Sunday, July 03, 2011

WILD about fermentation!

This "summer" has been one long, wet, extended spring, and we rarely have had a day that's warmer than 80 degrees. Taking advantage of this mild season, I decided to attempt a project that's usually best left until fall: SAUERKRAUT! I have never made my own sauerkraut before because, well, I used to think I hated it. And that commercial stuff in a can still makes me gag, but then I had an experience in Montreal that made me change my mind. As I have blogged about before, there is an Eastern European food stall in the Jean-Talon Market where they serve these AWESOME Romanian hamburgers topped with their own housemade sauerkraut. And the kraut is not terribly sour, and it's fresh-tasting and crispy. So delicious!

That was the kind of sauerkraut that I wanted to make. So I bought five heads of cabbage and got to work, following the methodology of the guru of fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz, aka Sandorkraut. His website is extremely helpful with lots of free resources, but I recommend that you check out the "bible" of fermentation, Wild Fermentation. You can even purchase a bundle with a fermenting workshop hosted by Sandorkraut himself on dvd. It's a terrific deal! I also watched a LOT of other videos on YouTube to a visual feel for the process.  This one was my favorite: (I need to fashion a chopping tool like that for next time! Tee hee.)

If I decide that I am going to be fermenting vegetables all the time, I may decide to spring for one of those fancy Harsch crocks. But since this was my first attempt, I bought a two-pack of very large food grade plastic storage containers at Sam's Club. The plastic cupcake holder from my cake carrier fit perfectly on top of the kraut, and I weighted it down with a gallon milk jug filled with water. Then I covered it all with a large flour sack towel. And I kept it on top of the kerosene monitor in the kitchen, since it tells me what the temperature is there at all times. (Ideally, you want to ferment your sauerkraut between 72-78 degrees.)

My big newbie mistake was weighing the cabbage at the grocery store BEFORE removing the outer leaves and coring and chopping.  So for 12.5 pounds of whole/pre-cut cabbage (five heads of varying sizes) plus a few shredded carrots, I used about eight tablespoons of canning salt. Then when the natural brine didn't rise above the cabbage, I added another couple of quarts of brine on top of that. And then it just sat there, doing nothing for a week. When we tasted it after seven days, it was GAWD-AWFULLY salty! So I siphoned off a couple of quarts of the very salty brine, and replaced it with two quarts of fresh water. That did the trick! Suddenly, it was bubbly and burping like crazy, and the brine level was rising as it should be when it's working. Lesson learned: too little salt and the cabbage will spoil, but too much and fermentation won't occur.

After that, I skimmed the scum off the brine daily and tasted the kraut at the end of each week. I declared my sauerkraut "finished" after three weeks, but remember, I was going for a fresher, crunchier kraut. Most folks would have probably let it go at least another week beyond that, up to six weeks if you really want it tangy.

Before packing into jars, I strained off and reserved the juice, then I rinsed the sauerkraut in cold water a few times because it was still a bit too salty for my tastes, then I mixed the brine (with all of its probiotic properties that aid digestion) back in. I got four and a half quarts, which I am storing in (unsealed) jars in the garage fridge. Of course, it will continue to ferment, but very, very slowly, and the kraut fridge should keep for months that way. Project Sauerkraut SUCCESS!

Wild Fermentation Sauerkraut
(Source: Wild Fermentation)

Special Equipment:
Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, one-gallon capacity or greater
Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
One-gallon jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)
Cloth cover (like a pillowcase or towel)

Ingredients (for 1 gallon):
5 pounds cabbage
3 tablespoons sea salt

1. Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts, however you like it. If you mix green and red cabbage, you'll end up with bright pink kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.
2. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. 3 tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds of cabbage.
3. Add other vegetables if you like. Grate carrots for a coleslaw-like kraut. Other vegetables you might add include onions, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, beets, and burdock roots. You can also add fruits (apples, whole or sliced, are classic), and herbs and spices (caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries are classic, but anything you like will work). Experiment.
4. Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.
5. Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.
6. Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.
7. Leave the crock to ferment. Try to store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where you won’t forget about it, but where it won’t be in anybody’s way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.
8. Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes scum appears on the surface. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.
9. Enjoy. Scoop out a bowl- or jarful at a time and keep it in the fridge. Start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut out of the crock, you have to repack it carefully. Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary. Some people preserve kraut by canning and heat-processing it. This can be done, but so much of the power of sauerkraut is its aliveness, why kill it?

Now that you've made sauerkraut, what will you do with it? Of course, you have to have some on a hot dog--that goes without saying! But for a proper dinner, may I suggest kapusta?

First, fry up a half pound of bacon and roughly chop it. Then chop a large onion and saute until translucent in the bacon fat. In your crock pot or Dutch oven, add three pounds of potatoes cut into large chunks (peeled or not, your choice), the cooked bacon pieces, the sauteed onions, a pound of kielbasa cut into large chunks, and then top it all with two or three cups of your homemade sauerkraut. Cook on low for about eight hours in the crock pot or covered in the oven at 250 for about six hours. YUM!

1 comment:

Julie Haun said...

Great photos... like the site.

You should make it easy for people to repost your recipes by adding a PIN-IT button on each page/post/recipe. That's the way I keep up with all the good recipes I find.

I'm glad I found you today.