Growing up with a Polish grandmother, we ate lots of delectable ethnic dishes as kids. It wasn’t uncommon for me to consume my weight in pierogi or slurp down a couple bowls of kapusta (cabbage/sauerkraut soup) or bigos (kapusta with rib meat for added flavor). Sauerkraut was not an uncommon recipe ingredient in her kitchen.
As an adult (especially living 3000 miles away from family), I had begun to lose touch with those ethnic foods that I so enjoyed growing up. After I started to eat paleo, I started to see a lot of posts on Twitter and Facebook from respected paleo sources (Robb Wolf, Diane Sanfilipo, etc) about the benefits to gut flora that can be found in sauerkraut. I started buying kraut in the local market’s refrigerated section (please never buy sauerkraut that is in a can or not kept refrigerated…it means it’s been pasteurized/heated which kills the beneficial bacteria). Eating a forkful or two with lunch or dinner meant I was going through a jar every 1-1.5 weeks, and at $5-8 a whack it seemed like a lot to pay for cabbage and salt. After doing a bit of research, I decided to make my own and was stunned at the simplicity of it all. The only thing you need (which money can’t buy) is patience.
Essentially, sauerkraut is cabbage mixed with salt which is allowed to ferment at room temperature over the course of time (generally anywhere from 1-2 weeks). Within that time, bacteria (Lactobacilli) begin to ferment the carbohydrates in the cabbage in an anaerobic (non-oxygen) environment. They help lower (acidify) the pH which prevents the growth of unwanted bacterial spores. The brine (salty water) assists in this as well. Honestly, this is simplifying the process from a biochemical point of view, but since I didn’t want to go all Chemistry teacher on your @ss, I figured that would suffice :) Here is a link to a full description of the process, in all its glorious, science-y detail. Sauerkraut is, then, a great source of probiotics (provided it is not heated). These beneficial bacteria are one way to support a healthy gut. Read more about the benefits of probiotics here (specifically step 3) and here.
I have seen recipes for all types of sauerkraut variations, with the addition of different vegetables, fruits and aromatic spices. Check out Diane’s recipe ideas for some inspiration if you’re more food adventurous. Last summer I did a post on making my own red cabbage sauerkraut and though I used slightly different equipment, the method was essentially the same. [Note: I made it in the crock from my slow cooker which allowed me to make a larger batch, but took my favorite piece of kitchen equipment out of commission for a couple weeks.] My favorite kraut is plain old cabbage, so this is the recipe I used.
1 large head green cabbage
1 tbsp sea salt (I used Celtic sea salt)
Quart-sized mason/canning jar
Shot glass or other small glass cup that fits inside the mason jar
1. Cut the cabbage in half and slice finely.
2. Put half the sliced cabbage in a bowl and add 1/2 tbsp sea salt.
3. Using your hands, begin squeezing the cabbage. You want the cabbage to begin breaking down. It will appear that the cabbage is starting to wilt.
4. Add the other half of the cabbage and 1/2 tbsp sea salt. Continue squeezing the cabbage until the leaves are wilted and moisture begins to drip off the cabbage.
5. When a briny liquid has been achieved, pack the cabbage into a clean mason/canning jar. Push the cabbage down hard to remove most of the extra space.
6. Set a shot glass or other glass cup inside the mason jar on top of the cabbage. This will help weight the cabbage down.
7. If your cabbage contained enough moisture, you should have liquid covering the cabbage completely. This is essential because you want to submerge the cabbage in brine (for the anaerobic environment). If there is not enough liquid, add some salt water until the cabbage is completely submerged.
8. Cover the uncapped mason jar with a kitchen towel and set in location at room temperature (out of direct sunlight). I keep mine on the counter top so I remember to check on it.
9. For the first few days, check on the cabbage and add extra liquid to keep the cabbage submerged. A bit of white foaminess is normal. You will notice the cabbage lose its bright green color as well. Do not dismay! However, be on the lookout for anything that looks discolored or moldy.
10. Taste your sauerkraut after about 7 days. It will probably taste a bit tangy but will need more time. I live in Southern California (read: pretty warm) and find it takes about 10 days to get to the flavor I like. The length of time will vary depending on the ambient temperature.
11. When finished, store covered in the refrigerator and enjoy often.
[Hint: start two containers at once or stagger production by about a week so you always have a supply on hand. ]