Magical cabbage transformations

Two jars with sauerkraut
Cabbage fermentation transforms it into sauerkraut

In my first post for this blog  I rather grandly declared that one of my aims for the year with the project was to

Try some new ways of preserving local, seasonal food

As promised, I have been having a go at making some lovely jams and cordials, as well as a very scrumptious yet powerful bramble-infused spirit, all inspired by traditional Polish recipes. But as my creations are very similar to those so wonderfully described by Cathy in her seasonal food blog, I will save on the repetition here.

Instead, I will tell you about my sauerkraut (‘kiszona kapusta’).

It was in spring 2015 when I first fantasised about making my own sauerkraut, as I was preparing Polish Christmas cabbage-and-peas for PLANT’s Fife Diet Celebratory Feast. You can find the recipe for that dish in my blog post reflecting on the event (scroll down quite a bit to find it).

Why was I so keen on trying to make sauerkraut myself? Well, it is a very popular Polish cooking ingredient, and I love using it, but it is only available as an import from Poland or Germany here in the UK. But, since we don’t want for cabbage locally, it would be a carbon sin not to have a go! A ready supply of fresh sauerkraut would also go some way to quenching my yearning for proper, home-made dill pickles (‘ogorki kiszone’), which is its sister preserve prepared in the Summer. For that, you use pickling cucumbers – so abundant and cheap in Poland in August as to give it a nickname ‘cucumber season’, but which are only available in homeopathic quantities, locally. {Sigh}.

Sauerkraut is not only a cure for ethnic nostalgia such as mine – it is also a healthy treat! As a fermented product it contains live cultures, similar to those found in yoghurt, which are similarly beneficial for your gut. It is also packed full of vitamin C, so should help stave off those winter colds:) A note of caution though – excessive consumption can lead to other rather ‘explosive’ outputs.

Bowl of shredded cabbage with mandolin and salt
Shredding of the kraut

I braced myself for an elaborate preparation process – and was almost disappointed when it turned out to be one of the simplest recipes I have ever made! Here it is…

Ingredients

You really need only two ingredients: salt (best to use a non-iodized variety) and finely shredded cabbage. The ratio you want is around 20g of salt to 1kg of cabbage.

You can add coarsely grated carrot and some caraway seeds to your concoction for a more interesting flavour. This works well if you plan to eat your sauerkraut raw as a salad or sandwich topping. You may want to leave it plain, though, if you plan to use it in cooking.

For fermentation and storage you will need a couple of large lidded jars to put the cabbage in. Jars of about 1 litre capacity, with wide necks and straight sides are the best. Make sure they are clean and sterilised before you start (just pop them in the dishwasher on high temperature).

If you like your gadgets, you can also invest in a specialist sauerkraut making kit (see here for an example). But in my opinion the only worthwhile investment may be a large, sturdy mandoline which not only speeds up the prep but also can be used for other purposes in the kitchen.

Preparation

The preparation takes a little elbow grease and then a bit of patience whilst fermentation takes place:

  • Shred the cabbage. A mandoline helps speed up the process and gives a much finer cut, but I actually like the crunchier, chunkier bits you get when chopping with a knife.
  • Mix the shredded cabbage with salt in a large non-metal bowl. Allow to sit for 30 minutes so that it starts letting out the juice.
  • Rub salt into the cabbage with your hands, trying to break down the structure of the leaves. The idea is to get as much juice out as possible as this is where fermentation takes place.
  • Fill the jars with the cabbage. Do it in layers, compacting each layer as much as you can by beating it down with your fist or a wooden masher. This releases more juices and excludes air. Stop at about two inches from the top of the jar.
  • Weigh down the cabbage so that it is entirely submerged under the juice. This ensures that the right kind of bacteria colonise and ferment the cabbage and stops contamination. You can use a clean jar filled with water. Or a saucer weighed down with a clean stone (method classique). If  there is not enough juice, top it up with salty water (20g salt to 1L of water). Put the jar in a bowl or a container to catch any juice which may overflow as the fermentation progresses. Keep at room temperature.
  • In the first 4 days, check the cabbage daily, ‘puncture’ it to release the gasses created by fermentation. Chopsticks are great for this. Press it down again after ‘degassing’.
  • It should be ready to eat within a week. You can keep it stored in the fridge for at least another week in a lidded jar. The flavour will develop with time – so test it regularly to see when it is done to your liking (the longer you let it ferment, the more acid it becomes). In theory, you can keep it for several months in a cool, dark, dry storage space. I have not tried doing this yet so I cannot give any pointers here.

I used two videos to get to grips with the process which may also be helpful for you to a watch, even though they are both in Polish:

Use

Au naturelle. You can eat sauerkraut straight from the jar as a little crunchy snack (use a fork for extraction to avoid contamination – and no double dipping!). Its great as a topping for sandwiches or a ‘salad’ with your dinner, and goes brilliantly with a smokey sausage or a hot dog.

Simple raw coleslaw. This is an ever so slightly more elaborate salad – my absolute winter favourite. Squeeze out the juice from the saurkraut and cut it up into smaller pieces if necessary. Use 2 big handfuls of saurkraut to combine with 1 small grated carrot, 1/2 finely chopped onion, 1 small grated apple, a large spoonful of oil, a small spoonful of sugar, and pepper to taste. Mix and serve (but best let it sit for an hour or so to allow for the flavours to develop).

More elaborate dishes. Polish, German, Russian, Czech and American cooking abounds with recipes using sauerkraut – a quick online search will yield lots of results. If you are up for a challenge, I would recommend  sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi as my absolute favourite. Recently, my German friend gave me a hands on tutorial in making what is now my second favourite – spaetzle with sauerkraut and smokey bacon. Can’t wait to try making it myself!

Have you tried preserving vegetables through fermentation? I would love to hear of your experiences in comments below!

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