The joys of sauerkraut

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By Mike Bradstock

Sauerkraut is one of the healthiest preserves you can make. By a natural fermentation process it converts humble cabbage into a tasty and versatile nutrient-and-vitamin-rich product. It is high in vitamins C, K, B6, folate, and minerals including iron, calcium and magnesium. The only drawback is its comparatively high salt content, though this is partly offset by less need to salt the food you eat it with, and you can remove some of the salt by rinsing immediately before use.

Many people believe sauerkraut needs to be made in bulk and is tricky and a lot of work. In fact it is easy and you can make it in small quantities; I only make only a couple of litres (about one cabbage’s worth) at a time.

The principle is simple. You cut and salt fresh cabbage so the juices weep out of it, then allow natural yeasts to ferment it in its own brine. This turns the sugars into lactic acid by anaerobic (airless) fermentation. Gradually the cabbage loses its stinkiness and develops a characteristic, pleasant sourness. When finished, it can be kept in its own liquid or preserved in jars.

You will need

  • A very fresh cabbage, or cabbages. A 2 kg cabbage will make around 2 litres of sauerkraut.
  • An impervious food-grade storage container. Traditionally ’kraut is made in a stoneware crock but a food-grade plastic pail or large preserving jar is just as good. I use a Sistema 2.2-litre Klipit plastic container, which cost only a few dollars, is BPA-free and has a clip-on lid for conveniently storing finished sauerkraut in the fridge.
  • Something round, flat and impervious to fit inside the container and press down on the contents like a piston. An ordinary plate that fits loosely is ideal, or you can use a circle of untreated hardwood cut to size.
  • A heavy, flat-ended tool to compress and crush the sliced cabbage. About a metre length of untreated four-by-two is ideal. Or you can use a heavy, straight piece of driftwood or branch of a non-toxic tree like manuka, peeled free of bark and cut across square at the business end.
  • Common salt. As a rule of thumb you will need about 3 level tablespoons of salt to 2 kg of cabbage. Measure it out before you start. If using rock salt, grind it before use so it will dissolve more easily. Despite what some recipes say, iodised salt is perfectly alright for picking and curing.
  • A large, sharp knife and cutting board.

The process step by step

  1. Wash your hands and all equipment in hot soapy water. Cut the core out of the cabbage/s and discard, together with any unsound outer leaves. Cut the cabbage as finely as you can. Take your time and do a good job of it, removing coarse or stalky bits. (I keep a pot on the side to put these in, and have cabbage for dinner that night.) Pack the shredded cabbage into the fermenting container as you go.
  2. When the container is about half full, add about a quarter of the salt. Then bash the cabbage down with your crushing tool until it is flattened and liquid is beginning to sweat out of it.
  3. Continue adding cabbage and salt alternately, crushing it down at each stage, until all are used up or your container is full. Gradually the mixture will become sopping wet as the salt draws the moisture out of it (this process is called exosmosis). When the cabbage is well tamped down, put your plate or disc on top.
  4. Place a clean weight on top of the plate, such as a jug of water or a heavy piece of pottery (I use a pestle and mortar). The weight needs to press the plate into the brine so the cabbage is completely immersed. If there isn’t enough liquid at this stage, don’t worry – it will continue weeping out of the cabbage over the next couple of hours.
  5. Once the cabbage is completely sunk in the brine, you have only to cover it with a clean tea towel and leave it at room temperature for the wild yeasts to work. The water will turn cloudy and bubbles and scum may form on top. Check daily, skim it and remove any loose or discoloured strands of cabbage. Taste it from time to time. Make up more brine (1 teaspoon salt per 200 ml water) to keep the plate covered if necessary – it must stay immersed in the brine at all times. Depending on ambient temperature, it will take anything from 5 days to 3 weeks. Taste it every few days. When it is sour enough, but before it can go too soft and flabby, remove the plate, cover the ’kraut and store in the fridge or a cool place.

That’s it!

My favourite way to use it is the classic German way, heated as a garnish with sausages or pork and mashed spuds with gravy. It is also great in a Reuben sandwich (rye bread with corned beef and Swiss cheese), vegetable soup, with potato pancakes, steamed fish – or just on its own. Highly recommended as a dieter’s aid too, as it is so low in carbohydrate but both filling and sustaining.

Mike Bradstock has been gardening since winning second prize, miniature garden, in 1958 at school in Greytown. He is now gardening with seaweed and sand in South Brighton, Christchurch.

Photo: iStock/elena_hramowa