If I were asked to name a humble vegetable, cabbage would get my vote. This versatile veggie, grown since ancient history and included in cooking worldwide is, however, anything but ordinary.
Why so crazy about cabbage?
It has good family connections. Cabbage - and broccoli, bok choy, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, radish, turnips, collards, watercress, aragula - belongs to the cruciferous vegetables. So.....?
Not a new idea but a good idea: eat a diet rich in these vegetables for the defense against, and the possible prevention of, cancer. According to Sally Errey in Staying Alive! Cookbook for Cancer Free Living, scientists weren't sure why this vegetable family had this distinction - until recent studies which have shown their ability to help the body's toxic waste-disposal system. Certain plant chemicals, like sulforophane and indole-3-carbinol, trigger the release of a protein that causes the release of several toxin-fighting enzymes that either neutralize cancer-causing chemicals or help the body excrete them.
Phytochemicals ("plant"- chemicals) = good source of antioxidants.
If you catch your weekly media version of "Your Health and You" you're probaby familiar with these health buzzwords.
The tiny phytochemicals found in cruciferous vegetables have unique abilities to modify human hormones and to prevent toxic compounds from binding to human DNA - possibly preventing damage that could lead to cancer. Studies have even shown that genetic defects that may lead to cancer are suppressed by the consumption of green cruciferous vegetables.
Over-dosing on one food group (even vegetables) is not a cancer-free guarantee.
But I'm convinced about the superior goodness of cabbage and its kin. Some variety of this family is a regular at my table: raw, cooked, or sometimes - fermented.
Fermentation deserves a post of its own.
But until later, this is the short version on the benefits of fermentation:
- preserves food/nutrients
- breaks nutrients down into more easily digestible forms
- creates new nutrients
- some ferments function as antioxidants
- removes toxins from food
I learned the ways of a gardener from the example of my mother - an extraordinary worker who preserved the fruits of her labour by canning, freezing, pickling - but never fermenting. Perhaps it wasn't in her Scottish upbringing or she'd heard stories of smelly brine bubbling out of crocks lurking in dark cellars. Whatever the reason, the only sauerkraut I ate growing up was bought at the grocery store and that pattern remained after I had my own kitchen.
Two years ago my nutrition studies piqued my interest in making my own. I bought Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and got all excited reading how to make live-culture foods, e.g. kimchis, sourdough breads, miso, yogurt - and when I saw "sauerkraut is easy to make" on more than one page I was ready to go for it.
So you get the picture - I'm not the expert with years of experience. But based on how my sauerkraut (and kimchi) has turned out, I do agree. It is easy.
What you need.
Food: Cabbage and salt (I use coarse sea salt). Utensils: A sturdy knife, a crock, a plate that is slightly smaller than the opening of the crock, a large rock.
Buy good solid heads of cabbage. I've learned from shopping at our garden markets that "fall" cabbage is the best type to use for sauerkraut. I don't know the proper name of this particular cabbage, but living in a county that boasts both home-style and commerical sauerkraut operations, I do what the experts advise. Except on the next point. Sauerkraut should be made as the moon is waxing. Unfortunately, my hankering to fill the kraut crock doesn't always line up with the lunar cycle, so here I do my own thing.
Steps to Sauerkraut:
Chop cabbage into threads, as fine or coarse as you like it.
Place in large bowl as you chop it. Sprinkle salt on it as you go. How much salt? This depends on health and taste preferences. I recommend going lightly - for starters, 3-4 Tablespoons of salt per 5 pounds of sliced cabbage.
Mix cabbage and salt thoroughly and pack into your crock. It's important to pack just a bit at a time into the crock - pressing it down hard with your fist or some other sturdy tool. This is an important step: you don't want to allow room for air pockets and the tamping packs the kraut, helping to force the water out of the cabbage.
Cover the cabbage with a plate and place a heavy stone (that's been well-washed) on top of it. This weight is needed to force the water out of the cabbage and to keep it submerged. (My crock isn't very full this time as one cabbage head disappeared in a coleslaw.)
Cover the crock with a tea towel and set in a corner of the kitchen. Cooler the location, slower the fermentation, longer the preservation.
Check the kraut the next day and every day or two after. The important factor is that the brine covers the cabbage. According to Sandor Ellix Katz, "some cabbage, particularly if it's old, simply contains less water." He suggests if the brine hasn't risen to the top by the next day, you can add some salt water (1 Tbsp. salt to 1 cup water) to bring up the brine level. I haven't had experience with this as the brine has been sufficient. To help it stay submerged in brine, every day or so I firmly press on the rock/plate.
Here I've taken the rock out so you can see the brine. This was after about 4 days.
When is it ready?
It's all about how you like it. It should start to be tangy in about a week. Taste it. Its flavours will evolve as it ages. If you do take some out to enjoy, repack the remaining kraut, keeping the surface level and your weights clean. I generally leave mine in the kitchen area for a couple weeks, checking it often. Then I'll move it to a cooler location for 1-2 weeks before putting it into jars and into the refrigerator. I'll taste as I go but don't usually eat mine until it's fermented about 4 weeks. My batches are usually small like the one above so it's all eaten before it gets too 'ripe'.
Making sauerkraut may look complicated and scary but it really is easy. Maintain cleanliness and keep the cabbage submerged - and enjoy.
Check back in a few weeks and I'll let you know how this batch turned out.