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From the Garden: How to make the perfect sauerkraut at home

Although the name is German, the probiotic food has its origins in China.

Michael Kelly Grower

THERE IS AN ancient ritual associated with making sauerkraut that appeals to me greatly.

I love the idea of putting away cabbages for the winter through fermentation. Although it’s become popular in recent times as a gut-health miracle food, I think GIY-ers use it more as a way of preserving an excess of cabbage.

This is more consistent with its origins, which are surprisingly not in Germany. 

We often assume that sauerkraut is German (and of course the name comes from the German words for sour and cabbage), but in fact Chinese people were making it over 2,000 years ago using rice wine to start the ferment.

Germans were the first to dry-cure cabbage using just salt in the 1600s. The salt draws the water out of the cabbage, creating the brine in which the cabbage is submerged.

Before refrigeration, sauerkraut was a method to preserve large quantities of cabbage, saving up its valuable nutrients for the lean winter months.

Some European families might have put away as many as 300 cabbages using the sauerkraut method, with the cabbages shredded by knife. This is no easy chore, so it’s no wonder peddlers often went door-to-door to offer their services and help out.

My own recent haul was more modest – around 10 hispi cabbages – and I threw them in to a food processor which makes light work of the shredding task. I don’t feel bad about taking this shortcut. 

The sour taste alluded to by its name is a result of fermentation. The sugars in the cabbage turn into lactic acid which act as a preservative.

The fermentation process actually increases the nutritional strength of the cabbage, making it more digestible and creating a probiotic effect in the gut.

Its superfood status is well deserved. It is packed with vitamins, including one third of your daily vitamin C intake. It also gives the immune system a boost and balances the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.

I can’t prove it, but I feel strongly that the more sauerkraut I eat, the more I seem to crave it. 

An old Polish proverb says: where there is beet soup and sauerkraut, there is plenty. I don’t have any beet soup yet, but at least the sauerkraut is underway. 

The Basics – Getting a second harvest from your cabbage plants 

Unless you have a plan for your cabbage bed and need to remove the plants after harvesting the cabbages, there’s a neat little trick to encourage a second harvest.

After cutting the head of cabbage, cut a cross in to the stalk left behind in the ground, and it will eventually produce four mini heads of cabbage (one from each quadrant of the cross). 

These little cabbages will be like an enormous Brussels sprout and smaller than a regular head of cabbage. The re-growth can also be used as cabbage greens.

If you are removing the stalks and roots of the cabbage from the soil, bash them up before adding to the compost heap so that they will rot down quicker. 

Recipe of the Week – Basic Sauerkraut Recipe 

Making sauerkraut is really easy and a great introduction to the joys of fermenting food. This is adapted from a BBC Good Food recipe.

Ingredients 

  • 2kg green or white cabbage
  • 3 tbsp coarse crystal sea salt (or 6 tbsp flaky sea salt)
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp peppercorns

Directions 

Remove any outer leaves from the cabbage and give it a wash.

Cut out the core.

Thoroughly wash a large Tupperware tub or bowl, then rinse with boiling water from the kettle. Make sure that your hands, and everything else coming into contact with the cabbage, are very clean.

Shred the cabbage thinly – a food processor makes light work of this.

Layer the cabbage and salt in the tub or bowl.

Massage the salt into the cabbage for five minutes. Wait five minutes, then repeat.

You should end up with a much-reduced volume of cabbage sitting in its own brine. Mix in the caraway seeds and the peppercorns.

Transfer the cabbage and its juice to a sterilized mason jar or crock pot.

It’s really important that the cabbage is submerged in the brine, so it has to be weighed down. I use a jar (also scalded out with boiling water) filled with small stones.

Cover the jar or crock pot with a clean tea towel or muslin cloth.

Leave in a dark place at a cool room temperature (about 18-20 degrees Celsius) for at least five days.

It will be ready to eat after five days, but for maximum flavour leave the cabbage to ferment for anywhere between two to six weeks (or until the bubbling subsides). 

Check the cabbage every day or so, releasing any gases that have built up as it ferments, and give the cabbage a stir to release the bubbles.

If any scum forms, remove it. You should see bubbles appearing within the cabbage, and possibly some foam on the top of the brine.

It’s important to keep it at an even, cool room temperature – too cool and the ferment will take longer than you would like, too warm and the sauerkraut may become mouldy or ferment too quickly, leading to a less than perfect result. 

The cabbage will become increasingly sour the longer it’s fermented, so taste it now and again. When you like the flavour, transfer it to smaller sterilised jars and keep it in the fridge for up to six months.

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.

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About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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