This sauerkraut receives its fuchsia-hue from beets.
Note: This post also appears on Sustainable Table’s Adventures in Fermentation.
Confession: When I was younger I hated sauerkraut. Most people will read that and think, Well, no bother. Just don’t eat the stuff. It’s not like one is presented with it often!
But, being that I am half-Latvian, sauerkraut was presented to me more often than most people would consider normal. Perhaps normal for you would be that one year at a family picnic when your eclectic Aunt Betty, having just returned from Germany, wanted to share the joys of sauerkraut along with a rousing schuhplattling. Or perhaps it was on a vacation 3 years back and it appeared mysteriously, slathered on a hot dog.
But, as I said, being half-Latvian, sauerkraut was seemingly everywhere. Forget the odd family picnic or bizarre vacation hot dog. On our regular journeys into the depths of Chicago’s Latvian neighborhood we would find my grandmother at home, stirring a large batch of sauerkraut. (Think stock pot size– enough for everyone to take home!) At the yearly Latvian block party, buckets of sauerkraut from every family on the block would be on the offering– right there, next to the jelly bean guess-the-quantity competition (which, thank you, I won one year). You know block parties, one little nibble from your own grandmother isn’t enough, you have to look good in front of the neighbors. During cold Chicago winters, my own mother would raise the stock pot and pour in the ‘kraut. Eventually, the operation was moved to a portable burner in the garage so the smell wouldn’t saturate the house during the 4+ hour cook time– and of course, so we could have sauerkraut more often.As a child I thought sauerkraut was, well, sour. It was also funny looking. And it smelled weird.
I’m not talking about the sauerkraut that is served cold with sausage on the side (though ours was most often served with kielbasa on the side). My family’s Latvian sauerkraut is slow-braised for hours until it reaches caramelization. It sits there on the plate, a deep amber mass, fit for a rustic Baltic meal: a side of meat with mustard and dark Latvian rye bread.
As a child I recall my polite no thank you’s when it was being served, but was always met with the parental, “Okay, just a little then.” So there it sat on my plate being pushed around and spread out to appear if at least not enjoyed, partially consumed.
But years pass and tastes change and that sourness now seems more sweet.
My grandmother, uncles and mother still make a stock pot full of sauerkraut, and sometimes I even find myself behind the stove on a cold New York City night taking out the stock pot.
But the start to sauerkraut, whether it’s slow cooked, or uncooked and cold, begins with fermentation.
As one can imagine, northern Europe plays host to some frigid winters. (If you cannot imagine, I spent an August in Latvia, their warmest month, and wore a sweatshirt the whole time there. Of course, families were basking in Speedos on the beach, but to each their own.) Cabbage was, and still is, a mainstay of the cuisine. It grows well in cool climates and once fermented, it has a long shelf life, feeding a family through a brutal winter. A little salt and a crock pot is all it takes and in a few days natural bacterias in the air take over for a lacto-fermentation (ending as lactic acid converts sugars to acid).
Once fermented, kept raw, sauerkraut is very high in vitamin C. In fact, it is sauerkraut, and other fermented foods, that cured early explorers of scurvy (not barrels of oranges)*. Further, all those sugars, converted to acids, lowers the pH and is good for digestion. And some believe that fermented foods keep them healthy and can fight against disease and illness from the avian flu to ulcers and cancer to hangovers. (A hangover cure might also explain why my Latvian family can drink like a fish through the night and wake up raring to go.)
It should be noted that all these benefits occur when the sauerkraut is eaten raw, uncooked. If you want the same beneficial bacteria to play in your stomach and don’t want to make it yourself, seek out raw sauerkraut on the store shelves. Most of the sauerkraut you find in bags has been quick fermented with vinegar and will not have the same positive results.
Should you want to make it yourself, it’s easy and a fun experiment for any kitchen! You can add a plethora of vegetables to the mix. In my batch, pictured above, I have cabbage, beets, carrots and kohlrabi. You can even add hot pepper flakes for a kimchi-like variation.
NOTE: Never use aluminum as your fermentation vessel, or aluminum tools to stir or taste. A ceramic crock or large glass 1 to 5 gallon containers are ideal. Clean everything well so only good bacteria have an opportunity to multiply (a run through a dishwasher or hand washed with hot water and soap is fine).
Serving size= about 6. Active time= 20 minutes. Inactive time=1 to 3 weeks, depending on temperature (hot temperatures speed up fermentation)
2 medium to large heads cabbage (red or green), about 5 lbs
1/4 cup Kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons caraway seeds (optional)
Shred the cabbage and carrots using a food processor (or finely by hand), as you would for coleslaw. Set in a bowl and toss with salt, garlic and caraway seeds. Transfer to your fermentation vessel (see note above). Using your fist, pack the vegetables firmly into the bottom of your vessel to release as many air bubbles as possible. (This is where a glass vessel is nice because you can see your progress.) Juice should escape from the cabbage and just cover the vegetables. If not, add a little water and a bit of salt until vegetables are just covered. (The older your cabbage, the less juice it will have!) Place a weight inside your container, keeping as much of the cabbage underneath as possible. A ceramic plate or food-grade plastic bag filled with some salt water (in case the bag breaks) work well. Cover the fermentation vessel with a kitchen towel or a few layers of cheesecloth and secure. Set aside on counter.
After 2 to 3 days, taste the cabbage, fermentation will have begun! Continue to taste until it reaches a tartness you like, 1 to 3 weeks, depending on the temperature in the room. After day 3, you might notice a film developing on the top of the brine. Skim it off every day or two, but don’t wait more than 2 days. Once the vegetables have reached a flavor you like, transfer to the refrigerator. It will keep for many months.
If you are going out of town after your fermentation has begun but is not finished, just transfer your container to the fridge and replace it to your counter when you return. Cold temperatures slow fermentation. Never eat fermented foods that taste “meaty” or smell off– your nose is powerful, trust it! This is a sign the wrong bacteria have taken over (rare, but it can happen). Fermented foods should smell tangy, tart and fresh.
Other additions include curry, turmeric, hot pepper flakes, dill, onions, turnips, kohlrabi, radish or other vegetables and seasonings in your sauerkraut!
*Or is is barrels of limes?! Perhaps a combination of both– or it depends where those sailors came from!