it’s hard for me to imagine a time when i was intimidated by making fermentations, but i was. the thought of making sauerkraut or sour pickles or even miso was just too daunting. but then i had the honor of hosting sandor katz for a fermentation workshop. he is the writer of the wonderful how to book on fermenting just about anything called “wild fermentation” not all of it is wild, quite a bit of it uses cultures. at the time i was living in a housing collective, and the whole house went fermentation crazy. all the sudden there were buckets, jars, and crocks stuffed in every corner bubbling away. i’ve never really looked back, and i’m happy that at this point that making kraut is a relaxing after dinner activity not an intimating process full of trepidation.
step 1. – quarter and core the cabbage
you can if you prefer use the core too, just take it and slice it very thin, i don’t really like the harder texture that the core makes, so it goes to the chickens.
step 2. thinly slice
you can use a mandoline but when making small batches a knife works just as well. i like to slice mine quite thinly, but there is no reason you can’t cut it thicker, it just means that it will take longer to ferment.
step 3 toss with salt in a bowl
this batch i added some carrots cause i had them handy, and i like to mix it up a little. feel free to throw all kinds of stuff in, my only recommendation is you stick with firmer veggies as soft ones tend to get slimy and gross. eww. toss the cabbage with some salt, you want to use a good amount, as the salt is what makes the cabbage juices come out, and also makes the enviroment good for the lacto bacteria we are looking to promote. how much salt? i tend to do it by taste and eyes these days not by measurement but that’s not going to help you. sandor’s recipe in wild fermentation calls for 3 tablespoons of salt for 5 pounds of cabbage. i think that’s quite a bit saltier than i usually use, but a lot less than some of old-time guides you see that call for much much more. i use sea salt, though any sort of salt that is not iodized will work as long as it’s just salt, not pickling salt or anything like that. as you toss the cabbage you should see a good amount of moisture coming off, the cabbage will look wet and glistening even though you have added no water.
step 4 pack it in a crock
it doesn’t have to be a crock, it can be any food safe container, i’ve used mason jars and food grade plastic buckets with great success. the best thing about the crock is the straight sides, make it easy to insert lids, which we will get to in a minute. of course crocks for whatever reason are a collectable item, and finding good ones for a good price can be difficult. if you find them i recommend snatching them up. when my whole house went kraut crazy and then it spread to the rest of the city, there was a sudden run on crocks at all the junk shops in the city. crock levels are just now starting to return to normal levels.
toss a few handfuls in and then pound it down with you fist, or i have a wooden mallet type thing i use for pounding it in when making a big batch. the idea is to pack it in as tight as you can, but you are not looking to actually turn the cabbage into mush. once you start packing it’s pretty amazing how much cabbage will fit into one little container.
step 5. apply lid and weight
you need something that will fit inside the crock/bucket and cover most of the cabbage, it’s ok if there is a little around the edge. the normal item used for this is a plate, though i’ve used plastic yogurt lids cut to size with good luck. you also need something to weight it down. i usually use a mason jar full of water on small batches and big batches where i need more weight i use glass apple cider jugs with water. the nice thing about jars/jugs with water is if you want less weight you just pour out some water, want more weight? add some water.
step 6 cover it
now it looks like ghost kraut. i use some sort of cloth cover so it lets gasses escape and keeps fruit flies out. cheese cloth or butter muslin is perfect. then use a big rubber band or a string to tie it on.
step 7. push it down
every time you pass by the kraut for the first 24 hours or so you should press it down. you don’t have to take the cover off, just push it down. take the lid off after a day of doing this and check the liquid level, it should be above the plate, it doesn’t have to be much but it does need to be above the plate. if it’s not you can throw some brine solution in there – a ratio of about a tablespoon of salt to a cup of water is about right. You don’t have to just use water, you can add to the flavor by using some homemade wine, beer, or mead. it also will add to the complexity of the ferment since you are adding an active yeast culture. i’ve never tried it, but i’ve heard that adding the whey from cheese making works well, as the whey has lots of lacto bacteria.
after that it’s just checking on the kraut every day or so and skimming the scummy stuff off that forms on the top. it’s natural and unavoidable, just skim it off. i check the kraut by taste from time to time to decide if it’s ready. it’s ready when you like it. some folks like it young; crunchy, sweet, just slighty sour. I like it older; softer, but still a bit crunchy and nice and sour. homemade kraut is a different beast all together from the stuff you buy in a jar, and it can be hard to go back after eating it. summer kraut tend to ferment faster than fall/winter kraut, and also tend to get slimy. i don’t even bother making it but during the fall. the cabbage is also sweeter on account of the starches turning to sugar.
once you feel comfortable with basic kraut you can change it up. you can do any number of veggies; carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, celeraric all work well. and combos of more than one are often even better. you can add herbs such as the classic caraway seed, i’ve also had good result with dill seed. Just be careful not to add to much, it goes along way. we will check back on the kraut in a week or so.
should you care sandor katz also wrote the fascinating and fun read “the revolution will not be microwaved” which in addition to many other underground food movements, includes a bit about the urban agriculture movement going on in detroit.