Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Purple Sauerkraut: A Perfect Fermented Food

I've never forgotten the huge jar of kimchi a Korean- born friend left on my doorstep years ago when she learned that I was fighting a nasty flu. Even before opening the jar the pungent aroma of fermented cabbage drifted through the house. With the first taste of the fiery, tangy, crunchy mixture, my appetite began to revive. For the next few days I ate small portions every few hours; soon my energy began to increase and my kimchi influenza cure was complete.

Fermented foods are enjoying a moment in the culinary spotlight, but they have been precious staples in many cultures for at least 2000 years. Kimchi and sauerkraut are high in vitamin C and are replete with beneficial microorganisms which are the natural products of fermentation. Before the era of refrigeration, fermentation allowed people to preserve vegetables for use long after the harvest. My Eastern European forebears no doubt survived many a long, cold winter thanks to the health giving properties of the sauerkraut they ate while awaiting the return of springtime.

Attractively packaged jars of pricey sauerkraut are available in many natural food stores. But since sauerkraut is one of the simplest and safest fermented foods to prepare and the flavor of home made  is so extraordinary it seems worth the labor to make it at home. Cabbage, salt and a few simple kitchen utensils are all that are needed. So sharpen your knife, scrub your cutting board and proceed as follows!


1 medium head organic purple cabbage 
1- 2 teaspoons sea salt (approximately)
 water and sea salt for extra brine


1 large glass or ceramic bowl
1 glass or ceramic plate which will fit into bowl (not on top)
1 heavy object such as a gallon jug of water to rest on top of plate
1 quart- sized wide- mouthed glass jar with lid


Place the bowl near cutting board. Slice cabbage as finely as possible, placing a handful or two at a time into the bowl and sprinkling with a little sea salt. I don't measure the salt carefully but most recipes call for one tablespoon per large head of cabbage. Continue until all of the cabbage is sliced and salted. With clean hands, mix and squeeze the cabbage thoroughly for a few minutes to distribute the salt evenly and to break down the cell walls of the leaves. This will begin to draw the water out of the cabbage.

Place the plate on top of the salted cabbage, and weigh it down with the jug of water or other heavy object as in photo below.  (Scrub the jug or stones well before using). Allow the cabbage to rest on the kitchen counter overnight, by which time most or all of the cabbage should be submerged beneath the cabbage juice. The speed of this process varies according to the water content of the cabbage, the amount of salt and the degree of pressure. As the liquid is drawn out, the volume of the cabbage will be reduced and it will fit into the quart sized jar.

Pack the cabbage very tightly into the jar. Press it down firmly with your hands or a clean kitchen implement and pour in the cabbage juice. If any of the cabbage is not covered with liquid, mix up some extra brine, using a teaspoon of sea salt dissolved in a cup of fresh water.  Pour enough brine into the jar to just cover the cabbage, then close the loosely.

Leave the jar on the kitchen counter to ferment.  Open it daily to taste a little of the sauerkraut and to make sure that the level of liquid is still above the cabbage. Press the cabbage down into the jar and add more brine if necessary. As long as the cabbage is covered by brine and none of it is exposed to the air, no harmful microorganisms will be able to grow, since the acidity of the brine kills undesirable bacteria.  (Sauer kraut literally means "acid cabbage").

You will notice that the flavor of the sauerkraut (and the aroma in your kitchen) will develop more each day. Once the taste is to your liking, place the jar in the fridge to halt the fermentation. I usually like the flavor somewhere between the fifth and seventh days;  at that point the cabbage is quite tangy but still crunchy. Fermentation speed is linked to temperature, so in a warm kitchen, sauerkraut will mature more quickly. 

Hand crafted sauerkraut will keep well in the fridge for weeks but chances are it will not linger there for long.  These days there's always jar of purple cabbage fermenting away in a corner of my kitchen.  Once you've tasted home made sauerkraut, running out is not an option!