When I was young, no family picnic, party, or other gathering ever happened without a huge pan of kielbasa and sauerkraut. It’s a rule of Polish entertaining. No cabbage, no sausage, no party. The sauerkraut usually came from a can, and chunks of kielbasa were sliced into it. The whole thing went into the oven until it was thoroughly warm, and we devoured it by the plateful with lots of spicy Kosciuszko mustard, pierogi, and rye bread spread with butter. It’s a wonder I made it out of the eighth grade weighing less than 200 pounds.
Actually, I find it helpful to eat more carbohydrate foods these days. I have to face the fact that weight loss is not going to happen right now. I lost five, then six, then ten pounds without even trying while eating low-carb, but something in my body just resisted all of a sudden. Without packing the junk food into my body, or eating bread, or cookies or chips or lots of over-fatty foods, I gained nine pounds back. My appetite is soaring and even though I’m eating healthy foods, I am eating too many of them. The reason appears to be my EBF strategy. I breastfed the girls for a year each, also, and was slow to lose weight during those times. As soon as each child was weaned, I got pregnant again, so I was always about 10 lbs. over where I started the first time. So now I’m 30 lbs. over where I want to be and no closer to losing any of them than I was the first 10 I started off with. I suppose once Little Man is weaned I can get down to the serious business of Losing the Fattitude, but for now my body wants to keep playing beached whale with itself and no amount of prodding seems to be working to get it to snap out of it. Prolactin is a bitch and won’t be smacked down.
Instead of saying “fuck it” and giving in to a chocolate chip cookie carnival, I’ve doubled-down on keeping healthy foods in the house. This includes bread, and potatoes, and rice, but I limit my servings of them to two or three portions a day, never at the same time, and always in the evening, when I find I have a higher tolerance for carby foods after workouts, chasing kiddies, digging garden beds, and trying to summit Mount Laundry have depleted me. I sleep better after a meal that includes some starch. I know this goes against conventional carb-loading dogma, where you eat your carbs in the morning or before a workout to fuel your body and burn them off during the day…it doesn’t work for me. Evening carbs work better for me.
Some of the healthiest foods we can eat are fermented foods. Think of foods like yogurt, cheese, wine, beer, kefir, sausage, and pickles*. Yes, all of those are fermented foods, or used to be, before the advent of commercial canning processes and vinegar-pickling became common. (*The pickles you buy in the jars of your supermarket’s condiment section are vinegar pickled and not fermented, so don’t offer the probiotic benefits of fermented pickles. Ditto for canned sauerkraut and canned or jarred pickled beets).
Probiotics has been a term used in yogurt marketing for years. Good bacteria, necessary for a healthy digestive tract and immune system, abound in yogurt with “live, active cultures.” People on antibiotics are encouraged to eat yogurt to repopulate their intestines with these good bugs, on which we rely to do a host of things for us: they break down cellulose; release, synthesize, or ionize vitamins and minerals so our bodies can use them; send immune precursors into the blood stream to recognize and protect against diseases; and colonize our intestines in sufficient quantity to drive out any bad bugs or yeasts which would otherwise o’er take our corporal forms and rotteth our flesh.
Yogurt is not the only food that has these probiotic benefits. Kefir, similar to yogurt, is a milk product fermented by both bacteria and yeast. Cheese is cultured with certain bacteria (and sometimes molds) to start pre-digesting the sugars and proteins, which forms the basis of cheese, the curd. Wine and beer are well known – the sugars are fermented by yeast, which produce carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products of the fermentation cycle. Vegetables can be fermented as well, by the action of naturally present and ubiquitous lactobacilli in our kitchens, on our hands, and on the vegetables themselves.
Cabbage and other cruciferates are naturally perfect fermenters. They are low acid, low-water, sturdy veggies that hold up well under the digestive action of bacteria. Real, old-fashioned sauerkraut is not a cooked food, but a fermented one. Cabbage and salt are left in an oxygen-free environment for a few weeks at room temperature, until the magic of the bacteria turns the mixture into something tangy, slightly bubbly, and full of the “good bugs” we want living in our internal ecosystem. It is also very high in vitamin C, and sulfur, which is wonderful for keeping the skin clear.
I first learned that sauerkraut was made this way when reading The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cooking. One of the passages describes a method involving two men shredding cabbage into a huge barrel, salting it, and then taking turns dancing in the barrel, using their feet to mix and mash the cabbage, before covering the barrel and weighting down the lid with a stone to keep it all submerged for keeping as a food for winter.
I am not so intrepid as to use my feet to mix my kraut, but neither am I clinical about the process. Some of the innoculation of good bugs happens when you use your bare, but clean, hands to do the mixing, and I encourage you to do the same when you try this recipe.
You will need some special equipment, including:
- 2 (or more) quart size mason jars and their lids (widemouth jars are best)
- a food scale, preferably one that measures in grams
- a large bowl, about six quart size
- Kosher or canning salt – don’t use iodized table salt or sea salt here, as they can contain ingredients that will disrupt your fermentation process
- a sturdy wooden spoon or wooden cocktail muddler
- one large head or two medium heads of cabbage, red or green is fine
- salt, 2% by weight of prepared cabbage
The basic process is to remove the dirty or wilted outer leaves of your cabbage, quarter and core it, and slice it into very fine ribbons. Weigh the shredded cabbage, and measure out 2% of that weight in canning salt. Place about 1/3 of the cabbage into a bowl with 1/3 of the salt, and use your hands to crush and mix the cabbage and salt together, until liquid is dripping out of it (the salt will draw the liquid out of the cabbage and produce the moist, salty environment the bacteria love).
Add more cabbage and salt, 1/3 at a time, until all is mixed together and very wet. The cabbage will look a bit wilted but still have crunch and be green.
Clean your canning jars and lids with hot soapy water, and rinse well. You don’t need to sterilize the jars, just make sure they are clean and have no particles of other foods or oil in them. Begin filling the jars by packing as much cabbage as possible into them. Then, use a wooden spoon or muddler to pack the cabbage down as far as it will go.
And then pack it even farther down. And farther still. You want to eliminate as much airspace as possible and are aiming to cover the cabbage with liquid. Once you’ve packed it down, add more cabbage and keep packing, until you have about 1/2″ of headspace in the jar, and the cabbage is completely submerged.
Cover the jar tightly, label it, and make a note on your calendar to check it in about 14 days. Place the jars in a cupboard or other place that is dark and room temperature, and go about your business until its time to taste it.
I made these batches a few days ago. Here is what they look like fresh packed; I’ll take photos at the two week mark to update, as the appearance will change considerably:
You’ll notice what looks like something orange in my sauerkraut pics above: those are carrots. There is also onion in the green cabbage mixture. You can really go in any flavor direction you want, as long as you follow the rule of 2% salt by weight of cabbage, and the process of packing, packing, packing that kraut into the jar.
I had 3 kilos of cabbage, which filled four quart sized mason jars. I made one batch of green cabbage with carrots and onion, and a second batch of red cabbage with carrots, apples, and ginger.
Why do I specify measuring in grams? Because it’s a base-of-ten system by which is so easy to measure, divide, and multiply. You can calculate percentages in your head and get an instant measurement. For any math-challenged people out there, here’s how you get the 2% by weight measurement:
weight of cabbage in grams x .02 = weight of salt in grams
To use some real numbers:
1000 g cabbage x .02 = 2 g salt
My actual numbers were:
1498 g cabbage x .02 = 29.96 g salt (round up to 30)
If you’re going the hoo-rah America is teh Beszt route and think that using the metric system is only for Europhiles and chemists, then here is how you do the measurement for ounces:
weight of cabbage in ounces x .02 = weight of salt in ounces
But if you have a scale that only measures in pounds, you have to multiply by 16:
weight of cabbage in pounds x .02 = weight of salt*16 = ounces of salt to use
.75 pounds cabbage x .02 = 0.015 * 16 = 0.24 ounces of salt (round up to 1/4 ounce)
See how easy that is? Basic third grade math that we’ve all probably forgotten by now. You’re welcome for the refresher.
Here are a few basics for adding other vegetables and seasoning to your kraut:
- choose fresh, unbruised fruits or vegetables.
- the firmer the flesh, even in the very ripe state, the better
- the lower acid, the better (tomatoes and strawberries don’t ferment well on their own)
- wash and peel everything you plan to add to your cabbage
- don’t make the addition of other fruits or vegetables more than 1/3 of your mixture
Here are some of my favorite combinations, I’ve made them all at some point in time or another:
- Red cabbage with shredded apples, carrots, and/or ginger (1-2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, grated, or 2 teaspoons of dried)
- Red cabbage with shredded apples and beets, or just apple or just beets
- Green cabbage with 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds (this is traditional)
- Green cabbage with shredded carrots, onion, and turnips
- Cabbage with kale, garlic, and jalapeno peppers
- Cabbage with red chiles, ginger, garlic, and shredded carrots
EAT THIS STUFF RAW! Cooking it negates the probiotic benefits you will derive from it. If you want it warm, gently heat it to about 95 degrees (Fahrenheit, or 35 C). Eat it as is, or as a condiment on hot dogs or for rich sausages and roasted or grilled meats.
Part II will be the update on how to tell if your kraut is ready to store and eat, troubleshooting your kraut, and other things to do with it.