A couple of weeks ago the daughter of my heart had a fermenting emergency. She needed sauerkraut urgently but drank all of the juice in her last jar. Nobody ever really needs sauerkraut urgently, but when you love it like we do, this is a mini crisis. You use leftover liquid from past batches or whey to inoculate your cabbage when you are making a new batch. She was also out of yogurt, so no whey… She had a strike of problem solving genius and asked me if I thought that a spoonful of sourdough starter would do the trick.
Sourdough starter is full of the good bacteria that grows in all fermentation so I thought it might just work. This morning Mandy texted me and said the result of her experiment was the best batch of kraut she’d ever tasted. Pretty cool! I also read the other day that a friend used starter to thicken a sauce instead of roux. In both cases, if you have a mature starter, it eliminates a step and saves time. It also means you can drink your kraut juice which is a huge bonus if you are Mandy Lanphere!
Sauerkraut is the perfect introduction into the world of lacto-fermentation. The ingredients are inexpensive and easy to obtain and work well with the simple fermentation method below. The result for a small amount of effort will be a delicious and highly nutritious food teaming with healthy bacteria that is normally pitifully absent from the western diet.
Do not mistake the pasteurized, and to many, soft and unappealing sauerkraut that is sold in supermarkets for the same product as the one you are creating here. Lacto fermentation is an artisanal craft and does not lend itself well to industrialization and mass production. For this reason, commercial sauerkraut is heated after packaging, killing all of the beneficial bacteria that developed during it’s production. Homemade sauerkraut retains this beneficial element, boasting a count of ten trillion live bacteria in a four to six ounce serving. This means that two ounces of your house kraut has more beneficial bacteria than an entire bottle of probiotics. These bacteria kill pathogens in your digestive tract and replenish it with healthy flora.
Another benefit of this product is that cabbage is notably high in anti-inflammatory properties, vitamin A and C. When cabbage is fermented, it opens up the cell walls unlocking a higher ratio of vitamins. A fermented head of cabbage can have 200 times more bio-available vitamin C than it did raw or cooked.
A note on equipment: Websites with beautiful crocks equipped with special valves, wooden pounders, powdered fermentations starters, and lovely jars to store your fermented products abound on the internet! All of these materials are fun to use and can make fermenting large quantities much easier. NONE of it is needed though!
We Americans tend to take old world knowledge and methods and create lots of high priced gadgets and rules needed to implement them. This creates barriers to doing new things that can increase our health and well-being TODAY. My goal with this recipe is to show you that you can lacto ferment nearly any vegetable or fruit with things you already have in your fridge and cupboards. After you have followed the method a few times, you can make adjustments to your equipment and know where to invest a little money to simplify things. In the meantime, keep every glass jar that you can get your hands on, remove the labels, and keep them for storing all of your experiments.
Historically, fermentation has been done in glass or ceramic vessels for best results. Before stainless steel, the metals that bowls and containers were made of were reactive and would even break down as the veggies did their work inside, so metal was never used in any of these preparations or dough making. Low quality plastic can also break down in exactly the same way although restaurant grade containers should be fine. Knowing all of this, start your first fermentation in a mason jar. They are inexpensive and most likely to give you a great result.
1 medium head organic cabbage
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
1 scant tablespoon of sea salt
4 tablespoons of whey or reserved sauerkraut juice from a previous batch (whey recipe below)
Buy the best cabbage you can find for this recipe. Organic cabbage from the supermarket will work just great, but if you can buy it from a local farmer there will be more beneficial bacteria on the leaves. The lacto-fermentation process creates an environment for these bacteria to multiply. This will ultimately preserve the food and also create a product that is essential for proper gut flora. Over time, eating these kinds of foods will heal your digestive tract and help you begin to absorb the nutrients that you consume much more efficiently and completely. So the better the cabbage is to start with, the more nutritious the final result will be.
Rinse the cabbage and discard any badly damaged or wilted leaves. Remember you are not trying to clean every trace of bacteria from the cabbage. Just remove visible dirt and insects. Briefly dry the leaves and separate them from the core. Slice the leaves into small strips just as you would for coleslaw and place them in a bowl. I like to slice them by hand because the sauerkraut ends up crunchier and thicker. If you use the food processor, it will be a much quicker process and your final product will be a softer. Now very thinly slice the core and add it to the bowl.
Now add the salt and caraway seeds to the cabbage and start massaging to get it to release the water in its leaves. You can do this by squeezing it with your hands or smashing it with a potato masher or wooden mallet. Keep this up until the cabbage is noticeably wilted and there is lots of liquid in the bowl. Once it is nicely wilted, you can add the whey or reserved sauerkraut juice and briefly mix.
To begin the lacto-fermentation you will need a large mouth, one quart mason jar. The large mouth is important because it will allow you to weigh down the food. A standard quart jar with the smaller opening will make this more difficult. Make sure that your jar is clean and dried. Add the cabbage with all of its liquid to the jar. Use a heavy spoon to press the cabbage down into the container, forcing the liquid up to the top.
Now you will need a weight to keep the cabbage submerged in the brine while it is fermenting. I set this up by placing a small (very clean) mason jar filled with water right on top of the cabbage, pressing down until all of it is sitting under the brine. This is important because cabbage that is exposed to air will spoil, while the cabbage submerged in brine will ferment. Once submerged, cover tightly over the top of the small jar with plastic wrap. You must have an airtight seal for the fermentation process to happen properly. When I do this in larger quantities, I just make sure I have a glass jar or bottle that fits easily into my larger vessel before I start the recipe and use plastic wrap to press it down and create an airtight seal in the same way as with the smaller jars.
This is some beautiful romanesco that I fermented using a stoneware weight I have come to love. It makes me so happy every time I pull it out to use it! Knowing how to weight the ferment until I found weights that will become heirlooms for my kids served me well.
Once everything is covered nicely, set the jar on the counter for at least three days. During this time, press down hard on the smaller jar a couple of times per day to help the bubbles that are forming to come up to the surface. You can tighten the plastic wrap occasionally as you release the gases. The temperature in your house and your personal taste will determine how long you let the cabbage ferment at room temperature.
On the third day, try a bit and see how sour the kraut has become. Continue tasting each day until it seems perfect to you, up to a week or even more in cooler months. You will notice the freshly fermented kraut has a distinct smell when you open the container. Don’t worry that this means it’s spoiled. If it tastes something like a sour pickle, it is just right and that smell will continue to go away as it ages in your fridge.
You can remove the weight and put the lid on your jar now or transfer your freshly fermented sauerkraut to smaller, clean, dry mason jars, leaving an inch of headspace so that the cabbage doesn’t touch the rim. Date and label your jar/s and place them in the fridge. You can eat this straight away or let it sit in the fridge for a few weeks before eating it. Many authors say that this rest time mellows the flavor and increases the nutrition in your kraut.
Now you are on a roll!
Now that you have this basic method under your belt, you can use it to ferment just about any vegetable or green. With veggies that have less of their own liquid, you will make a medium brine by dissolving 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons of salt in one quart of water. Add four tablespoons of whey or liquid from a previous ferment to the brine. Pack your mason jar full of sliced veggies, cover with the brine and follow the directions above.
WHEY and CREAM CHEESE
This recipe produces two products. The first, whey, is essential for making all kinds of lacto-fermented products and soaked grains. In lacto-fermentation, the beneficial bacteria in the whey will give your fermentation process a kickstart, allowing you to use less salt in your recipes. You may also use whey in soaking grains, brown rice, and beans to reduce the phytic acid and other “anti-nutrients” in them, allowing for easier digestion and increased nutrient bio-availability.
32 ounce carton of organic, full fat yogurt
stainless steel bowl and strainer that nest nicely
Nest your strainer inside the stainless steel bowl and place the paper towel in the bottom of the strainer. Make sure there aren’t big wrinkles in the towel and that the edges are tucked in at the top. If the edges of the towel are hanging over the side, it will draw the whey up and out instead of into the bowl. Stir the yogurt and add the entire carton to the the towel lined strainer and cover the entire contraption with plastic wrap. You may use some extra plastic wrap or a large rubber band to secure the strainer and bowl so that you have a sturdy system.
Place the straining yogurt into the fridge overnight or until there is no liquid dripping through the strainer. The liquid that ends up in the bowl is your whey! Pour this liquid into a very clean mason jar. It will keep in the fridge for 6 months, but if you start fermenting all the veggies in your refrigerator, it will get used up quickly.
Once you have the whey that you need, you will be left with strained yogurt which is what is sold in the market as Greek yogurt. This product is also what was historically used as cream cheese. You can eat this just like regular yogurt, adding maple syrup, your favorite fruit preserves, or nuts. Also try making it into muesli with oats and seeds. This traditional, European breakfast is incredibly healthy with both soaked grains and beneficial bacteria. You can also make savory spreads or dips with it. Add chives, parsley, cilantro, dill, and a tiny bit of chopped garlic with salt and pepper for a healthy and delicious veggie dip or spread for a bagel.