed ground and mixed with ½ cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
If you choose to use the salt, toss your shredded cabbage with the 1 teaspoon. If not, pack the cabbage into your jar and cover it with your wine or your herb seed mixture (for low-salt kraut, using both the salt and the wine/seed mixture enhances the flavor). Proceed as you would for basic kraut, using more wine or water to raise the brine level if needed. Wine kraut is almost sweet; seeded kraut is mild and savory. Low- or no-salt kraut will ferment somewhat faster than salted kraut, so be prepared to refrigerate and enjoy it promptly once it tastes good.
If you don't like cabbage, there is no reason to limit yourself to just that! Radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, and even apples are delicious made into kraut...by themselves or in combinations. Add grated fresh gingerroot, cloves of garlic, and hot chilies to root vegetables and ferment them and you have kimchi, a ubiquitous Korean relish consumed daily and said to beat chicken soup all hollow for preventing and getting over colds.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.
Published on: December 15, 2010