We have so much fun with fermentation! Chief and I figure that instead of battling with bacteria, we’ll take a more pacifist approach. We decided that if we can’t beat them, we’ll join them! So we now live happily in harmony with the wonderful bacteria that inhabit our kitchen and our guts. We’ll take any satisfaction we can from doing little experiments in our kitchen anyway!
I have posted before about various types and states of fermentation in my posts on kombucha and vinegar and today I wanted to talk about fermentation of vegetables, cabbage specifically. I have included an introduction to augment the sauerkraut recipe below since I have a passion for talking about the health benefits of fermentation. I also wanted the sauerkraut how-to available ahead of an Oktoberfest meal idea I’ll post soon.
Sauerkraut is an example of a fermented food that has defined and helped nurture a particular culture – German in this case. Nearly all ancient cultures have some sort of fermented product they used to help preserve fresh food before the advent of pasteurization or refrigeration. For example, Koreans have kimchi, French have cheese and wine, Japanese have miso and soy, Indians consume soured creams and milks in many of their dishes, and maybe your grandmother or mother made fruit preserves or relishes or pickled vegetables.
In preserving foods using the natural process of fermentation, these cultures were able to not only maintain the incredible health benefits of the fresh products but also to amplify particular effects. While modern day processes can denature food, the ancient methods can increase vitamin levels and make nutrients in the food more available. This occurs in two ways. One is that the constituents of the food are “pre-digested” by bacteria and thereby easier to absorb through the intestines. The other way it does it is by allowing beneficial bacteria to be introduced in the intestinal tract, improving digestion efficacy where they help to break down food and improve overall nourishment and biodiversity. I actually just read an interesting article on how taking the bacteria from the guts of thin mice and putting them in obese mice made the fat mice thinner.
Fermentation works by bacteria breaking down sugar and starches in food and transforming them into beneficial acids such as lactic acid and acetic acid (and occasionally alcohol in certain stages of fermentation). These acids are beneficial to our bodies and also prevent food from spoiling. Unlike some modern day processes, which nuke good and bad bacteria alike and sometimes dull the original nutritional content, fermentation preserves the nutrients that were originally in the food and can actually increase vitamin levels (including vitamin B vitamins like folic acid, niacin, and biotin and vitamin C). In fact, Captian Cook took advantage of sauerkraut’s ability to be preserved and brought in journeys over a year long. Having it on board also helped prevent scurvy! (this tidbit I found in Nourishing Traditions, attributed to Claude Aubert Les Aliments Fermentes Traditionnels).
Our society is so scared of bacteria these days that we often end up killing or not consuming the bad along with the good. Consuming food that contains microorganisms that have probiotic properties is a way to essentially increase the diversity of biota in our body. This helps to boost our immune system and allows us to live connected with everything that is around us, instead of avoiding it and becoming hypersensitive to it. And as Sandor Ellix Katz mentions in his book Wild on Fermentation, the microflora in fermented foods actually help teach our immune system how to function.
I have seen lots of different methods for making sauerkraut, but I will include the simplest one here because I know it works and I like the lack of fuss associated with it. I also appreciate that it is a small-batch recipe. We once tried making a giant crock of sauerkraut (our first attempt) and besides the fact that we vastly over-salted it, it was just kind of intimidating. This recipe below is the one I have taken from the Nourishing Traditions book that I talk about in this post.
- 1 medium cabbage, cored and shredded
- 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 4 tablespoons whey (if not available, use an extra tablespoon salt)
Try to use an organic cabbage and be sure to use sea salt, as it has additional vitamins and minerals and has not been processed like table salt. I love the addition of caraway seeds in this recipe. I have always had a thing for them since I was a kid.
In a bowl, mix the cabbage, caraway seeds, salt and whey. We happened to have whey that we had frozen because it was leftover from a cheese-making adventure we tried (and succeeded at!) but you may not have any on hand, which is no problem. In this large bowl, pound ingredients with a meat hammer for about 10 minutes. This is a great opportunity to get older kids with too much energy or an appetite for destruction to help with. I think men really like this job in general, too!
After ten minutes, the juices will be released. Place it in a quart-size mason jar and press down firmly so the juice comes up over the top of the cabbage. There should be at least an inch below the top of the jar. I have had good luck with finding mason jars in the US at Sur le Table. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about three days before transferring to “cold” storage. A refrigerator will work but try and put it on the top shelf or wherever it’s warmest. The best place for it would be somewhere that is similar to cellar or cave temperature (about 56 degrees F or 13 degrees C). We usually cover ours with a clean swatch of organic fabric held in place with a rubberband to keep flies, etc. out while it’s on the counter and then cover it with a lid once it’s in the refrigerator.
The sauerkraut can be eaten right away but really improves with age. In summary, the salt (and/or whey) helps to inhibit the putrefying bacteria in those first few days. That is, the bacteria that is usually associated with spoilage. After the product has had a few days to ferment, enough lactic acid producing bacteria is created (lactobacilli) to begin preserving the food with lactic acid.
Green cabbage is the most common ingredient in sauerkraut, but you could also use red cabbage to create a pink color or shred in any other cruciferous vegetable like Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy or use grated carrots, etc. to make it a little more colorful.
Happy fermenting. Cheers to your health and happy taste buds!