Preserving Food with the Lactic-Acid Fermentation Method- Sauerkraut Tutorial

Written by Sharon Kaufman, Contributing Writer

The original cabbage patch kid…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved sauerkraut. As a small child, my mom served it on a regular basis with roast and mashed potatoes. I would scoop out a hole in my mashed potatoes, fill it in with sauerkraut and then dish on some gravy. Oh, what heaven for my taste buds!

Enter Grandmother’s method

Years later my mom started making her own sauerkraut. She told me how healthful it was and that it was the method that her German mother and grandmother and their generations beyond had always used to make sauerkraut.

Demonstrating, Mom started by shredding numerous heads of cabbage, sprinkling salt onto each new layer of cabbage as it was packed into her three-gallon crock. She then placed a plate on top of the cabbage weighted down with a plate-sized rock and let it set. Occasionally she removed what she called “scum” from the surface of the liquid that covered the cabbage. I found this to be quite distasteful and wondered how safe this “new-old” method could be.

Thanks, but “No thanks”

At the time, I didn’t understand what the benefit was in pickling cabbage like this and since my mom couldn’t really explain it to me, I continued to eat the canned sauerkraut I had grown up enjoying.

In fact, being ignorant of  the “lacto-fermentation” process, I thought that eating Mom’s sauerkraut would be a risky thing since it wasn’t canned in vinegar, heat-processed, sterilized and vacuum sealed – in other words, dead. After all, my mom herself had taught me how to “safely” preserve foods by either the water-bath method or by pressure canning.

Sauerkraut comes full circle

Fast forward to seven years ago. My mom came to live with us. At about that same time my husband and I began eating a traditional diet and I soon discovered that one of the most healthful elements of such a diet was lacto-fermented foods. These foods keep the digestive system populated with billions of beneficial bacteria, arming the body with a well-functioning and protective immune system.

Needless to say, my mom was thrilled! This is what she had instinctively known, but couldn’t explain to me during all her years of kraut making. So we’d come full circle now that I had taken up my mother’s, grandmother’s, great-grandmother’s – who knows how far back – method of making pickled cabbage.

Lacto-fermentation – not just for cabbages

All kinds of fruits and vegetables can be preserved by this method. Recipes for cucumbers, carrots, beets, green beans, pearl onions, radishes, Swiss chard ribs, tomatoes, turnips, zucchini, eggplant and snow peas are but a few of the vegetables featured in the book Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. And the variety of fruits is equally diverse – plums, peaches, pears, apples, mango, papaya, lemons, raisins, oranges, apricots, berries and more. Nourishing Traditions Cookbook features recipes for all of these fruits.

A  multitude of wonderful benefits

  • Prolongs the life of food

The most obvious benefit is that lacto-fermentation preserves food. Lactic acid is a natural preservative which safely inhibits bacteria that causes food to spoil. When lactic acid is present, putrefying bacteria isn’t. It’s as simple as that. The good bacteria keeps any bad bacteria from invading.

  • Safe Food

You will never have to wonder about botulism when preserving foods with lacto-fermentation since that deadly bacteria only grows in a vacuum (heat-preserved foods are vacuum-sealed). If you happen to have a failed batch of pickles, for instance, your nose will quickly detect the spoilage. It will smell so bad, disposal will be the only option, never to come anywhere close to your dinner plate.

  • Increases the nutrient value of food

Foods preserved with lactic acid are not only completely safe to eat – this knowledge disarmed my fears that I’d had during those years I wouldn’t eat my mom’s sauerkraut –  but nutrient levels are enhanced in wonderful ways (see next paragraph). This is the opposite or conventionally preserved foods (processed by heat and/or vinegar means), which strip foods of their vitality.

Sally Fallon, in her cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, tells us that lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables have “numerous advantages beyond those of simple preservation”…

  • enhanced digestibility
  • increased vitamin levels
  • numerous helpful enzymes
  • antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances
  • lactic acid which promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine
  • hydrogen peroxide and small amounts of benzoic acid
  • Prevents disease

In his book, Wild Fermentaion, Sandor Katz, referring to Captain James Cook when on his second round-the-world voyage in the 1770s, tells us that

sixty barrels of kraut lasted for twenty-seven months, and not a single crew member developed scurvy, which previously had killed huge numbers of the crews of long sea voyages.

  • Amazingly simple to prepare

Another wonderful benefit is the simplicity of preparation. For 25 years I labored intensively, sterilizing jars and lids, standing over huge boiling pots at the height of summer heat to produce thousands of jars (an average of 500 jars per summer) of devitalized foodstuffs by conventional canning. It was literally the hardest work I’ve ever done.

Lacto-fermenting foods has been a breath of fresh air for me. By comparison, it is the easiest, most satisfying work I do with food, producing the most nutritionally optimum, delicious fare.

Try it out! Use the following tutorial to make some nourishing and delicious sauerkraut.

A Sauerkraut Tutorial

Supplies you’ll need: Wide-mouth quart mason jar, two regular seals (the flat part of the lid), one half-pint jar that will fit into the wide-mouth mason jar, utensil for tamping down cabbage (look at the photos below to see the utensil I use), wooden cutting boardsharp knife for shredding cabbage, large mixing bowl, measuring spoons and a cloth to cover jars.

Ingredients you’ll need: 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 pound cabbage, 1 tablespoon unrefined sea salt, 10 juniper berries or 2 teaspoons caraway seeds or several bay leaves (these are all optional), filtered water (non-chlorinated), extra salt.

Select only organic cabbage, either red or green (or mix the two colors for pink sauerkraut). Conventionally grown produce often results in an inferior product.

For quart jars (wide-mouth), select a head of cabbage that weighs about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds.

Cut cabbage in half from the core to the top. Remove the core, if desired. Then shred the entire cabbage finely or coarsely, whatever your preference. Coarse shredded cabbage is an option since cabbages can even be pickled whole with the lacto-fermentation process.

After shredding the cabbage, put a large handful of it in the bowl and sprinkle about 1/4 of the one tablespoon of salt over it.

Continue in this fashion until all the cabbage is in the bowl and all of the salt has been sprinkled over it. The salt will begin to pull juices out of the cabbage. If you are using caraway seed, add it to the cabbage at this point and mix it in well.

Lay cabbage, a little at a time, in mason jar. Tamp down with an appropriate utensil (I found the one in the photos at a thrift shop for under a dollar). This process pulls the juices out of the shredded cabbage. If you’re using bay leaves or juniper berries, lay them in on the layers of cabbage. As you lay in more cabbage continue to tamp it down. You should not have any difficulty getting all of the cabbage into your quart jar.

For this jar of sauerkraut I added juniper berries.

If liquid level is low in jar, add several tablespoons full of filtered water with a pinch of salt stirred in to raise the liquid level in the jar. Then place the two jar seals, rubberized side up, on top of the cabbage, side by side to hold cabbage under liquid.

Fill the half-pint jar with water and set on top of the seals to hold the cabbage under the liquid. Press down on the small jar to raise the level of the liquid. Cover both jars with a muslin (or similar) cloth to keep contents free of dust, fruit flies, etc.

If the liquid level is still not above the cabbage, check it every few hours, pressing down on the small jar. The liquid level should rise a little more each time. After 24 hours if cabbage is still above the liquid, add a few more tablespoons full of filtered water with a pinch of salt stirred in.

As you can see in this photo, the liquid is low in the jar.

But after about 12 hours, enough liquid had been produced to cover the cabbage. Keep jar covered and at room temperature for about three days, then cap tightly with a seal and ring band and transfer to refrigerator. Though your sauerkraut can be eaten immediately, for maximum flavor, wait about a month.

The end product – a jar of cabbage transformed into nutrient dense, delicious sauerkraut, ready for the cabbage patch kid to devour.

Since this is a food with beneficial bacteria, the optimum way to serve it is cold or at room temperature. Heating it kills off all the good stuff, so think of eating it as you would a pickle – cold and crunchy. YUM!

Resources

More info and recipes here and also here and a few more here.

On my blog, Franziska’s Pantry, I have five very interesting videos posted. Love this!

A video by Sandor Katz

Nourishing Traditions Cookbook

Wild Fermentation Live Culture Foods

Food Preserving Without Freezing or Canning

Simple Ways to Improve Your Digestion and Gut Health

Have you experimented with making your own lacto-fermented foods? What successes (or flops – we all learn from the imperfections) have been your experience?