Sunday, September 13, 2015

Making Sauerkraut

    I helped teach a little provident living class this past week at the Snohomish Ward's annual Labor Day picnic.  This is my second year in a row teaching such a class so it now has become as much of a tradition as the ultimate frisbee game.  Last year we taught how to make dill pickles. This year the class was on making sauerkraut.  I was gratified that there was a fair amount of interest in the topic of home production and storage and that I wasn't the only sauerkraut fan in the ward.  The class was hands on and about a dozen people participated in making the sauerkraut.

     Sauerkraut is a great home production and storage project for a number of reasons.  First of all, cabbage are relatively easy to grow in our maritime climate.  The only serious crop failure I've had growing cabbage in Western Washington involved a goat that escaped confinement. The goat was quite satisfied with my crop of "baby" cabbages, but I considered it a serious crop failure. Secondly, cabbage are relatively inexpensive to purchase and are plentiful in the grocery stores and farm stands at this time of year.  Thus one can practice making sauerkraut even if they are currently unable to have a vegetable garden.  Thirdly, sauerkraut is pretty easy to make. I know there are things that can go wrong in the process, but I've been making sauerkraut off and on for about ten years and it has always turned out well.  Lastly, sauerkraut is very nutritious, even more so than the raw cabbage it was made from.

    In preparation for my class, I printed out a little internet article about a Captain Cook voyage (I don't believe it was the fateful one he made to Hawaii). This was the first long sea voyage undertaken by the British Navy that involved zero deaths from scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet.  A previous voyage lead by another captain, consisted of four ships and 2,000 men and had resulted in 1,300 deaths from scurvy. The big difference stemmed from the fact that Captain Cook brought along 4 tons of sauerkraut. This wasn't canned sauerkraut. It was simply fresh sauerkraut packed into wooden barrels.  It was a two year voyage and the kraut lasted all that time in wooden barrels. They still had a bit of the sauerkraut left as they neared England. Supposedly, they gave the last of their sauerkraut to an Italian fishing boat. I don't know if that was part of a trade or if they were just sick of sauerkraut after eating it for two years.  I knew before that sauerkraut is a great source of vitamin C. I only recently learned that there is more vitamin C in sauerkraut than there is in raw cabbage. Somehow, the lactobacilli actually manufacture vitamin C while they are converting the cabbage into sauerkraut.

    The process of making sauerkraut is not complicated.  I got my sauerkraut recipe from a Rodale Press book titled "Stocking Up".  They credit the USDA as the source of their recipe.   50 pounds of cabbage, shredded and mixed properly with one pound of pickling salt, and given three to four weeks to ferment  under the right conditions,  results in a whole lot of sauerkraut.  This recipe can easily be adjusted to whatever amount of cabbage is available.  In our case we shredded about twenty-five pounds of cabbage so we used half a pound of salt.  That was an amount that fit comfortably into a five gallon food grade bucket.  Sauerkraut can be made in all sorts of containers, including expensive crocks and glass jars.  I prefer used food grade five gallon buckets as I already have a lot of them and they are a nice convenient size.  The bucket or crock doesn't need to be sterilized. It just has to be clean.

      I was assisted in teaching the class by Lynell Nielson. She is an avid fan of fresh lacto-fermented food and is knowledgeable about its health benefits. In addition to being a good source of vitamin C, lacto-femented foods offer probiotic benefits.  They contribute to a healthy intestinal flora. There are numerous cultures which have some sort of lacto-fermented food as a daily part of their diet. An example of that is the Koreans eating kimchee on a daily basis.  There are other purported benefits besides the probiotic aspect.  I  found an interesting internet article about sauerkraut and the incidence of breast cancer in Polish women.  In Poland most women eat fresh lacto-fermented sauerkraut about three times per week. Polish women living in the Chicago area eat less fresh lacto-fermented sauerkraut, averaging about once a week.  The rate of breast cancer was significantly higher among the Polish women living in the Chicago area.  While there may be other factors which could have contributed to this result, there is a great deal of evidence regarding the health benefits of fresh lacto-fermented foods.

     Lynell brought a very nice shredding device intended specifically for making sauerkraut.  It worked very well such that it only took about 45 minutes to core and shred the cabbage.  We tried to make sure all of the attendees had to opportunity to shred cabbage.  We mixed in the salt as we added cabbage to the bucket.  When we finished shredding the cabbage, the bucket was full up to about an inch or so from the top.  I took the bucket home and dumped it into a large plastic tote and mixed it some more to insure the salt was evenly distributed.  After I had repacked the shredded, salted cabbage back into the bucket, a lot of water was being exuded by the cabbage. This time I was able to pack the shredded cabbage down such that it was about six inches from the top of the bucket. I placed a plate on top of the cabbage and weighted it down with a gallon of water in a used milk jug.  Within a few hours the plate was submerged under the liquid.
Our bucket of sauerkraut after six days
    The sauerkraut seems to be coming along just fine.  After six days of fermentation it has reduced itself down to a little more than half the height of the bucket. there3 is plenty of liquid to cover the sauerkraut. The liquid has a little foam on the top, but no evidence of anything moldy.  I skimmed off the foam and tasted a piece of the sauerkraut from the liquid above the plate. It passed the taste test as well, but is still several weeks from being done. When the sauerkraut is finished I will take it to a Relief Society activity where it can be divided up amongst the participants of the class.

    The process of lacto-fermentation doesn't depend on sterile conditions but rather on conditions that favor the lactobacilli over other bacteria.  The addition of the salt and the fact of the kraut being under liquid and thus not exposed to oxygen are both conditions which favor the lactobacilli. It is essential that the fermenting cabbage remain covered by the liquid.  Another important condition is the temperature.  Making sauerkraut won't work in hot or cold conditions.  The lactobacilli favor a temperature range from  50 to 70 degrees. That range is pretty easy to come by in Western Washington.  I usually make sauerkraut in September so that temperature range is pretty much what we get for most of the month.  In warmer climates, it might be wise to make the sauerkraut in the basement.  How long the process takes is a function of the temperature.  The cabbage becomes sauerkraut quicker in the warmer portion of the range and slower in the cooler portion.

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