Monday, 19 November 2012

Making Sauerkraut!

UPDATED: Nov 26th see end - Afton

For a little change this time, I thought I'd tell you all about our first foray into the territory of fermented cabbage aka Sauerkraut (literal translation from the German = 'Sour Cabbage')

Now, neither Nils nor I have gotten into the proper swing of blog writing yet so whenever we start a new, interesting or Permaculture -related activity, we have not yet started to automatically grab the camera, so the first couple of photos are borrowed (I'll tell you in the titles) but the end result really is sitting on my kitchen counter, I promise!

OK, we got the idea for this when we re-watched an episode of 'Edible Garden' (BBC series where this chickie spends a year trying to avoid buying fruits and veg and goes through a wide range of topics related. I recommend it, especially if you really what to see what English weather is like, but sitting here in New Brunswick, all I could see was the length of the her growing season....) where she visits a pair of women called 'the Soil Sisters' and they introduce her to Sauerkraut. Right about then I remembered a beautiful head of purple cabbage (home-grown!) in my cupboard and the bags of apples on my kitchen floor (Not home-grown but local & organic). So we made Purple Apple Sauerkraut.

First of all, lets diverge a little bit and explain how the trick works. Food fermentation works by encouraging beneficial bacteria and repressing harmful bacteria. What are beneficial bacteria? Bacteria that not only don't harm us at all (like neutral bacterial strains) but can also provide us with a tangible benefit from them doing what they do best. In this case, the benefit they provide is by processing the cabbage through anaerobic fermentation and thereby converting and increasing the nutritional value significantly. Now, people are used to hearing that anaerobic fermentation is a bad thing, that's what makes stagnant mud flats smell so bad, its what gives rise to botulism spreading through canned foods, etc. The anaerobic fermentation process itself is not a bad thing, it's the strains of bacteria that carry out the anaerobic fermentation that determine whether the result is really tasty food with a much elevated nutritional value, or some pretty bad smells and terrible stomach pain. When food fermentation of any kind is carried out, it is vital to ensure that your fermentation jars are super clean, that your source veg (eg purple cabbage and apples) are cleaned and ALL not-so-nice pieces are removed, that your hands are clean AND when you leave the jar to ferment that the top of the cabbage is ALWAYS covered with solution. After that, the good bacteria and the fermentation processes will look after themselves, but I'll go through all of this in more detail in the sections below.

Lets get started!

Picture 1: purple head of cabbage from Wiki, mine looked better ;-)
Step 1
First off is the prepping of the cabbage. Peel back all of the damaged outer leaves (be ruthless) and chop off the stalk. Slice the cabbage REALLY THINLY. Place cabbage strips in a large bowl, sprinkle a handful of salt over it and pound the crap out of it for about 10 mins. Use this as your physical anger management therapy (just try not to a) Smash your bowl or b) Send your cabbage flying cos then you'll have to cut another head).

Picture 2; A Cajun lady hulling rice, but this is the general idea. Don't worry if you don't have a butter churn handy, we used a bowl and our little pepper pestle in turns.
Doing this first stage properly is essential to a successful Sauerkraut. The point of the physical damage (slicing very thinly and then pounding) is to break down as much of the cabbage cell walls as possible. The beneficial bacteria that you want to encourage live in the cell walls of the cabbage and this stage essentially sets them free. The addition of salt is so that the liquid present in the cells (and by extension, the bacteria) is drawn out and also to act as a deterrent to invading strains of bacteria that may otherwise turn your food into something you really don't want to eat. This liquid is how the magic works and the key to a successful fermentation is keeping an eye on the level of that liquid as I'll explain lower down.

Step 2
Cover the bowl of salty, pounded cabbage and leave in a warm place for 24 hrs.

Note; the quantity here is about how big of a jar you have to ferment this in. From a medium sized head and 2 apples I filled a 1L mason jar. This is definitely one of the cases where if you think you may need a second jar, prepare it.

Step 3
So this is what the cabbage looked like this morning after 24 hours in the bowl. I peeled and cut (cos I don't have a corer, unfortunately) 2 medium-sized apples into about 1” cubes, washed and rinsed my 1L mason jar and set it into a clean bowl (this is because I prefer cleaning messes out of bowls than off counters and cupboard doors). I added another about half-handful of salt (just because I expected a bit more liquid but in the end I feel that it probably wasn't necessary) to the cabbage and started to fill the jar.

Picture 3; this really is my cabbage after sitting for 24 hours. No difference in the texture that I could see, it might be a little limper, but since it was quite limp after the crushing action yesterday, I can't say for sure. Yes, I could have cheated and said that this was the 0-hour cabbage instead of the 24-hour cabbage, but I'm just too honest I guess. By the way, this is what I couldn't fit into the jar, I'm gonna fry it up as part of my lunch omlette-y-thingy.

Step 4
I put in 3 handfuls of cabbage into my clean 1L jar and pressed it (gently but firmly) into a compressed layer with my handy pestle. Straight away, I spotted that the liquid was already enough to cover the cabbage when tamped down firmly. Then I followed with a handful of apples, then cabbage, then apples, then cabbage, until I reached the top of the jar. There was so much liquid in fact that I had to allow a fair bit to run up and over the top when I neared the end (thankfully my condom-bowl did its job and there was no need for frantic tea-towelling) so I really feel that the extra salt I added in step 2 was not necessary at all.

Step 5
To finish off, I washed a smaller jar (small enough to sit into the large jars mouth but not so small that there's a large gap on all sides), filled it with water (for weight) and set it into the full jar to press down on the cabbage and keep it under the level of the salty liquid. I also placed the whole thing in a new condom-bowl, this time a lunch-box, so whatever happens, I have less clean-up to do. Adding a label with the date was a matter of moments and, done!

Picture 4; the Finished Product! You can just about see that the line of purple liquid is above the purple cabbage and that's whats important.

Et voila! Our very first jar of Sauerkraut from our very first year of growing cabbage. If this works, I will be growing 3 times as much cabbage next year, just for the Sauerkraut! I know I should have taken more photos as I filled the jar, but still not used to photo-documenting every step. But we will get better, promise! We will leave this jar as long as we can, (hopefully we can resist until the New Year) and will let you know how it goes when we have a taste, can't wait!

I hope you found this helpful and please let us know about your food fermentation experiments and favourite recipes in the comment box below!

UPDATED: Nov 26th

*sigh* I have to own up and admit that our Sauerkraut experiment went awry. After a few days of looking great, the jar started going dry and we couldn't keep it hydrated. 

As you can see in the above pictures, the cabbage started oxidizing and turning dark which tells you that the whole process just ain't working. When we took off the lid and tried forking out the dark stuff to eat the cabbage underneath, we found that the cabbage had not fermented, it was still hard and inedible. There just wasn't enough time.

This was a risk we took and while throwing the lot out hurt, I'm going be glad for the fact that it was clear that something went wrong and so we didn't have to risk our bellies investigating.

Now for what we think went wrong:
  1. I added extra salt on the second day because I thought there wasn't enough liquid initially. Next time I will definitely not do that.
  2. I compressed far too much cabbage into the jar. I thought that you couldn't put too much in, and was glad to see the amount of liquid pouring out of the mouth of the jar as I pushed more in, but now I see that that liquid was needed for the fermentation. I was essentially drying out the cabbage as I went.
Well, we're going to buy another head of cabbage (cos that was our last home-grown one...) and give it another go. We'll let you know how THAT one goes.


  1. Awesome blog! Now In anticipation of a follow-up ….
    how to make sauerkraut

    1. Thank you! With the rigmarole of moving (see if you're interested), I didnt get the chance to try again at all last year. It is still on my list however. I will do it, and I will post it! Lol!
      Thank you for reading, I hope you have a great day!