Sauerkraut is one of the simplest preserved foods, made by curing shredded cabbage with salt in a crock or jar. The drained liquid — drawn out of the cabbage by the salt through the process of osmosis — becomes the kraut’s flavorful, self-preserving brine. But there’s another process at work here, and it involves wee beasties. Bacteria.
Let’s set the record straight: Bacteria aren’t all bad. Several types of these microorganisms are very bad indeed, but others are beneficial, and necessary, to the processing of many foods. Take Lactobacillus. This bacteria is crucial to the creation of everything from pickles, yogurt and miso, to kimchi, sourdough and sauerkraut. Wine and beer? Those, too!
In the case of kraut, Lactobacillus converts the natural sugars found in cabbage to lactic acid through a process called lactic acid fermentation, or lacto-fermentation for short. This conversion ultimately imparts the appealingly acidic flavor we associate with sauerkraut. Furthermore, lactic acid is a natural preservative that prevents growth of more harmful bacteria — particularly important historically when fresh ingredients were scarce and refrigeration was a thing of the future.
Through the years the art of preservation persisted, more to satisfy our tastes than as a means of nourishment during the lean winter months. Though popularity has come in spurts and stops, sauerkraut and other fermented foods once again have a strong pulse. Encouraged by my German heritage, it felt about time to try my hand at homemade sauerkraut.
For my first I chose a bare bones recipe that calls for cabbage and salt with only one additional flavoring ingredient: caraway. To make due without a traditional stoneware or ceramic fermentation crock, I stuck with a small batch size and used two 1-quart glass jars with lids. Twelve short weeks later and Bob’s meines Onkel — kraut!
What’s in it for me?
In addition to the production of lactic acid discussed above, lacto-fermentation increases bio-availability of vitamins, minerals and enzymes in the cabbage. Also, its extraordinarily rich supply of probiotics, the healthy bacteria found in our intestinal tracts that — among many other important roles — help the digestive system run smoothly, enhance the immune system, and further improve our body’s ability to utilize nutrients in foods we eat.
The plain green cabbage itself is not so plain after all when you look at its nutritional benefits. A member of the brassica family of vegetables, it’s often referred to as a cole crop or a crucifer — a group that also includes dark, leafy greens like kale and collards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and radishes.
At only about 20 calories per 1 cup [85 grams (g); raw], cabbage provides no fat or cholesterol, about 1 g of protein, 2 g fiber, 5 g total carbohydrate, only 15 mg sodium, a fair amount of manganese and folate, and is a good source of the antioxidant vitamin C. The high water and fiber content of cabbage aids in prevention of constipation and digestive health, blood sugar stabilization, and lowering of cholesterol levels.
Research from more than three decades consistently links regular consumption of cruciferous vegetables to decreased risk of infection, inflammation, and certain cancers, including breast, lung, bladder, colon, and prostate. Cabbage and the other crucifers are excellent sources of a particular group of phytochemicals called glucosinolates that, when broken down either by chopping or chewing, produce isothiocyanate compounds with anti-carcinogenic properties. Another compound known as DIM (3,3′-Diindolylmethane) may mediate the harmful effects to blood cells and tissues from radiation therapy.
Newer studies are providing evidence that eating green leafy vegetables and other foods rich in vitamin K,* as well as lutein and beta-carotene, like cabbage, can protect against loss of memory and other cognitive abilities as we age.
Caraway seeds — technically not seeds, but fruits of the parsley family — impart a warm, earthy flavor with a slight hint of licorice. A mere 1 Tbsp provides 10% of your daily fiber needs, and only 1 gram of total fat, divided in a fairly even proportion of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Its health benefits are less widely studied. Some research suggests the seed’s high antioxidant content provides some anti-fungal properties, and may improve digestive function. In cultures around the world, caraway is used to help relieve menstrual cramps, freshen breath, and as a galactogogue — a natural compound to increase flow of breast milk for nursing mothers. (Possibly one of the reasons why some cultures toss caraway seeds in addition to grains of rice as a newly wedded couple passes back down the aisle, as a harbinger of love and fertility?)
My current favorite uses: rolled into an omelet, atop a mess of braised or steamed greens, or tucked into a sweet potato half. A thin layer with smashed avocado and hummus on toast was a winning combo. Particularly stellar sidled up to my Sri Lankan fish curry and charred green beans. On a cooler or rainy day, I can’t wait to spoon it generously into mushroom and pork goulash.
Though they’re in season here from late fall through early winter, cabbages are always plentiful at the market. Step away from the coleslaw recipe this summer and try homemade sauerkraut. It’s not complicated.
Tell me… Fancy some fermentation in your kitchen with a batch of sauerkraut? How do you put it use?
- 1 medium head of green cabbage (about 3 pounds), cut into 8 small wedges, core pieces cut out and discarded
- 1 1/2 Tbsp kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp caraway seeds, optional
- Remove and discard the outer layers of the cabbage. With a large knife, cut the cabbage in half, then cut those in half, and then cut each of those in half. You should end up with 8 small wedges.
- Trim out the core from each, and discard it. Turn each onto the flat side, and make very thin crosswise slices to yield fine shreds. Alternatively, you could employ a box grater (mind your fingers!), or run the wedges through a food processor fitted with a very clean shredder disc attachment.
- Transfer the shredded cabbage to a large clean bowl and add the salt. With very clean hands massage and squeeze the cabbage, to help the salt begin to work its magic. After 5 to 10 minutes you will notice the cabbage is wilty and liquid is gathering in the bottom of the bowl. At this time, add the caraway seeds, if using.
- Stuff the cabbage into a very clean 2-quart resealable jar (or 2, 1-quart jars), and press down with a wooden spoon or muddler. Pour any liquid released by the cabbage while you were massaging into the jar as well, leaving 1/2 to 1 inch of head space.
- Cover the mouth of the jar(s) with a clean kitchen towel, or piece of cheesecloth or kitchen muslin secured in place with a rubber band or twine -- this allows the cabbage to breath. Let the jar ferment on the counter for 24 hours. (Optional, but not necessary: Press down on the cabbage every so often during this 24 hour rest to aid in release of liquid and help compact the cabbage.) If the cabbage is not well-submerged after its initial rest, dissolve 1 tsp kosher salt in 1 cup of cool water, and add enough of it to submerge the cabbage.
- Keep the jar at room temperature in a place away from direct sunlight and drafts for 1 to 2 weeks. Ideally the temperature should remain between 65° to 75° F -- if your house remains rather warm, the fermentation process will take less time, so keep this in mind. Continue to check the brine level during this time, pressing down on the top if the cabbage is not submerged.
- Commence taste-testing daily around day 5. When you are pleased with the taste, seal the jar with its lid and move it into the refrigerator. (See HGN Notes for "Things you may notice while fermenting.")
- At this point, you have two options: 1) Crack it open and enjoy; or 2) Embark on a longer ferment. Should you proceed with the longer ferment, Move the sealed jar(s) to the refrigerator, and leave it an additional 9 to 10 weeks for a truly tangy kraut!
- Being a fermented product, it will keep refrigerated for at least 2 to 3 months. As long as it still tastes and smells good to eat, it will be.
THINGS YOU MAY NOTICE DURING FERMENTING
+ Bubbles coming up along the sides of the jar, or a foam/white scum on the top -- not appetizing (the latter at least), but normal. In fact, these indicate that your sauerkraut is in a blissful state of fermentation. Simply skim the foam/scum off either during the fermentation process or before refrigerating.
+ Mold -- again, not appetizing, but possible. Skim as much of the mold off as soon as you see it, and ensure the cabbage is fully submerged in its brine. Prior to eating, discard the bits close to the surface; the sauerkraut below is fine to eat.
+ Other colors and types of cabbage a great kraut will make! Try red, Napa, Savoy and others, or combine for a multi-colored/multi-textured sauerkraut.
+ Caraway seeds are similar to fennel/anise seeds and cumin seeds -- consider exploring these as alternatives for a more pronounced licorice (fennel) or spicy, earthy and somewhat citrus-y (cumin) flavor.
Recipe adapted from Nourishing Time.
*Note: High intake of vitamin K-containing foods is not recommended if you take blood-thinners, as it can decrease the drug’s effectiveness. Additionally, while there is only a small amount of caraway in this recipe, be aware that caraway may decrease blood sugar, which can be an issue if you take blood sugar-lowering medications for diabetes. If you take any of these medications and have questions or concerns about drug-nutrient interactions, please consult your physician.
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