(A basic rundown on fermenting)
By The Urban Nanna
Don’t be discouraged by the wordiness of this post – we’ve tried to keep things ‘chatty’, and to pre-empt any questions you might have about the process. Before we discovered Sandor Katz’s brilliant book Wild Fermentation, we found that most recipes were really clinical and left us feeling unsure about lots of things.
We’ve tried to provide all the little tips and tricks that would’ve been useful as we were beginning to learn about fermentation so you feel confident getting started. 🙂
Fermenting: what is it?
Fermentation is a natural, controlled anaerobic process that food undergoes which converts carbohydrates into acids or alcohol and gas. There are a couple of different types of fermentation: regular fermentation uses yeasts to turn the sugars in grains, fruits and vegetables into alcohol; Lacto-fermentation uses bacteria to turn the sugars in grains, fruits and vegetables into lactic acid. Put simply, food is kept away from oxygen, and good bacteria turn the food-sugars into acid/alcohol which stops the food from decomposing.
But what’s all the fuss about?
Fermenting is arguably THE easiest form of fresh food preservation, it has multiple documented health benefits, and it’s almost impossible to stuff it up. That’s why it’s been done in so many cultures for so many centuries, and is probably why it’s becoming so popular again. It has been proven to boost immunity; improve gut health; makes foods easier to digest which means you get more nutrients from every bite; and there’s evidence to suggest it has benefits for mental health, heart health and even weight loss.
You can go into pretty much any supermarket or grocer these days and you’re likely to find something fermented: kombucha, kefir, kimchi, kraut – you’ll see some on the shelves, and the really good stuff (filled with all the live beneficial bacterias) will be in the fridges. But the best fermented food is the stuff you make yourself, because you know exactly what’s gone into it, it has flavor blends that appeal to your palate, and it’s as fresh as fresh can be so you’re getting the absolute height of health-boosting goodness from it.
As mentioned above, it’s almost impossible to truly stuff up a basic ferment, but there are occasional hiccups – mould, soggy veg, surface yeasts – we’ve seen them all along the way, but problems like these are nearly never a reason to despair. There are fixes for most potential issues, so even if you’re not confident, have a go and only worry about solving a problem if and when it arises. The beauty of starting your journey towards Being A Fermenter with sauerkraut is that its incredibly cheap to make, so even if things do go irretrievably wrong, you haven’t lost more than a couple of bucks and a bit of time.
Lacto-fermentation is the process used to make kimchi, pickles, sauces, salsas and sauerkraut as well as a whole lot of other delicious goodies, and it’s what we’ve been focusing our learning on for the past couple of years. Lactobacillus bacteria are found naturally in many foods, and when they’re allowed to thrive in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, they quickly get to work converting sugars to lactic acid, thus preserving the food. They’re like the superhero of the bacteria world – where others wither and die a rapid death in the presence of salt, Lactobacillus multiply, don their capes, and begin transforming regular food into invincible morsels of supercharged nutritious deliciousness.
There are lots of bacteria that want to get a meal off your jar of shredded fruit and veg, so it’s important to make sure Lactobacillus has the upper hand when you’re fermenting, and the easiest way to do this is to shove the whole lot under salty water. So don’t let the science behind it frighten you off: remember that nannas and grandpas have been preserving food in the most rustic of settings with the most basic of equipment for centuries. There’s something massively satisfying about being able to transform simple veggies into a fridge-full of colourful condiments with nothing more than a bit of salt and some time, so let’s get you started!
How to make Sauerkraut
In it’s ultimate form, sauerkraut is simply shredded/shaved cabbage with salt, massaged until it yields lots of liquid, then squished into a vessel and left alone for 3-5 days.
There are lots of variables when it comes to each batch – cabbage size; cabbage density; cabbage type; fermenting vessel size; supply requirements; fermenting location; seasonal/weather conditions – so it’s good to have an understanding of the basic principles rather than a specific recipe to refer to. This will allow you to adapt your skills so that you can confidently make sauerkraut in any situation.
We’ll give you a more specifics further down, but keep in your head that the general rule is:
Use what you have, and make it so you like the taste.
That translates to a basic process of:
- Shred as much cabbage as you have
- Add salt to cabbage 1/2tbsp at a time and massage for 5-10minutes
- Once the cabbage is translucent, wilty and there’s lots of liquid, shove it in a jar
- Stuff a folded up cabbage leaf inside the jar to keep the shredded stuff submerged.
- Cover with a cloth and leave in the pantry/on the bench for 3-5 days
The Urban Nanna’s Basic Sauerkraut Recipe
Makes roughly 1x 1L jar
1/2 a large cabbage
2-3tbsp pure salt (lake, rock, kosher, pickling, sea)* See notes on salt below
1tsp whole cumin (optional)
- Before shredding cabbage, remove and lightly wash 2-3 outer leaves and leave aside.
- Core, then shred cabbage finely. A mandolin or food processor is great for this, but a knife will do as well.
- Pop shredded cabbage in a glass, ceramic, enamel or plastic bowl (metal reacts with salt, so don’t use it for fermenting)
- Add your salt ½ a tablespoon at a time. This allows you to adjust the saltiness as needed.
- After adding each measure of salt, gently massage cabbage for 5-10 minutes. You can use a rolling pin to help with this if you find it hard on your hands.
- Before adding the next lot of salt, taste the mix. It’ll be ‘done’ when it tastes moderately salty, the cabbage is translucent and wilted, and you get a good stream of brine when you squish a handful of cabbage.
- Once it’s ‘done’, you can add spices like cumin, caraway, fennel or coriander if you like them. Add less than you think you’ll need, as they can become overpowering. Around 1tsp per half cabbage is a nice mix.
- You can also add chopped spring onion and a little bit of minced garlic if you like.
- Once ‘done’, shove the cabbage into a large jar or crock, pack it down firmly (a potato masher can be helpful), then cover with the brine liquid created by your massaging.
- Fold up one or two of the outer cabbage leaves you set aside earlier and use them to shove all the shredded cabbage under the brine. Really wedge it in so no little bits can float above and reach the surface.
- Use a teatowel to cover the jar to stop dust and/or bugs getting in. You can use the lid of the jar instead, but if you do, you’ll need to “burp” the jar daily to let the gasses formed by fermentation escape.
- Fermentation should take 2-3 days to get started. You’ll see bubbles starting to rise through the cabbage when it does.
- You may need to push the cabbage back under the brine a couple of times during the fermentation process (the gas bubbles can lift it up). Use clean implements to do so.
- Start tasting the shredded cabbage after 3 days. Once it tastes sour enough to your liking, put an airtight lid on it and store it in the fridge to stop active fermentation.
Side note – you can put ALL sorts of extra goodies into Kraut!! We usually add a few grated carrots to mine, and will often do a mixture of white and red cabbage. It’s also traditional to add a sprinkling of spices just before you stuff it into the jar. You can even add spring onions and garlic if you want extra oomph (and vitamins)
You can add things like:
– shredded broccoli
– grated beetroot
– shredded kale
– shredded wombok
– grated swede
Spices to experiment with include:
Here are some helpful tips and details that may answer questions you have along the way:
- Make sure you have a nice big jar to put your kraut in. The large Moccona coffee jars and Ikea Korken jars generally hold ½ a medium seized cabbage worth of kraut. Use glass or ceramic, not metal.
- When you massage it, the cabbage will shrink in volume by about half.
- Use pure salt with no preservatives in it. Preservatives can negatively affect both the flavor, texture and appearance of ferments. Use lake, sea, rock, river, ‘pickling’ or kosher salt.
- Make sure your salt is finely ground so it distributes evenly. This also affects your measurements (rock, flake and ground salt fill a tablespoon differently, so you might not get enough salt if you use 1tbsp of rock etc).
- Aim for between 2-4tbsp salt per batch.
- The final amount of salt will depend on how big your ‘batch’ is.
- In summer, you may need to add more salt to slow fermentation (it goes faster in warmer weather, and bad bacteria/yeasts can kick off in these circumstances).
- Often, it’ll end up being around 2tbsp for 1/2 a small cabbage, and 4tbsp for a whole large cabbage.
- This website has an excellent calculating tool for working out how to get exact salinity/brine concentrations, so if you’re into being a bit more precise, take a look.
- It doesn’t matter if bits of the folded cabbage leaves you use to submerge the kraut poke above the brine.
- Fermentation will happen quicker in warmer weather, and slower in winter.
- Kraut will keep in the fridge for absolutely ages (like, over a year!) as long as it doesn’t dry out.
- If kraut dries up, mix brine (1tbsp pure salt in 500ml cool boiled water) and top it up
- You can use julienned/grated turnips instead of cabbage and follow the same basic procedure – which is delicious with cumin, and is known as Saueruben
Right! So, that’s pretty much all the advice we have for creating regular cabbage sauerkraut. Once you’ve got this down pat, have an explore online for some different recipes, as you can make all sorts of amazing combinations based on this recipe – beetroot, carrots, turnips, swede, broccoli, brussels sprouts… the list goes on.
Hopefully you feel encouraged to give it a go, as it really is simple once you give it a try, and the results are truly delicious.