Seeking sauerkraut: home fermentation

Sauerkraut was traditionally made in the autumn to prepare for the winter in Eastern Europe as cabbage is freshest and sweetest at the end of Autumn. Given that, it’s not surprising that it ended up on my family’s Thanksgiving table in the United States. It’s a recipe that’s credited to the Kaestners, and that’s no surprise, several recently immigrated German families married in Baltimore in the 19th century. I imagine sauerkraut was the obvious choice when they started to celebrate the quintessential American holiday sandwiched between Autumn and Winter- a celebration of abundance right as the leanness of winter sets in. The branch of my family that came from Dresden in East Germany likely brought our distinctive, Bohemian recipe that pairs the sour vegetable with brown sugar and bacon. It recalls of the tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut at the new year to bring good luck, and for myself and my family, this recipe says “We’re here. We made it another year and our sauerkraut is still the same as ever.”

Stay tuned for my final recipe for Kaestner Sauerkraut with Brown Sugar and Bacon.

As a kid I was cajoled by my father into taking just a little, even if I didn’t like it, I ate it because that’s just what we do. In my lifetime, we’ve relied on canned sauerkraut which was always fine but I want to get back to the traditional heart of the dish. It’s easy to ferment your own sauerkraut and I was dying to know what the potential was for this treasured recipe by seasoning with spices as it ferments. So a few weeks before Thanksgiving, just as the cold was really setting in, I bought a head of cabbage and set out to make the perfect kraut for our treasured holiday staple. I purchased two large, stout jars and crossed my fingers that my husband was down with eating a LOT of sauerkraut.

I tried to ferment sauerkraut last year but I ended up tossing the batch out of a combination of fear and sheer lack of confidence. I thought the ferment would take a few weeks, but when I rechecked the recipe and it said it takes at least a month. I was disheartened that my homemade kraut wouldn’t make it to Thanksgiving this year but I charged ahead because A. I had all that damn cabbage and B. I was determined not to be defeated by this project.

 I made the first batch with caraway, the German classic and I added star anise and cinnamon sticks to the second. My hopes are highest for the last batch, I can see some of the star anise seeds pressed up against the side of the jar, it looks like Christmas.

After a few days, I tasted the anise and clove kraut and it tasted right, if not a little mild. After reading further, I’ve learned that the reference I was using that said fermentation should last a month was erring on the very conservative side. After 3 days, your sauerkraut is theoretically ready to go if you want, and you can continue to ferment for a few weeks for a more intense end product.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients
Large green cabbage head (about 1.5 kg)
1.5 tablespoons of course sea or kosher salt
Caraway seed, cloves, anise seeds for flavour.

Cloth, rubber bands and something to weigh the cabbage down with.
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Mixing bowl
2-quart jars

Cut the cabbage in half and slice it as thin as possible. Fill the mixing bowl with cabbage and pour in salt. Start massaging the cabbage and salt. You want to use a lot of force here, the goal is to break down the cabbage and it will become watery and limp. The reason sauerkraut is traditionally made in the autumn is that’s when cabbage is harvested. The fresher your cabbage, the more liquid it will release and the better your sauerkraut will be.

Once the cabbage is limp and watery, transfer it to the jars and press it down. Add your spices inserting them throughout, I just add some between handfuls of cabbage. I can be weighed down with marbles, a small jar, a rock- anything that will ensure the cabbage stays under the brine to maintain an anaerobic environment.

Check your cabbage for the first three days, if you don’t see enough brine, pour in a tablespoon of lemon juice. Avoid using bring as it can result in brown, mushy kraut and the lemon shouldn’t be particularly detectable in your finished product.

Update:

I wasn’t vigilant and found that my first jar (the batch with the caraway seeds) was brine-less and had grown a fuzzy white mold. I threw it out. Check out this great Sauerkraut troubleshooting guide if you have issues with your fermentation.

 

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