How To Make Sauerkraut
And Other Cabbage Creations
By Linda Baccei
This is a method I adapted that combines getting things started with dry salting and then using a brine solution as needed.
You will need a large glass or crock container—no metal. Use only Kosher, or pickling salt (no iodine). Shred or slice the cabbage (a great application for the food processor) and weigh it. The proportions are, 2.5% of salt by weight of the prepared cabbage. This works out to: 6 level tablespoons salt per 10 lbs. cabbage. This ratio of salt promotes the transformation of the sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid—the end point of fermentation—which is what makes it “sour.” As you pack the container, you will be struck by how little salt is actually involved, and you may be tempted to add more. Avoid this urge. The correct ratio of salt to vegetable is critical.
Pack the container with alternate layers of cabbage and salt, tamping it down gently to get rid of trapped air and to start juices flowing. Cover with a sterile cloth, followed by a clean plate that is roughly the same diameter as the container, with some sort of weight on it. This will keep the cabbage packed and covered with brine. I like to use a Pyrex pie dish. The lip keeps a good separation between the fermentation mixture and your weight—in my case, usually a bunch of rocks which may not have the most sterile of histories. Ideally, the ambient temperature should be in the range of 68–72°F. Trying to ferment cabbage when it is hot risks spoilage.
After 24 hours, there should be sufficient brine produced to cover the cabbage (supposedly). If there is insufficient natural brine, add enough weak brine, in the proportion of 6 teaspoons salt (1.5 tablespoons) per quart of water to cover the cabbage. My cabbages must be dry, because I have always had to add extra brine, and depending upon the amount of cabbage I am trying to ferment, I will make up a half-gallon of brine at one time. You will also need brine for canning, and to replace brine lost during skimming.
Check the cabbage daily, and skim off any scum that forms at the surface, replace with brine to cover, rinse the cloth and plate as needed in hot water. If you are working in clean conditions, you should not have to re-sterilize the cloth and plate every time, although the Canning Police recommend it.
The fermenting period will take between 10 days and three-to-four weeks, depending upon temperature and how “sour” you want your cabbage. After about 10 days, remove a sample of the cabbage and taste it. It should taste tart/sweet (a paradox, since we are “souring,” but this is my personal experience). The cabbage should have a fresh appearance— dark, murky, slimy vegetables and/ or brine indicates spoilage, and if this happens, throw the whole thing away. Continue to sample the kraut every day.
The cabbage will gradually lose water and become softer, yellower and more sour. I prefer less fermented kraut, which retains some crispness of the fresh cabbage but has transformed enough sugar into acid to process safely in a boiling water bath. I don’t have a formula for how long you should ferment to reach this stage—a lot of this is experience. A lot of it will be personal taste. One year, I prolonged fermentation at the wishes of my husband, and ended up with the typical soggy “sour” kraut you get in a jar at the store. It was okay, but too fermented for my liking.
Fermentation will eventually reach an end point, and the kraut can safely be stored in brine in a cool place, without refrigeration, and will not further degrade. This is what householders used to do. They also used to drive around in horse and buggy and read by candlelight. Canning is a much safer, cleaner and more reliable method of preservation. It is also pretty easy, since you do not have to deploy the pressure canner, and it allows you to preserve the kraut at the stage of fermentation you like.
Pack the finished kraut and fermenting liquid in jars, cover with additional brine to fill the jar, making sure to get rid of all air bubbles.This will take more extra brine than you might think. Fifteen pounds of cabbage will yield around 15 quarts of kraut. (Is there an easier formula than this?) This works out to two full canner loads, plus about a quart to eat right away. Process in a boiling water bath 15-20 minutes for pints, 20-30 minutes for quarts. I have done a lot of canning, and found that once the water in the canner reaches a hard boil, 20 minutes is usually sufficient to get quart jars to seal, without a lot of the liquid boiling away
A note on crocks: I have found that they are not entirely waterproof— there is always some liquid that seeps out of the bottom. I prefer glass containers for this reason, although it’s hard to find glass containers large enough.
Sauerkraut: Staple of the Winter Pantry
Almost everyone has heard of “scurvy,” the debilitating, often fatal disease associated with long sea voyages in the 16th to 18th centuries. Scurvy results from a deficiency of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is required for iron absorption and collagen production. We cannot synthesize vitamin C, and thus depend upon its presence in foods.
Likewise, almost everyone knows that citrus fruits are a great source of vitamin C. But did you ever wonder how, in the era before mass transportation made these foods available year round, people living in northern climes obtained their ration of vitamin C? Answer: They grew and consumed cabbage, which is loaded with vitamin C. Well, in truth, ascorbic acid is present in other fruits and vegetables, but cabbage is really the vitamin C king. It matures at the end of the growing season, has a relatively long shelf life, and then somewhere along the line, someone figured out that you could preserve cabbage, and its anti-”scorbutic” properties, through fermentation. When Captain James Cook set sail on his second voyage around the world, in 1772, he hauled along barrels of sauerkraut. The story goes that some of the crew members refused to eat it (and suffered the consequences), suggesting that it was around this time that sauerkraut was introduced to the British diet. Sauerkraut continued to save the lives of the British navy until it was replaced by lemons and limes.*
But just because you can pick up vitamin C tablets at the drugstore does not mean you should ignore this northern European staple. It is easy to make and store, and properly prepared, is a delicious addition to the winter diet. If you would prefer to spend your money on something other than store-bought pills, know that vitamin C is not depleated by the heat of cooking, although it is sensitive to the presence of oxygen. Since fermentation is a chemical process that takes place in an oxygen-free environment, the vitamin C content of cabbage is preserved when you transform it into sauerkraut. Likewise, preserving sauerkraut through canning (as I recommend) will preserve its vitamin C content, since the process of canning involves removing air from the jars.
*Sobel, Dava, Longitude, Bloomsbury USA, NY 1995
Basic Braised Sauerkraut
There are probably as many recipes for braised sauerkraut as there are regions in Northern and Eastern Europe. The basic procedure is the same: prolonged cooking, slow (low temperature) in some type of liquid with seasonings added. The slow cooking mellows the kraut as it absorbs the flavors from the broth.
Drain the sauerkraut and taste: Determine whether it is still too “briny” for you, and if so rinse in water. Squeeze out the excess water and put it in a Dutch oven or casserole. Add seasonings and enough liquid to barely cover the kraut. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove, cover, and bake at about 325°F for several hours, until all the liquid has been absorbed.
Stock: Any of the following, alone or in combination, make excellent braising liquids: Stock or bouillion, white wine, vermouth, beer, apple cider.
Seasonings: Juniper berries (you can substitute gin), bay leaf, peppercorns, paprika, parsley, thyme.
Additions: carrot, onion, fresh apple, applesauce, bacon, meat or sausage.
Make it French:* Slice and sauté one carrot and one onion slowly in fat or oil just until soft. Prepare a seasoning bag containing:
4 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
10 juniper berries
Mix together 1 qt. drained sauerkraut, the carrot and onion, the spice bag, and add braising liquid to cover. Bring to a boil on the stove, cover and bake for several hours. Brown a pork roast on all sides, then add to the casserole, timing its addition so that the meat and the sauerkraut are finished at the same time.
Make it German: Use beer or ale in the braising liquid, with a little grainy mustard and 1 teaspoon of maple syrup mixed in. Add sautéed onion and some minced, fresh thyme to the sauerkraut. Brown some sausages, then add to the casserole during the final stages of its cooking.
* Adapted from Child, Bertholle and Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961
This is another family recipe involving fresh cabbage that I have adapted for sauerkraut.
In a heavy soup pot, sauté 1 onion, 1 carrot and 1 stalk celery—all finely minced—in some olive oil. This is a standard flavor base I use for most of my soups. Then add equal amounts of stock and canned, whole, cut-up tomatoes. The stock can be something already prepared, or you can make your own. My grandmother would use the carcass from a pork roast—dry roasted, not boiled (boiling meat removes the flavor from the bones). Remove the meat, if any, then cook the bones in some water. If no park roast, take some spare ribs, roast them, remove the meat, then use the bones to make the stock.
Remove the bones, add the tomatoes, 1 sliced carrot, 1 potato in bite-sized pieces, 1 quart sauerkraut. After the soup is cooked, return the meat to the soup.
Make it vegetarian: Use vegetable stock, and add 1 cup lentils in with the other vegetables. If you can, wait until the next day to serve—this is one of many soups/stews whose flavor improves with time.
Deconstructed Stuffed Cabbage
Stuffed cabbage is one of those deceptively “simple” peasant dishes that seem to require spending most of the day in the kitchen, even if you know what you’re doing. The cabbage needs to be well-formed and absent the insect holes that tend to infest produce from my garden. You have to pre-cook the cabbage leaves or they won’t roll, but if cooked too long they turn to mush. So this means several trips to the cooker, because the outside leaves will cook first, leaving the inner leaves raw. Since you haven’t made this dish in a while, you have to remember whether you should roll the leaves in the direction of the rib, or the other way around. So I developed the recipe below, taking advantage of the ease of substituting sauerkraut. All you have to do is open a jar, after all.
Meat Mixture: Brown l pound of ground meat. Pork is the more traditional, but beef and venison work great. Saute until soft (not browned) one onion and two cloves of garlic. To this add the following, and cook for 20 minutes or so:
1 pint tomato sauce
1/2 cup unsweetened apple sauce, or to taste*
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon ground clove*
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
Salt and pepper to taste
You could, if you wanted to, forget about most of these seasonings and just add ketchup to taste. But that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?
Drain and rinse, if you need to, 1 quart sauerkraut, and place in a casserole dish. Pour on the meat mixture, then add enough canned whole tomatoes and their juices to just cover kraut and the meat. Cook the casserole, covered, in a low oven (around 320°F) for up to several hours. Uncover, and continue baking until excess water has evaporated. Your casserole should smell like ketchup.
Serve with cooked rice or (my favorite) a simple boiled potato. And don’t forget to pass the ketchup.
*Notes: The meat mixture must be a little on the sweet side, to balance the tart of the sauerkraut. You can also sweeten with some diced apple, even a little apple jelly.
Maple syrup works great, but is probably not as healthy as apple—something I hate to admit, since we produce maple syrup on our farm. I’m not sure about honey—it may add too much of a strong note. Clove is a very strong spice that can easily dominate a dish, so be cautious.
Stuffed Cabbage — A Love Story
When I was a child, every family holiday featured the usual turkey, ham, or roast beef and – the real star of the table—a big tureen of stuffed cabbage, prepared by my Polish grandmother. A simple dish, really; a mixture of ground meat and rice is rolled up in cabbage leaves, packed into a large pot, covered with canned tomatoes, and cooked for a while. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and somewhere along the line, the inter- generational link that preserved this old-world recipe was broken. We are talking about some little je ne sais quoi or two that makes the difference between okay and truly, uniquely delicious.
Maybe the break happened because my mother and her four sisters could not wait to distance themselves from the crowded flat in a neighborhood where English was a second language, from the vegetable garden and all its weeds, the chickens, the wood cookstove, not to mention the boiled cabbage that was the mainstay of their diet growing up in the Great Depression. They fled into post-World War II suburban prosperity, took up things like golf and tennis, and relied on 1950s culinary innovations like sauces made from Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. Maybe my grandmother was a poor communicator. I remember my mother’s frustration trying to squeeze forth a family recipe: “How much paprika?” “Some—not too much.”
In any event, my grandmother passed away and her recipe for stuffed cabbage was lost. And needless to say, no recipe I have ever found even comes close. My mother and my aunts would try to recreate it from time-to-time, and it was never the same as Grandmother’s. Later, my cousins and I would repeat the attempt, with similar results. Finally, I decided to make one more effort, on the bitter-sweet occasion of a memorial get-together for my mother, recently passed away.
The main element that was lost was the seasoning of the meat/rice mixture. In recalling those family dinners of so long ago, I always remember how the ketchup bottle would get passed around and poured onto the cabbage and it’s filling. Ketchup? On cabbage? So this time I reasoned, maybe there is something important about the seasonings that go into ketchup. I started fooling around with adding clove and allspice and— voila! I served my creation and heard my cousin scream, “This is it!”
If we are lucky, we have a few creative accomplishments in the course of an otherwise fairly ordinary lifetime. This is one of mine.
Eva Schweizer’s “Segediener” Goulash
My neighbor, Eva, was born in a part of Eastern Europe that changed nationalities regularly after major wars. In the early 20th century they were part of Hungary, then all of a sudden, they were Romanian and everyone was forced to learn and speak Romanian. After World War II the Soviet Union moved in, and Eva and her husband Franz had had enough. They made their way to the United States, and to our quiet valley in upper Vermont, which has not changed hands since the late 18th century when New York and New Hampshire were fighting over who owned our little state, stuffed between these two neighbors.
Eva recalls life in rural Hungary/ Romania, when every autumn, a festival would be held and each town would compete for the best “goulash” (basically, this means “stew”). The festival would follow the annual slaughter of all the farms’ pigs, so it is not surprising that pork was featured. This recipe is that of Eva’s hometown, Segediener, and uses sauerkraut.
Cut about 1 lb. of pork into bite-sized pieces. Eva says to use something “tender” like baby spare ribs. By that, I think she means “moist,” because there is some fat content. (Traditionally, the pork meat would have been gathered from the butchering trimmings.) Brown the meat with some onion, then add some Hungarian paprika. The amount will depend upon how spicy you like your food. (A small amount of paprika at least, is needed to create color.)
Put the meat mixture into a casserole, then add some sauerkraut and the following seasonings:
About 5 juniper berries
l bay leaf
Some caraway seed
If you like a tidy dish, you can tie these seasonings into a cheesecloth bag. Stir in about 1 teaspoon of some sweetener, e.g. brown sugar, maple syrup.
Cover tightly and cook—either in the oven or on the stovetop—until the dish makes its own juices. Then add water to the level of the kraut. When it starts to simmer add 1 medium, peeled potato.
Cook until the sauerkraut is braised and the dish well-seasoned. Just before serving, remove the potato, mash it, and mix it into the dish. This will thicken the sauce.
Serve with sour cream.