a short guide to fermenting sauerkraut

There are useful things that I like to make purely for the pleasure of it, to have just what we want at a higher quality than one can buy, and to enjoy the thing knowing it’s homemade. Sauerkraut goes a step further, being so strikingly economical. As a health food, it succeeds in making me feel better immediately upon eating it. I love that it will balance stomach acid, whether you’ve too little or too much, but mostly I just love to eat it. I figure that fermenting sauerkraut is worthy of becoming a habit for life. Here’s how I’ve been making it.

The ingredients

Begin with a cabbage, sea salt, and a very clean, very strong glass kilner jar, (we like Le Parfait or Fido), with a rubber seal. A small clean glass jar is useful later, too. If you’ve got it, ½ cup of brine reserved from a live storebought kraut will jumpstart the process.

The method

All set? Weigh the cabbage. Ours was conveniently a full kilogram.

Calculate how much 2.5% of the cabbage’s weight would be, then measure that amount in sea salt. (In our case, 25 grams, about a tablespoon.)

Reserving a nice big leaf, slice the cabbage as finely as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky to have one!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl with the salt sprinkled over, and the kraut brine starter added if you have it. I like to be sure to hone my blade, now there’s a useful skill, before slicing and during, too.

Now, bash it. We found this old muddler at a favourite antique shop, how easy would it be to turn one on a pole lathe! It works brilliantly – but the flat end of a handle-less rolling pin or similar object you find around would function.

We like making kraut with friends, taking turns having a bash. The goal is to see a good deal of liquid emerge from the cabbage. Sometimes we leave somewhat muddled kraut under a towel and plate overnight to get the juices flowing, depending on what the day is like.

When you pack the cut, bashed cabbage firmly into a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more brine later if necessary, depending on the type and the age of the cabbage. To make brine, mix water to salt at 2.5% or so – or follow the simple traditional rule our friends the Bairds over at Ecosense use – salt it to taste like the ocean!

Tuck the cabbage leaf that you saved all round the top of the chopped stuff, putting it to bed so nothing is floating, nothing exposed to air. Place a small clean jar or glass with some water in it inside the large jar, to weigh down the big leaf, and close the large jar up tight.

A dark cupboard will be an ideal place for the sauerkraut to live while it ferments.

The ferment

In a while – my friend waited a few days while I waited two weeks – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. Tuck it back in and leave it be if it isn’t ready. When you figure it has fermented to your liking, eat it. I move it to the fridge -some folks say there’s more probiotic action before refrigeration, and some folks are a little nervous of things like this and trust the fridge- and use it up in your own good time. This time I shall set a reminder to make some more before we run out! Ben Hewitt of the wonderful book Nourishing Homestead makes a ton of it in jars and stores it cool all year.

The taste-test

We are very much impressed with the flavour. The texture of this batch was a shade crunchy for the smaller folk, so the verdict is to try a different cabbage, and experiment with how thinly to cut the veg. No mold, no burping the jar, no airlock required, no special crock, nothing to do but be patient.

We like Sandor Katz and Pascal Baudar for great writing on fermentation, and tremendous ideas on what else to ferment.

Ah yes, you’ve caught us. Now we’re eyeing other people’s prize cabbages, and plotting to grow our own kraut-cabbage.

kefir

Living near the beautiful old English biodynamic dairy farm, I grew very fond of drinking kefir. Like yogurt, kefir is a cultured milk, fermented using kefir grains. Like kombucha the culture is a symbiosis of yeasts and bacteria, and an ancient drink. It is a probiotic, and thoroughly excellent for digestion.

kefir

To my delight I received milk kefir grains from a dear friend in Canada this summer. My tall girl thinks they look like a cup of rice pudding. They were resting in water when I received them waiting for me to get started. I set some whole goat’s milk out to come to room temperature, so as not to shock the grains. Then I set the strained kefir grains in a clean glass jar, poured the milk over, and covered it. Some people say to cover kefir with cloth, like a fermenting vinegar, others use a glass lid.

kefir-5s.jpg

After a few months of messing about with timing and proportions, I’m happy with my kefir process. I like to leave the kefir fermenting on the counter in a warm spot away from light, until I can see the whey separating, as it acquires a sparkling tingle like buttermilk or mild ginger beer. My children aren’t so fond of the stuff, so I just make about a pint at a time. So far my grains seem happy with that, but I’ll give some away when they outgrow those proportions – the grains will multiply, like kombucha mushrooms and sourdough cultures. I set a steel strainer (best to avoid other metals!) over another clean jar, stir my kefir, and strain it through.

kefir-6s.jpg

The grains remain, ready to place in a jar for the next batch of milk. I use three glass canning jars in rotation – one to set the milk in to come to room temperature, waiting for the grains to be added; one to hold the fermenting kefir; and one to catch the finished kefir. I put the finished kefir in the fridge to drink later, often first thing in the morning. It is the sort of habit the steadies me, and at the same time, works best if I’m being consistent with this and other rituals and routines in my life. One feeds the other, just as caring for my kefir means that it cares for my health. Quite nice.

kombucha

Before I lived with my sweetheart, I lived with a dear friend from art school, in the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver. Years of beautiful meals and conversations around the built-in table. It had a pipe running through it, we painted it silver. I went to visit Jen in another gorgeous old flat across the city, and we fell into our familiar habit of talking about art and ideas around a very similar table. Over kombucha!

making kombucha

Sparkly, fermented sweet tea, good for digestion and detoxification and full of nutrients and probiotics. Otherwise known as the immortal elixir. Kombucha originated two thousand years ago somewhere in the Far East, spreading throughout Russia and all over the world, and arriving, belatedly, in my own kitchen. Jen sent me home with a bit of the zoogleat mat, the symbiotic bacteria and yeast, the scoby. Like my homemade vinegar, it has a mother culture.

making kombucha

So I’ve begun. I brewed strong black tea, and let it cool.

making kombucha

Perhaps next time I’ll stir the sugar in while it is hotter, oops.

making kombucha

This part is very real. Pull the mother out of the kombucha and add it to the fresh, cooled tea. Science project!

I’ve been thinking that there’s something steadying in nurturing these kinds of fermentations, sourdough culture, cream cheese, yogurt, such that even if one’s life isn’t particularly full of routine and ritual, order and awareness, it becomes more so by taking this up. Almost as if an older way of being is intrinsic to the slow food, and the slow food influences my life towards a little more peacefulness, rather than requiring a peaceful life before beginning to make the food.

making kombucha

Not that I haven’t forgotten yogurt for a few unintentional hours in the airing cupboard on more than one occasion.

<

p>Cover with a clean cloth to allow it to breathe while staying clean, put it in a dark place for about a week, and then taste it. When its ready, begin again, nurturing the new relationship, like the ones you might have feeding the sourdough starter and the yogurt culture. Devoted. I’m so excited. I’ve got the last batch of kombucha in the fridge, to drink, and live forever. If not, Jen’s given me another route to immortality, or at least better digestion, which do seem to be intimately connected.

cider vinegar

A bottle of leftover apple cider travelled with us from a flat in London we’d stayed in at the end of summer, to our cottage in the countryside. I brought it home to subject it to a science experiment. After several unsuccessful experiments using leftover wine and even the elderberry seeds left from summer’s cordial-making, I’m ever so pleased to have pulled off my own homemade vinegar.

apple cider vinegar © elisa rathje 2012

Apple cider fermenting on the mother from an older bottle of unpasteurised vinegar, exposed to wild yeasts in the air, protected by a cheesecloth.

apple cider vinegar © elisa rathje 2012

I cleaned the jar well and poured the cider over the mother, gave it a spoonful of sugar to begin with (probably an unnecessary step) and stirred it now and then, where it rested on the kitchen counter, otherwise covered by the cheesecloth. I waited throughout autumn, a bit nervously, and tasted it in the first days of winter. Glorious – just a beautiful flavour. I’ll decant the cider vinegar into a bottle, and use it in the kitchen, I love it in salad dressings particularly. Or you know, as a hair tonic. My mistake, previously, was not to have used a wide-mouthed crock or jar, the process needs air! I’m inspired to try making red wine vinegar and fruit vinegars next, using the mother from this batch to give it a good start. Do you make vinegar?

elderflower champagne

We’ve bottled up our annual elderflower brew. It’s remarkable how much easier it is when you’ve tried it even once before.

champagne-flowers

While the girls were out gathering flowers, I got started. Elderflowers won’t keep!

champagne-ingredients

I followed a slightly different recipe that I discovered last year after some anxious research.

champagne-solution.jpg

Dissolve about a kilo and a half of sugar in eight pints of water, and let it cool.

© elisa rathje 2011

Slice a couple of lemons, choose seven or eight of your freshest elderflowers and clear off any insects (have a good shake outside!), measure a couple of tablespoons of white wine vinegar, and throw it all in the cooled sugar solution.

© elisa rathje 2011

I covered the brew with a few layers of cheesecloth, and left it for 24 hours. Some folks say to keep it longer, til it bubbles, and others say it won’t bubble til it is bottled. Oh dear. We’re trying the 24 hour version.

It does smell gorgeous, there should be a perfume. I sterilised my bottles in the dishwasher. You want very strong flip-top bottles intended for bottling under pressure, or you may have an explosion!

© elisa rathje 2011

After scalding a ladle, funnel, and mesh bag, I filled the bottles.

champagne-bottled

<

p>They are a pleasure to look at, aren’t they? I’ve stored them on a shelf with another strong shelf above, so if I do get an explosion, it will be contained. I know, how terrifying! Truly these bottles are made to hold tremendous pressure – not all flip-tops are. This elderflower champagne should be ready in a couple of weeks, but I’ll uncork it for my reunion with my sweetheart, on our return to the old country cottage.