The magic of cultured food: Sauerkraut and more
“Culture begins at the farm, not the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans….how can we be cultured when we eat only food that has been canned, pasteurized, and embalmed? How ironic that the road to culture in our germophobic technological society requires, first and foremost, that we enter into an alchemical relationship with bacteria and fungi, and that we bring to our tables foods and beverages prepared by the magicians, not machines.”
Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions
Live cultured or fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut have been around as long as humanity. In most developed cuisines meals come with some sort of cultured food. Europeans eat cheese, beer, wine, sourdough bread, ham, pickles, yogurt and sauerkraut. Asians consume fish sauce, fermented fish, miso, soy sauce, tempeh, kimchi, and a huge variety of preserved vegetables. In India, soured milk, lime pickle and yogurt are popular. Your grandparents or great grandparents might have had big crocks of pickles and kraut in the cellar.
Elders knew that the process of lacto-fermentation inhibits putrefying bacteria and encourages beneficial microbes, which makes it a natural preservative, important in a world without refrigeration. What your elders may not have known is that the lactobacilli responsible for lacto-fermentation convert the starches and sugars in fruits and vegetables to lactic acid. In doing so, these beneficial bacteria enhance food’s digestibility, disable toxins, increase vitamin levels, produce enzymes, antibiotics and anti-carcinogenic substances and promote healthy intestinal flora.
Our society, ridden with digestive problems, needs a solution that seeks to heal our ills without side effects or high costs. The answer just might begin with cabbage, salt and in a crock magically, microbially transformed into live-fermented sauerkraut rich with enzymes and probiotics.
And you thought fermented foods just tasted good.
Unfortunately, unless you make your own fermented foods at home, most of what you purchase has been pasteurized, thus killing the very microbes that our elders cultivated. To large-scale commercial producers these microbes are an unruly bunch. For longer shelf life and shipping, commercial producers subdue these friendly microbes. Some scientists believe that killing off beneficial bacteria not only leaves us and our food undefended from harmful microbes, it can actually help harmful bacteria to thrive by taking away the competing beneficial microbes.
In other words, the cleaner we live, the more vulnerable we are to disease from harmful bacteria! We are learning that we must make peace with these microorganisms. Preparation and consumption of unpasteurized, fermented food like sauerkraut is a beginning.
Sauerkraut has changed. Modern live-cultured food makers are creatively combining cabbage with other vegetables, spices or herbs for curry-ginger kraut, carrot-caraway kraut, beet-dill kraut or salsa kraut. Organic cabbage is the best and most important foundation for a batch of fermented vegetables because it has a very high level of beneficial bacteria (that acts as starter) naturally present on the leaves.
I have made hundreds of pounds of live-cultured cabbage over fifteen years. I still use the proportions from Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation: for about 1 gallon of kraut begin with five pounds of cabbage and three level tablespoons sea salt. I like my cabbage coarsely grated—a Robot Coupe makes quick work of it. With clean hands I knead the cabbage, salt, seasoning and optional ingredients until liquid appears. I like to pack a 15- to 25-pound batch into a five gallon food grade plastic bucket or 22-quart white Cambro with a tight-fitting lid, leaving several inches of headspace. I cover the cabbage with a clean plate and sterilized weight so it stays immersed under liquid, and seal with the lid.
Lactic acid fermentation occurs in two phases. In the first phase fermentation produces acidic carbon dioxide. Along with salt it protects against decay and unwanted bacteria until enough lactic acid is formed. This must take place quickly in a sealed environment to allow build-up of carbon dioxide. Temperature plays a vital role; the first week should ideally be maintained sealed at 70 to 72 degrees F.
The second phase begins when the lactic acid bacteria decrease the pH to about 4.1, which eliminates “bad” bacteria. Your culture may then be moved to 64 to 68 degrees F for four to five weeks. Aroma and flavor develop in kraut during the cooler, slower second fermentation. With a very clean spoon, taste kraut periodically until it achieves good, tart flavor. Repack it carefully. Add a bit more non-chlorinated water if brine evaporates. (If the top layer becomes soft or forms harmless white yeast [called kahm], clean it out and discard.)
Lactic bacteria need food. If the first fermentation was very warm or long, the bacteria will consume sugars necessary for the second, longer fermentation and the kraut may be very sour, but not complex. One to two week hot weather kraut won’t have the rich, complex flavor and abundant beneficial flora of longer, cooler ferments.
When the second phase is finished, I pack my live-cultured kraut into 2-quart glass canning jars, and refrigerate. The result is an inexpensive, concentrated, enzyme-rich probiotic. You may add kraut to salads and sandwiches or serve it as a condiment with cooked grain, meat and fish, but don’t heat it. Your humble kraut will continue to deliver good health and great flavor up to a year.
Live Cultured Sauerkraut
Try other vegetable combos—kale, onions, Brussels sprouts, collards, cauliflower—but always add at least half cabbage. Cabbage has the highest amount of natural bacteria that help cultured vegetables taste great and ferment well.
Yields 3 to 4 quarts
*Live-Cultured Plain or Seed Kraut
5 pounds trimmed organic cabbage
3 tablespoons sea salt
Optional: 2 to 3 tablespoons caraway seeds, celery seed or dill seed
*Live-Cultured Curry-Ginger Kraut
5 pounds trimmed organic cabbage
3 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons curry powder (my favorite is Frontier Herbs organic curry powder)
2 ounces peeled ginger root, finely grated or pulsed in food processor.
- Finely shred or coarsely grate cabbage. Mix together salt and optional or other ingredients very evenly in a large bowl. Let it sit 30 minutes to bring out juices. If cabbage is older you may need to add some cool, non-chlorinated water to the cabbage. Pack into a small, clean food grade (look for number 2 in recycling triangle on bottom) plastic bucket, leaving 3 or more inches headroom. (A 5-gallon food grade plastic bucket holds 25 pounds cabbage or five times this recipe.)
- Cover kraut in plastic bucket with a plate and weight with a clean, boiled rock or other sterilized weight or double plastic baggies filled partway with water. Seal tightly with lid.
- Leave kraut in a warm (70 to 75 degrees F) room one week without unsealing. The carbon dioxide that builds with fermentation deters formation of kahm yeast, a harmless white substance. After one week your ferment should be sour (4.1 pH).
- Move kraut to a cooler (60 to 65 degrees F) spot for 4 to 5 weeks depending upon the temperature and your taste. The kraut will culture/ferment/sour more quickly in warmer temperatures—less quickly in cooler.
- Pack kraut into glass jars with lids, and refrigerate up to one year.
Lactic Acid Fermentation
Lactic acid fermentation of cabbage for sauerkraut or of other vegetables is a live process that cannot be fully controlled. Therein lies its beauty. Here are some fermentation facts:
- Organic produce makes the best cultured vegetables because the microbes that live on the cabbage (and other vegetables) aren’t destroyed by chemicals. Likewise, produce harvested on a rainy day can result in reduced beneficial bacteria.
- Keep fermenting vegetables immersed in liquid: weight them with a sterilized plate or double zipper bags filled with water. Since the microflora in cultured vegetables are anaerobic (don’t like oxygen) the vegetables can mold and soften when exposed to oxygen. Add just enough non-chlorinated water to your ferment so it is immersed. Keep vegetables tightly sealed for the first week so the helpful carbon dioxide can build up.
- Proper amount of sea salt: 3 level tablespoons sea salt per 5 pounds trimmed vegetables. Do not use iodized salt. Mix the salt and seasonings with the vegetables and liquid evenly.
- Watch the temperature during the first week of culturing: 68 to 72 degrees F is ideal. Warmer is okay, but cooler is not.
- If the vegetables taste good and aren’t soggy, they are fine. With cultured vegetables, trust your taste. White kahm yeast will sometimes form on top of your cultures. Carefully scrape it off and discard. The vegetables may be mushy and off-tasting. They will not hurt you, but they won’t be appetizing; discard them. Scrape down to where the vegetables begin to smell and taste crunchy and good again.
About the Author
Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.
During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.
International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking. Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.
Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.