What Is Sauerkraut?
Have you ever tried sauerkraut? If you have only ever tried store-bought (canned) sauerkraut, then you definitely owe it to yourself to try some homemade sauerkraut. Most all of the ‘older’ people in Germany, Holland and many other countries including Switzerland will be very familiar with sauerkraut, it is a food that Europeans have consumed for many generations. After World War 2 when many young migrants sought a better future in far away countries like America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, they brought their recipes and rather ‘strange’ foods with them, including sauerkraut.
Having lived in Holland when I was young, I was literally brought up on sauerkraut. My grandmother used to make sauerkraut and store it is small oak barrels (I think they were fortified wine barrels) under the staircase, with the smoked ham hanging above it. She kept the pumpkins, potatoes and even home made liqueur in that cupboard too which tasted great.
I can remember grandmother cutting the cabbage finely and then tossing it in the barrel along with salt, cumin seeds and a few juniper berries. She would literally pound the cabbage down with her fist and you could hear the squelching sound as the cabbage was crushed and the juices enveloped it. Then she placed a round piece of wood on top of the crushed cabbage and weight the lot down with a stone that was wrapped in a cloth. She would go to the cupboard regularly and wash the piece of wood as well as the cloth and stone, inspect the sauerkraut and then place everything back and wait a few more days, tasting it until it was ready. Then she would bottle the sauerkraut in sterilized preserving jars and give plenty away to family and friends. It’s as simple as that, there is no rocket science when it comes to making sauerkraut, it is easy but takes a bit of time, and once you have made it a few times you soon become an expert.
Commercially produced sauerkraut just doesn’t taste as crunchy or as tangy as the homemade variety. When immigrants from Europe came to America they brought their sauerkraut making techniques with them, along with many rather unusual ingredients including juniper berries, garlic, various fresh and dried herbs, apples, turnips and even wine. Traditionally made sauerkraut is very much the same as Korean dish called Kimchi, a similar dish that is made using fermented cabbage but also additional vegetables like cucumber and radishes, garlic, ginger and various other spices like chilli. One of the biggest differences between sauerkraut and Kimchi is that sauerkraut is generally made with the commonly available round variety of cabbage, whereas Kimchi is made with Chinese cabbage, otherwise known as Wong bok.
Sauerkraut tastes great served hot or cold, and it tastes good either way in my opinion. It can be eaten as a side dish and is very tasty with a pork chop, hot dog or a meaty sausage and some mashed potato and gravy. But if you want to make sauerkraut a much healthier dish, then be sure to make it like Kimchi, with additional herbs, vegetables and even spices.
All too many people still see sauerkraut as an unhealthy and in some cases even a ‘junk food’, mainly because it is often served with a hot dog. But this unsavory reputation has been changing in America and also in many other countries these past past several years. So what changed many people’s perception about sauerkraut, why has it become known as a very healthy food recently? Simple, it’s all about bacteria, beneficial bacteria to be more precise. Sauerkraut contains plenty of the lactobacillus bacteria, beneficial bacteria that improve the health and vitality of the small intestine in particular. Probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, Kimchi and kefir are often recommended for people taking antibiotics, which indiscriminately destroy both the good as well as bad bacteria in the body, and the live-culture foods in particular can help restore healthy levels of the beneficial bacteria.
Did you know that sauerkraut isn’t just loaded with beneficial bacteria, it is also a really good source of fiber, and it contains a wealth of vitamins like C as well as K, minerals like iron, as well as potassium as well as trace elements like zinc. Sauerkraut was once made in quantity and stored in large wooden barrels on those tall old sailing ships in the 18th century. On long ocean voyages, sailors consumed sauerkraut to help prevent a disease known as scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin C.
The other interesting feature worth knowing about sauerkraut is that because it is made using cabbage, it may help prevent breast and ovarian cancer by assisting in the proper metabolism of estradiol (E2), the strongest estrogen. I’ve found that the store-bought variety of sauerkraut can contain too much salt, another reason to make your own.
Tips Before You Start Making Sauerkraut
- The cabbage – Do you grow any vegetables like cabbages? Making your own sauerkraut is a great way to preserve an abundant harvest of cabbage, it’s a simple process that requires just two ingredients — shredded cabbage and a good quality sea salt. Make sure you use a good quality salt, not just some supermarket purchased highly processed and refined salt that most people seem to have in their kitchens. Standard commercial salt has been heated to a high temperature, bleached, refined and stripped of all it’s goodness and it only contains sodium chloride. Celtic sea salt contains an abundance of minerals and will turn your home-made sauerkraut literally into a super food. It is hand-harvested, unheated and naturally dried and it the best salt to use in general.
- Get the right tools – A few simple tools can make process a so much easier. While you can shred the cabbage with a regular vegetable grater, you will discover when you have a regular full-sized cabbage slicer it is much easier and significantly more efficient. These big graters truly look antique, and I’ve even seen them listed on eBay for $15 or less.
- No special crock needed – You won’t need any kind of special crock when you make sauerkraut, so don’t think you have to go out and spend a lot of money to buy a special container. Any enamel pot (that is undamaged) or very large glass jar will do, in fact those one gallon wide-mouthed jars that pickles are available in work really well. It is important that the container is clean and has a wide mouth for easy access.
- Keep things clean – There’s an old saying – “A hand in the pot spoils the lot” – is very true, especially when it comes to making foods like yogurt, Kimchi and sauerkraut. Keep your hands, and any metal object, out of the container – if they are not clean! Always wash your hands really well and then rinse thoroughly with plenty of clean water before you handle the sauerkraut. You are best to use wooden spoons and mashers and glass or crockery, these can be cleaned quickly with hot water.
- Aim for quality – Always make it a point to use the very freshest of ingredients, because when you begin with quality you end up with quality. Use young, fresh cabbage that is free from any disease or blemish, and preferably cabbage that has not bee sprayed with any chemicals.
How To Make Sauerkraut
- One 5 to 8 kilogram green cabbage (10 – 16 lbs)
- Celtic sea salt (½ to ¾ teaspoon per 500gr (one pound) of cabbage)
- 1 level tablespoon juniper berries (optional but gives a great taste)
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds (optional but gives a great taste)
- 2 bay leaves (optional)
- Salt water to cover (1 ½ teaspoons of sea salt to a cup of water)
There are as many ways to make sauerkraut as there are sauerkraut recipes, but here’s how I do it. Try to get a ceramic crock or you can even use a small wooden barrel like I do. I use a round wooden lid (covered with a clean damp cloth) which sits inside the pot and rests on top of the cabbage. This lid is weighed down by a heavy (clean) stone wrapped in a cotton dish towel. Sauerkraut can have many uses when it comes to food; you can pile it on a sandwich, burger, hotdog or kebab, to covering bratwurst, you will have no trouble finding uses for your delicious homemade sauerkraut.
Here are the simple steps to take:
- Shred the cabbage finely (with a serrated bread knife) into a large bowl; add salt and optional spices. Gradually add mixture to a large container, crushing to release juices (I use a wooden stick about two inches wide). Place the wooden lid on top of the crushed cabbage then add the weighting stones and push down firmly. For a 1-gallon (4 liter) container, core and shred 5 (2.5 kg) pounds of cabbage. Measure out 3 tablespoons of Celtic sea salt.
- Alternate the layers of cabbage with a very fine and even sprinkling of the salt, gently pushing down on each layer with your wooden spoon or potato masher (more efficient). The top layer should always be salt, this will give you a 2 ½ percent solution, the ideal strength for fermentation.
- Boil an old dish towel or piece of cotton cloth for at least 5 minutes and cover your crock with it, then weight it all with a flat plate which should be just a little bit smaller than the size of the inside of the crock. Make sure your fingers can still lift it in and out, now weight the plate and cloth down with a large jar full of water (I use a large and carefully cleaned stone like my grandmother). Let it sit for a day.
- Use fresh, young cabbage. If you used young, fresh and tender cabbage, by the very next day you should have enough brine to cover the cabbage. If you don’t, make more brine by adding 1 ½ teaspoons of Celtic sea salt to a cup of water and add enough to just cover (one inch). I collect and use filtered rainwater for the best results. Try it, it makes a difference to the outcome of your sauerkraut if you have access to a source of clean rain (or river) water.
- It takes 2 to 4 days and then a white scum starts to form on the top of your sauerkraut. Gently skim this foam off, remove the cloth and place it in boiling water for a few minutes then wring it out when cool, wash the plate or stone then replace it all. Check and remove any foam every day (only takes a few minutes).
- The fermentation process stops in 10 to 14 days, depending on the sugar content of the cabbage and the ambient temperature. Once fermentation stops you have sauerkraut.
- Store your sauerkraut in an area with an ambient temperature (and low humidity) ranging from anywhere between at 40°F to 50°F (between 4°C and 10°C ). After you have made a batch of sauerkraut you will be able to keep it good for 4 to 6 weeks in and out of your refrigerator.
- Preserving your sauerkraut is another option. One way to achieve the right temperature to store your sauerkraut is to place the container in a cooler part of your house like a basement or cellar where it should stay reasonable edible for three to even four months (the cooler the better without freezing it). My grandmother used to have a few rows of bottled sauerkraut that she heat-preserved and then stored in her big wooden storage cupboard. If you want to keep your sauerkraut for more than 6 to 8 weeks, you will want to preserve it too, it tastes not the best if your freeze it and in my opinion actually improves in flavor after it has been preserved. Preserving sauerkraut is relatively easy, but you must use the correct preserving equipment including the right jars, lids and seals and hot water bath. Heat the sauerkraut until it almost simmers, then pack it into heat-sterilized glass preserving jars, use a new seal for the lid and then process the finished jar in a hot water bath for at least 15 minutes.