You could say it's in my blood. Or not. It depends on what side of the family you're viewing me from. If you look from the French side of my family you would say, well, if you're from the Alsace-Lorraine area of France I might give you that. If you look at me from the German side you'd say slam dunk! I don't have a clue where my French relations got on the boat for their sail across the pond. The closest I can get is Canada so today we're going to look at me from my German side of the family.
Back to my original statement: It's in my blood. That is to say, sauerkraut is in my blood. Well, not strictly speaking. That would be pretty weird even though I can be quite sharp but only now and then, please, like when I whack my thumb with a hammer. Otherwise, I'm like strudel. No, really I am. Trust me. Oh, well ....
Today I made sauerkraut. Actually, today I finished my sauerkraut and put it in a dispenser for when I make the greatly anticipated meal of bratwurst and new potatoes. Sauerkraut doesn't have to be in your blood but it helps. Sauerkraut is really easy to make and good for you. My grandmother Frieda claimed she never got sick a day in her life because she always ate sauerkraut. This is pushing it a bit but I'm 100-percent positive it helped her stay healthy.
This is because the fermentation process that transforms salt and cabbage into sauerkraut increases the vitamins, particularly C and B vitamins, and food enzymes. Also, homemade sauerkraut is very rich in beneficial bacteria that help make our immune systems stronger and create essential vitamins in our digestive tracts. At any time of year, but especially winter when fresh food can be hard to come by, homemade fermented foods are really good to eat.
The key to making sauerkraut successfully is to have a crock or container that can be virtually closed off to the air. I have a large stoneware crock that has a pretty darn tight fitting plate to cover the fermenting kraut. I put a big bag of water on top of it so the kraut is completely submerged under its juices. Bacteria in the air, which can cause spoiling, cannot penetrate much so whatever does penetrate – because we're not talking hazmat suits in a clean room laboratory – is neutralized by the salt.
Crunchy yummy cabbage kraut. Not the insipid mushy canned kind. Which is good, too! But this is much better!
1 head organically grown cabbage about 3 to 5 pounds
1 tablespoon pickling or unrefined sea salt (read labels! You'd be surprised what they put in sea salt these days!)
1 teaspoon caraway seed (optional)
Core and shred your cabbage. I used a Cuisinart with the shredding blade. (I would have used my great-grandfather's kraut cutter but I loaned it to my Aunt J and she has it still!) Wash your hands thoroughly. Toss cabbage, salt and caraway seed – if you're using it – together in a large mixing bowl and begin to squeeze it all together with your hands, kneading it thoroughly.
When the cabbage starts to release juice, transfer it to your crock. Some people feel better investing in a fermenter. It's up to you. One thing I keep doing during the process is wash my hands. If I go off and do something, when I come back I wash my hands. We're just taking precautions not to get naughty inappropriate bacteria in with the kraut. Pack the salted cabbage into the crock or fermenter as tightly as you can, eliminating air bubbles. I use a clean wooden mallet or pestle and mash, mash, mash until the juices come up enough to cover the kraut. Don't worry about mashing it to a pulp. Cabbage has some pretty strong fiber in it.
Sometimes my cabbage doesn't produce a lot of liquid. It just has to cover the shredded cabbage so don't be concerned. If you don't get enough liquid to cover, mash more. You might have to mash for quite a few minutes. I'd also say make sure that your cabbage has been shredded pretty fine. It doesn't have to be shredded into a pulp but it has to be cut up quite small or thinly. Otherwise just mash and mash some more. If there are larger chunks it's OK. Just as long as most of it is fine, it will work.
Then I have a plate that fits into the crock so I almost can't get it out. But I can. I take a new zip lock bag, fill it with water and put it on top of the plate to hold the plate down. Juices will leak over the edge but that's OK. The bag will seal it off from the air. Cover the whole she-bang with cheese cloth or a light cloth, secure it and allow it to sit at room temperature, undisturbed, for at least 1 week. You can try some after a few days until it is done to your liking. If it's too salty you can rinse it in cold filtered water. Then eat it or put it in the fridge or other cold storage. It should keep for at least 6 months and up to 1 year, but it won't because you'll have eaten it all way before that.
If scum appears floating in the brine of your homemade sauerkraut, just spoon it off. You won't be able to remove it all, but spoon off what you can and don't worry about it. The real key to preparing homemade sauerkraut, and any fermented food, is that the liquid covers the cabbage.
Photo: Fotolia/Brent Hofacker