Make a Good Mess of Delicious Sauerkraut
Post by William Woys Weaver
Picking the cabbage after a good fall rain following a hard frost will insure tenderness and high water content in the cabbage, both of which are important for making a proper ferment. Otherwise, untreated spring water can be added to create the necessary slurry. The basic instructions that follow are taken from my forthcoming book As American as Shoofly Pie (University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 2013).
I make my sauerkraut in an heirloom 6-gallon (24-liter) stoneware crock that has been in the family as long as anyone can remember. As a weight on the sauerkraut (it must be pressed down during fermentation), I use a well-washed smaller 3-gallon (12- liter) crock which fits neatly inside the larger one. For added weight, the 3-gallon crock can be filled partially with water, although this will depend to some extent on the coarseness of the shredded cabbage (finer, more delicate cabbages do not require as much weight). A gallon glass jug full of water set on an overturned china plate will also work as well.
The process begins by washing the cabbage to be certain it is free of caterpillars and aphids (they are notoriously clever in hiding among the leaves). Drain the washed cabbage and then shred it on a vegetable shredder or with a very sharp knife into 1/8 inch (2.5mm) strips.
Take a well-washed stoneware crock and make a layer of shredded cabbage at the bottom. This layer should be about 3 inches (7.5cm) thick, and as a rule of thumb, the weight of each layer should be about 2 ½ pounds (1.25kg). Scatter 1 ½ tablespoons coarse sea salt, pickling salt, or Kosher salt over each 2 ½ pounds (1.25kg) of cabbage and then stamp it vigorously with a kraut stamp or some other wooden device so that the cabbage is bruised and begins to ooze liquid. Add another layer of shredded cabbage, scatter it with the same quantity of salt, and stamp it again. Repeat this until you have filled the crock about ¾ full. If the cabbage does not emit enough liquid during stamping, add untreated spring water 1 cup (250ml) at a time. When pressed down, the cabbage should be covered by about 1 inch (2.5cm) of the liquid.
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Set the smaller crock or some other form of clean, heavy weight on top of the stamped cabbage so that it is pressed down beneath the liquid. Cover the whole with a cloth and tie it down so that gnats and small insects cannot get in (they are attracted by the smell). Let the sauerkraut stand in a warm place 6 days to ferment. You should be able to hear it working by the 5th day. Eventually, this gentle fermentation will slow down because the salt will inhibit further breakdown of the cabbage. Skim off any scum that forms on top of the liquid during the early stages of aging, rinse off the weight, then return the weight to the cabbage, cover again, and move the sauerkraut to a cold room to age for 6 to 8 weeks. When the sauerkraut develops a thick white mold on top similar to what forms on soft cheese, it is ready to eat. This mold is beneficial, and you can dry a piece of it to add to a fresh batch later in the season.
At this point, the weight can be removed and the sauerkraut can either be put up in jars or left in the crock as long as it is stored in such a way that it remains beneath the liquid. An old sterilized china plate is often enough to weigh it down for this purpose. Once you have a batch of sauerkraut that has ripened, you can use the juice as starter for another batch and thus continue in this manner every 8 weeks in order to have sauerkraut maturing all winter and into the early spring. You can also freeze the finished sauerkraut in zip-lock freezer bags.
William Woys Weaver is a culinary historian living in Devon, Pennsylvania, were he maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection consisting of some 4000 varieties of food plants. http://www.williamwoysweaver.com/