Sauerkraut. When I was a kid, that word filled me with dread.
I hated it. But, being in a good German family, there wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter. At least it typically came with other things I did like – frankfurters and mashed potato – so I did my best to get it down, grimacing with every mouthful. It was packet stuff, since my mother wasn’t the keenest of cooks.
My method was to eat it first, so I could finish my dinner with the great taste of either potatoes or franks. It seemed to me to be the only logical way. (That is, until I met my husband, who coped with hated foods by eating them last. I still don’t quite understand it, except to say that opposites attract, and that’s obviously true on many levels).
Once out of the family home, I vowed never to eat sauerkraut again, and promptly put it out of my mind. Until, decades later, we were living in Chicago, and I discovered that, with the city’s massive German/Polish heritage, sauerkraut was to be found in lots of unexpected places.
I tried it, very carefully. The first time didn’t go down so badly, so I tried again. Eventually I parked it in the “okay” category.
And then I discovered the real stuff. Made properly, no additives, not out of a packet. Talk about revelation! It was crunchy, tangy, delicious. And my taste bugs had grown up enough to really enjoy the sour, funky flavours.
The other thing that brought me to the point of making some for myself was my growing interest in fermentation of all kinds for health reasons. It’s great for the gut, and what’s good for the gut is good for the whole body.
I made my first lot a couple of years ago, and I think made it harder work than it needed to be. It’s really not a difficult or time-consuming process. I don’t make a lot, but it’s lovely when there are fresh, sweet cabbages about.
1kg of trimmed white cabbage (about half a small, a quarter of a large cabbage)
250g red cabbage (1/3 of a small cabbage)
Grate the lot, using the bigger holes on the grater.
Place in a bowl with 1½-2 tbs salt.
Mix the salt through well and then get your hands in and massage it. I tend to use a kind of kneading motion, but the idea is to bruise and pummel the pieces of cabbage it until liquid starts coming from it. You could also use a masher or anything else that works the cabbage hard enough.
You want to extract enough liquid to cover the cabbage when it’s tightly packed in a jar or crock. This can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the cabbage.
If it’s too dry or taking too long, you can add a little brine – 1½ tbs salt to 4 cups of water (I got this proportion from the Joy of Cooking website, though I have always relied just on the liquid from the kneading process).
If you like, you can at the end add some caraway seeds or some dill seeds (I always add about a teaspoon of caraway seeds, and this time I added dill too, just for fun).
Then pack it all into a ceramic crock or glass jar. I tamped mine down hard with a potato masher. Make sure the liquid level stays above the cabbage. I use a plastic grid to hold the sauerkraut down, weighed down by a ziplock bag with water in it.
Then cover (not tightly, a cloth will do) and put it aside. In a day or so it will start gently bubbling. Make sure there is something under the
container to catch any liquid that creeps out. At this stage it should start to get a bit of that distinct sauerkraut smell.
When it stops bubbling, maybe 3-4 weeks, though occasionally longer, it’s ready to eat.
In case you’re wondering, what if it goes off? The best guide for any ferment is the smell – if it smells good, it’s fine. If it smells bad, it probably is. But that’s extremely rare. Salt is an excellent preservative, and this should last months, without any trouble.