Wild Fermentation: Homemade Sauerkraut

If you're a regular reader here, you've seen my husband T. take a culinary turn a few times, most recently with those elegant crepes that we filled with homemade lemon curd and fresh blueberries. Often when T. steps into the culinary spotlight it involves a cool tool he covets — a professional crepe pan, for instance, or in this case an antique cabbage shredder that he has restored.

Shortly before we left Germany, T. spent a day with his colleague, Lamont (an American), who was famous for his homemade Sauerkraut in a land where Sauerkraut was quite ubiquitous. Not only was the kraut homemade, Lamont shredded the cabbage by hand using an antique shredder he had found in a flea market and restored to working condition (the Krautmeister and his shredder in photo at right). Their kraut-making day started shortly after dawn, as Lamont insisted on getting the freshest available cabbage from a farmers' market near Heidelberg, a 50-mile journey. (The fresher the cabbage, the higher its water content — an important factor in how much natural brine the cabbage will produce.)

Once they had secured two 30-gallon bags full of cabbage, they returned to Lamont's house for T's apprenticeship. Between the two of them, they shredded, salted and tamped enough cabbage to fill 4 large crocks with salted cabbage (photo, left). A common misperception is that Sauerkraut is made with vinegar; probably because it's so sour. Actually, Sauerkraut is made with only cabbage and non-iodized salt (the iodine in iodized salt interferes with the fermentation process), such as sea salt or kosher salt. After a short time, the cabbage will exude water, which mixes with the salt to create a natural brine that covers the cabbage. The brine creates an environment in which the cabbage can ferment safely.

Lamont generously gifted us with one of those crocks full of Sauerkraut-in-waiting, and coached T. on its maintenance. We patiently watched over our crock, taking care to check the kraut for surface "bloom" — an unsightly but mostly benign bacteria that can grow on the brine surface that should be removed — and keeping the well around the lid filled with clean water to create an air-tight seal. After the requisite 10-week fermentation period, it was quite a treat to eat fresh hand-made and homemade Sauerkraut! T. could not wait to try it again on his own. But just as he was planning to search for his own shredder, we learned we had one month to prepare for a move to Hawaii!

Now, three moves and six years later, we have found ourselves in a part of the U.S. that was settled by German immigrants — an area in which T. might finally find an antique cabbage shredder. For over a year, we scoured antique shops and flea markets in search of a functional shredder. Many of the antique shredders we saw were rendered unusable by paint, glue, or other decorative touches. He finally found one that was merely rusty, as well as a wooden tamper for pressing the cabbage in the crock. After disassembling the whole shredder, removing all the rust, sharpening the blades, and cleaning and finishing the wood with a food-grade oil, he was ready for his first batch of Sauerkraut.

For directions and safety guidelines for making Sauerkraut, he used several sources on the Web. Check out Wild Fermentation, Wedliny Domowe (a Polish culinary how-to site), and the Sauerkraut forum on The Garden Web for detailed information if you are inspired to try this at home.

T. insisted on doing this the old-fashioned (= hard) way, but you can absolutely
shred the cabbage with a modern mandoline or even a food processor.

Sea salt was mixed in as each cabbage was shredded
(any iodine-free salt will do).

It took 15 heads of cabbage to fill the crock! He used cabbage grown in
nearby Sharpsburg — locally grown produce will be freshest and
will have the highest water content to make a natural brine.

The salted cabbage was tamped down in the crock.

To keep the cabbage weighted so it stayed submerged,T. used bags of brine.
The brine was a precaution; if the bags accidentally broke, the salt water
would not interfere with fermentation.

This crock has a well around the lid that is filled with water to create a tight seal to keep out pathogens.
You have to check the lid every day or two to make sure the water hasn't evaporated.
Sometimes you can hear the crock "burping" when gas escapes from under the lid and through the water!

After 4 weeks: starting to ferment, but still crisp green — a cabbage/kraut hybrid.
T. was already sampling the kraut as a salad at this point.

T. enjoys Sauerkraut as a side dish, uncooked and ungarnished — which is the best way to gain the full benefit of fermented food. Sauerkraut is high in fiber and Vitamins C and K, and is a good source of lactic acid bacteria which contribute to a healthy digestive tract and immune system. To get the latter benefits, though, you should eat Sauerkraut raw and seek out brands that are unpasteurized. Or make it yourself, of course! But if you plan to cook the Sauerkraut, a pasteurized brand that is naturally fermented and packed in plastic or glass works fine.

Most of this first batch was given away to T's colleagues, who were intrigued with the whole idea of homemade kraut and wanted to taste for themselves. We did enjoy Apfelsauerkraut (recipe below) with turkey keilbasa a couple of times, but I was shocked to learn yesterday that the first crock of Sauerkraut is already history! So this can only mean one thing — a second batch is being planned, this time with other vegetables (carrots? Brussel sprouts? cauliflower?) thrown in as well. Of course, it will be at least a couple of months before another batch will be ready. Oh well, we still have kimchi when we need a fermented cabbage fix!

If you're in an especially adventurous mood, you might want to try this unusual and utterly delicious tomato-based soup laced with orange: Krautsuppe mit Krabben, Sauerkraut Soup with Shrimp. If you enjoy the Korean kimchi soup, Jigae, you might like this German take on a fermented cabbage soup.

Serves 4 persons

This recipe has won converts from sworn Sauerkraut-haters — the addition of apples and apple cider mellows the sourness of the kraut without erasing its characteristic flavor. Feel free to substitute apple juice, beer, dry white wine or chicken broth for the hard cider too.

Make this without any meats, to serve as a side dish with ham or salmon, or mix in with egg noodles for a non-meat meal.

4oz bacon or salt pork, diced (optional)
2 TBL light olive oil
1-2 tsp. caraway seeds
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
2-3 large, firm cooking apples, such as Cox-Pippin or Granny Smith
(about 1.5 lbs/750g), cored and sliced into 16-20 pieces
2 lbs/ 1kg fresh sauerkraut
1 cup hard apple cider

2 lbs sausage or wurst, or 4 pork loin chops, browned well (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 350F/180C.

Place oil and bacon, if using, in oven-proof skillet large enough to hold sauerkraut and sausages/pork chops. Over medium high heat, render fat from bacon, if using, about 5 minutes. Remove browned bacon pieces from skillet.

Turn heat down to medium, add caraway seeds and stir until the seeds are fragrant, about 1 minute. Add sliced onions, and stir through, then cook slowly until onions just start to turn translucent, about 3 minutes.

Add sauerkraut and sliced apples, and stir through. Add pre-browned sausage or chops to top of sauerkraut. Pour cider around sauerkraut, and cover skillet with lid. Place in pre-heated oven for 25-40 minutes, or until meat is cooked through (sausage will cook faster than pork chops).

Apfelsauerkraut with turkey kielbasa and purchased
Kartoffelknoedel (Bavarian-style potato dumpling)