Every couple of years I make a crock of sauerkraut. Like childbirth, the memory of the pain and effort—of cutting and pounding the cabbage—recedes (or at least grows fuzzy around the edges). All you remember is the taste of that fresh kraut that is so different from the tinny tasting canned stuff you buy at the grocery store.
My mother told me stories about how her mother would make kraut and store it in the basement in a big earthenware crock. My mom and her brothers and sisters would sneak down to the basement and reach under the dishcloth that protected the kraut from dust and spiders and hook a fingerful to enjoy with guilty pleasure. (Fresh crock-fermented kraut can be eaten raw and is very good for you.)
I learned to make kraut (fermented cabbage) in a crock from the book Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel. I always have wanted a root cellar. It seemed like less work to store vegetables in this fashion, it requires no outside source of energy to heat or cool, and I liked the idea of having a storehouse of good things to eat. I don’t have a cellar but that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy homemade kraut!
I almost threw away the first batch of kraut I produced. I did the whole fermentation process in the garage, and it stank like a sour baby bottom. (I will probably have to move my crock out of the kitchen in a few weeks!) I was alarmed by the other by-products of fermentation as well—mold, etc. It came down to me with a large spoon, grim determination, and a 30-gallon heavy-duty trash bag, shoveling away at the top layers of oxidized kraut. It was an unpleasant business until I got down to the pearly finished kraut in the lower levels of the crock, kraut that had been covered with brine and never exposed to air. I tasted some of this kraut and experience fermented vegetable nirvana. It made me a convert to fresh kraut.
MAKING THE KRAUT
The first step in making kraut is assembling all of the equipment and ingredients:
- Uniodized salt
- Crock or clean one-gallon glass jars (Mine is a 5 gallon.)
- Clean empty wine bottle (for pounding cabbage)
- Scale and container to hold the cabbage you are weighing
- Large stainless steel or plastic bowl (to hold cabbage as you pound it)
- Plate and rock or other weight
- Knives of various sizes
- Mandolin-type shredder (optional)
- Large, clean towel
- Band-Aids and rubber gloves (for first aid after you cut your fingers on the shredder)
I have seen people sitting in their front yards cutting cabbage with a big wooden kraut cutter (think giant mandolin cutter). There is a reason for being outdoors during this part of the process. It is messy! When I cut up my cabbage, my kitchen and dining area looked like it had been hit by a cabbage blizzard.
Begin by discarding the first layer of leaves of the cabbage head. (I throw these in a paper gorcery bag and save them for my hens who love to snack on them.) The next set of leaves from the largest heads of cabbage I save for covering the kraut when I have filled the crock. You might want to put these under a damp dish towel so they don’t wilt. I cut the rest of the cabbage head into wedges leaving the core in so that the wedge holds together better as I shred it.
Use a food scale to weigh out two pounds of shredded cabbage. Dump it into a stainless steel bowl, and mix in one tablespoon of uniodized salt. (I use a plastic ice cream pail and weigh one batch of cabbage and then mark the side of the container to indicate the fill level—it makes everything go faster not to have to weigh each batch of cut up cabbage.) The salt is a preservative, and it draws liquid out of the cabbage. This process is accelerated by the pounding of the cabbage with the blunt end of a clean glass wine or liquor bottle. The old timers used to make special pounding malls for this purpose out of a round chunk of stove wood with a long handle inserted in it so the person pounding could sit or stand. Others used a clean, new axe handle—you can buy them at your local hardware store or home center. For the relatively small amount of kraut I make, the glass bottle works just fine.
A note of caution: I learned the hard way that it isn’t a good idea to pound your kraut in the crock. I broke my first crock by doing this, and crocks are expensive items to replace.
Pack each batch of pounded cabbage into the clean crock, so there are no air pockets. Continue the process until the packed-down cabbage is within three inches of the top of the crock. The cabbage makes its own brine, and you need to leave enough room at the top of the crock so that these juices don’t overflow during fermentation. (Some folks put a tray underneath the crock to catch possible spills.)
Place the reserved cabbage leaves on top of the packed kraut, place a dinner plate on top of the leaves, and weigh the plate down with a very clean rock or a bottle filled with water. Avoid metal items because the salt in the brine will corrode them and wreck the kraut. Some people place a plastic bag full of water on top of the kraut. The idea is to keep all the cabbage under the brine and away from the air.
Put a clean dish towel or several thicknesses of fine cheese cloth over the top of the crock, and secure it with a big rubber band or string to keep the kraut free of foreign matter. The fermentation process requires temperatures between 59 and 68⁰F. (I’m doing the first fermentation in my kitchen.) Fermentation slows at 50⁰F and stops at 32⁰F. The kraut bubbles when it is fermenting—for about 3 to 6 weeks. (This time will vary depending on temperature.)
When fermentation is done, remove and clean the plate and weight, and discard the cabbage cover leaves. Skim any mold or scum off the surface of the kraut before replacing the plate and weight and the cloth cover. Place the crock in a colder place—40⁰F or below.
Once fermentation is complete, you can eat the kraut. I keep my kraut in the crock in my partially heated attached garage. In the past when the garage gets too cold (below freezing in January), I have packaged and frozen my kraut, but this year I will try canning it. (Some people can their kraut as soon as it is done fermenting.)
You could try making a small amount of kraut in a glass gallon jar if you aren’t up to growing 50 pounds of cabbage or buying it at a farmer’s market as I have. If you want to dive right in and make a big crock o’ kraut, ask a few friends to come over for a Kraut Fest and put them to work! Many hands do make light work when it comes to making kraut. If you have been inspired to make your own kraut by this blog, please let me know how it turned out for you! Begonia