Culinary Legacy In Action: Homemade Sauerkraut
I’ve been talking about culinary legacy recently and decided to move from musing to making by attempting something I’ve never tried before: homemade sauerkraut.
This fermented cabbage dish is not part of my direct culinary legacy, but of my husband’s. The first time I ever had sauerkraut was with his family. Sauerkraut was a regular part of holiday meals, either as a perogy filling or an ingredient in his mom’s delicious sauerkraut and dried mushroom soup. I was a little unsure about it at first but ended up really enjoying it. I also loved the stories of how his mom would make giant crocks of sauerkraut. She used a big cabbage slicer made of wood and two blades, balanced on two chairs. She would slice the cabbage into a large cloth then dump it in the crock, add salt, mash with a large pestle, then repeat until the crock was full.
I’ve always wanted to try making my own sauerkraut, albeit on a much smaller scale. With fermented foods being all the rage these days, it was easy to find recipes for sauerkraut made in 1-L mason jars.
I like to read through a few recipes when trying something new so I can compare the ingredient ratios and methods. For this adventure in fermentation, I also had the expertise of my husband to call upon. After reviewing a few recipes with him, I chose this one from The Daring Gourmet, which seemed to do things the “correct” way and had the added bonus of metric measurements.
The basic steps are: shred cabbage, let it sit in salt, mash to get the liquid out, pack the cabbage and liquid into a jar, put on a lid, then let it ferment.
Some recipes suggested washing the cabbage first. No offense intended to any writers advising washing, but my husband scoffed at that instruction, saying “Mom never did that.” (Our cabbage remained unwashed.) One recipe also suggested massaging the shredded cabbage by hand to help extract the liquid, which I was intending to do until my husband pulled our wooden meat tenderizer out of the drawer and said: “Use this.” It was more authentic, probably more efficient, and certainly less messy.
The Daring Gourmet recipe said to tamp down the cabbage in the jar to get all the liquid out and remove air bubbles. (Also a correct instruction according to my resident expert. For this, I used a handy little kitchen tool called a spurtle.) Other recipes advised using a small circle of cabbage on top of the shredded cabbage in the jar, which, my husband assured me, was also traditional. (More on that below.)
To cap the jar, you can use a standard mason jar lid or a fermentation kit, like the one I got at Lee Valley. I liked the idea of the “pickle pebble” weight and the “pickle pipe” air lock and used both, despite my husband’s misgivings. Apparently a washed rock works just as well as a glass weight, but the fermentation kit seemed more scientific and appropriate for my little experiment.
The process of shredding and preparing the cabbage was time-consuming but not overly difficult. My husband used our mandolin, but I also cut some of the cabbage by hand for authenticity. I actually enjoyed mashing the cabbage with the meat tenderizer–it seemed very cathartic–and was amazed at how much liquid came out of the cabbage. The salt certainly helped with that.
As noted above, I tamped the cabbage down into the jar and managed to get more liquid out. After a couple of days of fermenting, the liquid was all the way to the top of the jar. (It has since receded a bit.)
If you want to try making your own sauerkraut, The Daring Gourmet recipe seems to work really well, with two additional steps: reserve a cabbage leaf and cut a circle the size of your jar from it; once you have packed your cabbage into the jar and have enough liquid on it to keep the cabbage submerged, place that circle of cabbage on top. (You can bend it to fit it in and tap it back down to ensure it is flat once it is in the jar.) Proceed with the recipe from there.
Some additional tips:
- Just about every recipe I read insisted that table salt not be used. The iodine is an issue; use sea salt or kosher salt instead.
- You have to have the right amount of cabbage for the size of jar. For my 1-L mason jar, I used about 1.1 kg or 2.5 pounds of cabbage, weighed before removing the outer leaves.
- Because it can be hard to find a small green cabbage, go ahead and buy a bigger one, then cut it down to the right weight. You can shred leftover cabbage to make coleslaw, using this fabulous dressing from Love & Lemons.
- Salt ratios are based on the weight of the cabbage, which is another reason to weigh your cabbage. For my 1.1 kg of cabbage, I used 21 g (0.75 oz) of kosher salt. (Diamond Crystal, to be specific, since other brands have different sodium levels.)
- As the Daring Gourmet recipe advises, do not fill the jar to the top with cabbage. Leave some head space for all the extra liquid. It suggests going no more than ⅔ full, but I put more in than than, probably closer to ¾ or more. But my brine did come very close to the top of the jar at one point, so it might be wise to add a little less than I did.
- Most recipes also recommend that you check the sauerkraut periodically to ensure none of the cabbage is above the brine. I would agree because some of mine did sneak up over the liquid.
- We have a cold cellar but my husband figured it would be too cold for fermenting. I didn’t want a lot of light on the sauerkraut, so he suggested keeping it on the kitchen counter, covered with a dish towel. That seems to have worked well. It hasn’t been terribly hot this spring, so the temperature was right and the towel kept the light away.
- According to my husband, two weeks is the minimum time for fermenting. Being familiar with store-bought sauerkraut, I was judging mine by smell. My sauerkraut has been fermenting for close to three weeks and it is just starting to smell “right.” Checking it again today, we both agreed that it does not quite smell ready, so I am leaving it to ferment a little longer. I’ll update this post after I have my first taste test.
The sauerkraut is really good! Perhaps a tad less sour than the storebought stuff but crunchier. It was still fermenting when we had a major heat spell and I noticed the start of a tiny bit of grey mould on the top leaf. Following the advice of The Daring Gourmet, I tossed the top leaves and refrigerated the sauerkraut and it is fine. No off-colour or off-smell. I definitely recommend making sauerkraut yourself if you have time.