Saving The Season Through Fermentation: Sauerkraut Edition

Fermentation can feel like a daunting project take on for the first time, but is an incredibly simple and fun way to preserve vegetables from your garden. There are a couple reasons that sauerkraut is one of my favorite preservation methods. For one thing, unlike other methods of putting up food (I’m looking at you canning) the stakes are minimal if you make a mistake, and the worst you can usually expect is an extra funky tasting batch of sauerkraut. For another, unlike canning where you labor over a stove for an afternoon cooking and cleaning and canning, with sauerkraut you’re really letting bacteria do all the work.

Last week we hosted a sauerkraut workshop at our brand new Community Barn. Just in case you missed it, here are some quick and easy instructions for one of the easiest ways to preserve cabbage through the winter.

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At its simplest, sauerkraut is just a combination of cabbage + salt + time.

  1. Chop. Chop your cabbage to your desired size and place in a mixing bowl. Generally I aim for about the thickness of a pen, but you can go thinner or thicker depending on your preference. A food processor radically speeds up this process.

  2. Salt. Add some salt to your chopped cabbage. A general rule of thumb is about 1.5 T per lb of cabbage, but as with most things in this process, the rules are fluid.

    Though salt is not strictly necessary for the fermentation process, it helps in a few major ways. For one, it slows down the fermentation. This means in the summer, when the heat tends to speed up the process, adding extra salt can balance that out. Salt also helps pull out water from the cabbage, keep it from getting to mushy, and, of course, adds some good flavor to the final product.

    Mix together your cabbage and salt. No need to treat it tender - by bruising it a bit with your hands you help facilitate the fermentation process by pulling the liquid out of the cabbage a little quicker.

    Who says sauerkraut can only have cabbage and salt in it? I love to add a little bit of whatever else is growing in my garden at the time (garlic scapes and root vegetables like carrots or parsnips work great) or some extra spices (caraway, mustard seed, and black pepper top my list). If you plan to add any extras, now is the time.

  3. Pack. Once your cabbage mixture has started to get watery, it’s time to pack it in your vessel. or small batches, wide-mouth mason jars work great. Once you start to scale up, I recommend ceramic crocks or food-grade buckets. Just steer clear of metals (it may react to the acidity of the fermentation), non-food-grade plasticks, and wood or other porous materials.

    Add a small amount of your salted cabbage at a time and, using your fist or a wooden spoon, tamp it down as tightly as you can.

    During fermentation, the cabbage should remain completely submerged in brine to create the ideal habitat for the Lactic Acid bacteria that lead to fermentation (and discourage other bacteria that lead to less pleasantly edible processes). If after 24 hours the cabbage is not covered by the water released by the vegetables, add just enough brine to cover them.

    A common method for keeping vegetables submerged throughout the fermentation process is by weighing them down. In a wide-mouth mason jar, a smaller diameter jar filled with water works well. With a crock or bucket, placing a plate on top of the cabbage and a weight on top of the plate is my preferred method.

  4. Wait. Now you can place your soon-to-be-sauerkraut in a dark, cool place (50-70 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal), sit back, and let bacteria work its magic. Keep in mind that the warmer it is, the faster it will ferment.

    Start tasting your sauerkraut after a week or two. Once it has reached your desired level of fermentation, put it in mason jars and store it in your refrigerator to slow down any further fermentation. Enjoy!