Perfect for St. Paddy's Day: Raw Cultured Sauerkraut 101
A few weeks ago at the Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market, I tasted some raw cultured sauerkraut. The sauerkraut is made the traditional way by lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation happens when friendly bacteria turn the sugars and starches in the vegetable into lactic acid. The resulting product is preserved, develops a sour flavor and contains beneficial bacteria (commonly referred to as probiotics) and added vitamins. And get this: most of the sauerkraut you can buy already made isn’t actually cultured—it’s just shredded cabbage that has been pickled in brine. So if you’ve been buying your sauerkraut from the grocery store, chances are what you’re actually buying isn’t sauerkraut at all—it’s just pickled cabbage.
The recipe for sauerkraut is about as basic as it gets. At its fundamental level, it contains only cabbage and salt. But, taking our inspiration from the farmer’s market ‘kraut, Kelly and I decided to make four different flavors: caraway seed, lemon dill, kimchi and spicy jalapeño.
With our list in hand, we headed to H-E-B for ingredients. We returned home and worked well into the night shredding nine heads of cabbage. I Heart Kale recommends salting the cabbage until it tastes “pleasantly salty, like French fries.” So that’s exactly what we did. In order to keep our level of salt consistent, we salted the cabbage with sea salt all in one giant bowl. Then in a smaller bowl, we combined the salted cabbage with flavoring agents.
The first batch got the traditional treatment with a tablespoon or two of caraway seeds. To the second batch, we added fresh dill, lemon juice and lemon zest. The third batch was flavored with Korean chili powder (which I bought at a Korean grocery store), green onions, shredded carrots, fresh garlic and ginger. Finally we went a little crazy and mixed up a batch with shredded carrots, green onions, cilantro, hot sauce, cumin, fresh jalapeno, lime juice and a generous pinch of sugar to balance the flavors.
We stuffed the cabbage into sterilized one-quart canning jars—15 of them to be exact—and placed a small narrow glass filled with water inside of each one to press the cabbage down. It’s important that the cabbage stay submerged in juice as it’s fermenting. Cabbage that’s exposed to air is subject to spoiling.
You should put the jars away somewhere dark with a relatively cool and steady temperature. I found that an empty ice chest works perfectly for this. If you don’t have an ice chest you may want to drape the jars with a towel or cheesecloth to keep dust and foreign objects from falling in. You might also want to store them in a place where the smell will not be bothersome.
The cabbage needs to ferment for several days. Ours sat for six days inside of my garage and the resulting sauerkraut was crunchy and not overly soured. As the weather gets warmer, however, the sauerkraut will ferment faster. You’ll need to taste it to get the flavor you want.
Each day check on the jars and press down the water glasses to compact the sauerkraut. It will produce a lot of juice and it may start to make small bubbles as the bacteria grow. If you find mold, you’re supposed to remove it, but our Sauerkraut did not mold. You may need to add fresh water to the sauerkraut from time to time to replace the water that evaporates and to keep the cabbage submerged in liquid.
When the sauerkraut is ready, screw a lid on each of the jars and refrigerate. My grandmother always cooks sauerkraut with potatoes, carrots and pork chops or sausage, but this sauerkraut is best eaten cold or at room temperature. You went to all of that trouble to cultivate good bacteria so it would be a shame to kill it with heat.
Our sauerkraut came out really good. We served it with corned beef and rye bread and on hot dogs and bratwurst, but it’s also really good eaten alone. The Kimchi and the caraway seed flavors were our favorites.
If you’re wary of making sauerkraut, try it with just one head of cabbage. It won’t require a lot of labor and it will fill about two jars. I think you’ll be impressed by how easy it is and how good it turns out.