Given my German and Eastern European heritage I pretty much have sauerkraut in my veins. I love it, but always find the store bought stuff (whether in a can or bag) disappointing. Pennsylvania Dutch lore tells us that a meal of pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day will bring good luck in the coming year. Not sure how that tradition got started, but I keep to it year after year. Preparing for the New Year’s feast (not to mention hot dog’s, sausages, verenyky and all the other things that go great with fermented cabbage) means making a batch of kraut. And if you thought the advent of “freedom fries” at the outset of Gulf War II was a new peak of jingoistic stupidity, guess again–during the first world war sauerkraut was temporarily renamed “liberty cabbage.” Anyway, cooler temps outside as well as in the basement (where the fermentation will happen) signals that it is time to start shredding cabbage.
At its most basic, sauerkraut is simple: cabbage and salt. That’s it. Shred the cabbage, mix it with the salt and then allow it to ferment in a crock or jars for a few weeks or months. The art is getting the salt proportion right so that you create a 2% brine solution. The ratio is 1 tablespoon salt to 1 3/4 pounds of cabbage, or 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of cabbage (1.66 tablespoons/pound). Too much salt and the kraut is, well, too salty to eat. Too little salt and you will not create the briny environment where the lactobacillus thrives and converts the cabbage into kraut. So, the ratio is important. This year, I got some cabbages from a local coop that turned out to be the world’s cutest cabbages.
So here is my process:
1. Remove the tough outer leaves from the cabbage (but keep them for later), halve or quarter (depending on size), and core. Finely shred the cabbage. This can be done with a knife, but is is definitely worth investing in a cabbage shredder. I use this one and it works brilliantly.
2. Add salt and mix. When mixing, “beat up” the cabbage a little bit. I use a wooden masher. Use only Kosher or pickling salt with no additives like iodine or anti-caking agents. I also added caraway seed this year, but that is optional. For an 11 pound batch I added about 5 tablespoons of caraway seed.
3. Pack cabbage into crock or jars. My buddy Jay makes huge batches for his family and uses a crock, which is the traditional approach. I may go that way in the future. For now I use 1/2 gallon canning jars fitted with airlocks. I leave a few inches of headspace to allow for expansion when the fermentation begins. after putting in the shredded cabbage I top it with some of the large outer leaves I removed and then add a glass weight to keep everything submerged.
4. Place in a cool, dark spot and let the magic happen.
It is as simple as that. If you find that the cabbage does not put off enough liquid after the salt is added, you can always make a brine solution (1 tbsp salt to 4 cups of water) and add it to the jars or crock. Easy peasy.