By Michelle Branco
If you’re used to the careful packaging of most processed foods, the idea of eating something like sauerkraut, fermented pickles, kimchi, or kombucha, where bacterial growth is actually encouraged requires a certain amount of faith. Even if you’ve dabbled in canning, or maybe especially so, replacing the destruction of bacteria with its careful nurturing is something of a leap. But this article will reassure you of the safety of fermented foods and provide information about how to make sauerkraut – one of the more common fermented foods – in your home kitchen.
Despite what you could consider a natural wariness, fermented foods exist in virtually every traditional diet – whether as vegetables, dairy, or grains. Even without the level of hygiene in our modern kitchens, lacto-fermentation in particular is effective at long-term preservation because the lacto-bacteria are extremely effective at killing off other bacteria and the acid environment they create is inhospitable (but tasty!).
Effective as a method of preserving the harvest, fermented foods are also nutritional powerhouses, maximizing the availability of nutrients and nurturing the healthy bacterial flora of the eater. Fermentation breaks down compounds that are indigestible, making foods edible that might otherwise be hard to digest. At the same time, research summarized in a 1995 WHO/FAO report on fermented foods shows that by changing the ph levels in foods, nutrients that would have been poorly absorbed can be used effectively by the body – namely, calcium, iron, and zinc. At the same time, vitamin C is unaffected by fermentation, which further increases the availability of iron in the food.
The live bacteria does more than just alter the food – when consumed, it changes the body as well. In a 2004 review of current evidence, a researchers group noted several animal studies that indicate that the consumption of lacto-bacteria in common foods improves the body’s ability to respond to both infection and inflammation quite dramatically. As we increase our understanding of the connection between diet, gut health, and the immune system, it seems increasingly clear that science is figuring out what peasants have known for generations: Sometimes a little “sour” is just what the body needs.
While I’m willing to embrace the idea of fermented foods, it does pose something of a problem to the modern cook. By their nature, live fermented foods are unpredictable and sensitive to their environment – distribution through grocery store supply chains is understandably problematic.
Of course, scale becomes a problem in the other direction when the home cook considers setting up a nurturing environment for some countertop fermentation. Recipes that have yields in the gallons and usually include buckets are probably very close to the original, but may not be realistic given the size of today’s families and kitchens.
Take heart – it’s possible to make your own sauerkraut or cheese in a tiny kitchen in a quantity that will not see your family eating nothing but your experiment for a month! Once you try it, you may soon find a row of bubbling jars along your countertop. On purpose.
To get you started, here is a recipe for small batch sauerkraut.
Making Sauerkraut in Your Home Kitchen
Very often, sauerkraut in grocery aisles is pasteurized or heavily refrigerated. While this lets the sauerkraut keep on the shelf almost indefinitely, it also means that the health benefits of the live bacteria that transformed that cabbage are lost. Fermentation needs a nurturing hand – and the large-scale manufacturer doesn’t have one.
Making your own small batches of sauerkraut at home means that you can take advantage of a little extra cabbage and still have it in a quantity that can be stored without having to can it.
The process for making sauerkraut is almost ridiculously simple – just shred, salt, and submerge. The lacto-bacteria present in the cabbage do the rest.
1 head green cabbage
2 to 3 tbsp. table salt
2 L crock or jar, with an air-tight lid
Sterilize crock or jar and utensils in hot boiling water for 10 minutes and dry thoroughly.
Remove outer cabbage leaves, quarter and cut out tough core. Rinse cabbage and dry well. Using very sharp knife or slicer, finely shred cabbage and set aside.
Variations on a Theme
Once you have a batch under your belt, start experimenting with these additions (alone or in combination) to sauerkraut:
Substitute different cabbage for green cabbage
1 tsp. crushed red pepper, caraway, mustard, or celery seeds
2 large raw carrots, grated
4 small raw beets, peeled and grated
2 whole garlic cloves
Layer 2 to 3 centimeters (1 inch) of cabbage, sprinkle with a teaspoon. of salt – repeat until cabbage is finished. As you work, press down firm- ly on each new layer to remove as much air as possible, as the salt draws out the brine from the cabbage – a potato masher (sterilized) can work well. Once you are finished with your cabbage, you should have enough brine to cover the cabbage by several centimeters. If you do not, let it sit for a few hours – if still not enough, you can mix up some extra brine with one teaspoon of salt to each cup of water to cover.
Lacto-fermentation takes place without air – you need to protect the cabbage from being exposed to air during the sauerkraut making process to avoid spoilage. Take a small plate (or any flat non-metal object like a plastic lid) and place on top of the cabbage. To weigh the plate down, fill a plastic sandwich bag with brine, pie weights, or even some clean stones – just be sure that you leave nothing metal in contact with the brine.
Close the jar or crock. Then, find a warm spot where your jar will be safe from curious hands and jostling, and wait. If you’re using a jar, you should also keep it in a fairly dark place.
Within a day or so, you’ll probably notice some bubbles beginning – one advantage to using a clear jar is that you can watch the magic happen. Every day, you can gently push down the plate to release any carbon dioxide bubbles. I’ve never found that mold grows in my kitchen – maybe because of the small batches. If some mold does grow, just skim it off. After a week or so, you can try giving it a taste – using a very clean wooden spoon scoop a few tablespoons out.
The sauerkraut can be eaten as soon as it is to your taste – the earlier in the process it is, the crunchier and spicier it is. This makes a tasty salad without any further preparation.
The fermentation is completely finished when new bubbles stop forming – usually about three weeks at room temperature. At that point, it may begin to go soft on the countertop – you can refrigerate it or can it in a hot water bath for longer storage if you have any left over.
Once the cabbage is eaten, the leftover brine can be used as a stock base for soups or dressings – some sour-lovers even drink it as a digestive tonic, mixed with water.
Food Safety & Fermentation
Unlike traditional preserving, you won’t be using high heat & hermetic seals to keep food from spoiling, so you need to take special care not to introduce pathogenic bacteria while you nurture the healthy bacteria.
- Sterilize all utensils, jars, and crocks before using.
- Wash hands and cutting surfaces thoroughly.
- Use healthy, peak-of-ripeness produce, preferably organic.
- This is not a time to skimp on salt – a minimum level of salt and acidity is needed to inhibit the growth of dangerous bacteria.
- Wash and dry all produce well.
- During fermentation, keep little (and big) fingers out of crocks and away from excessive heat or cold that might disturb the process.
- Refrigerate or can for longer-term storage.
- “Sour” does not mean rotten; discard food that has turned color, smells foul, or which has become mushy.
Sources: USDA National Center for Food Preservation and EatrightOntario.ca
Michelle Branco is a freelance writer and blogger at www.mamabear.ca. She blogs about mothering, breastfeeding, product safety and, of course, food. Her much-put-upon family serves as lab assistants, taste testers, and clean-up crew. She is also an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and when she’s not at the keyboard or experimenting in the kitchen, she runs a private lactation consultant practice at Latch Lactation. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.