Here in Vermont, the autumn foliage is more spectacular by the day and the season's first wood fires scent the air. This is traditionally the best time for starting sauerkraut, as the garden cabbage is sweet and the cool temperatures are just right for fermentation.
Many know sauerkraut as the malodorous stuff that comes from a can, although more grocery stores stock "fresh" refrigerated kraut in plastic bags these days. Unfortunately, even refrigerated kraut is often pasteurized, meaning it has been heated to kill any microorganisms present, including beneficial ones. This defeats much of the point of sauerkraut, as it's the live bacteria that converts ordinary cabbage into a nutritional powerhouse while improving intestinal health.
Sauerkraut is formed when lactobacillus bacteria, naturally present on cabbage leaves, converts sugars to acids as the cabbage ferments. The process of fermentation not only increases bioavailability of nutrients in the cabbage but actually creates B-vitamins that weren't there to begin with. Add this to cabbage's high vitamin C, phytochemical and fiber content and you'll understand the nutritional allure of "live" kraut. Its only downside is its sodium content, which does make it off limits for some. However, as long as you're not on a salt-restricted diet the benefits are significant. As for the flavor, you'll find homemade kraut is satisfyingly fresh, tangy and crunchy, quite unlike the canned version. And it's simple to make.
I invested in a Harsch Gartopt fermenting crock (http://store.therawdiet.com/haeafecr.html) because I liked the design of its water seal and the fact that it comes with weights and a lid.
Water in a trough around the lid allows carbon dioxide to escape but blocks outside contaminants from coming in. One caveat: the last time I made kraut, I was shocked at how quickly the water evaporated - I would fill it one day and find the trough dry the next. I couldn't figure it out until today, when I was composing shots of the crock and who should enter the viewfinder but Buzz the cat.
Mystery solved. (If you look closely, you'll see his little tongue lapping away.)
For those of you who don't have a Gartopf, regular crocks or food-grade plastic buckets are also commonly used and less costly.
Basic sauerkraut consists of 2 ingredients: cabbage and salt. Proper proportions are: 3 tablespoons salt per 5 pounds cabbage, or slightly less than 2 teaspoons per pound. Canning or sea salt is recommended.
First, you'll need to wash, core and finely shred the cabbage. I used a mandoline for this task but a sharp knife works too. I haven't tried a food processor.
Shred up to 5 pounds of cabbage at a time and place in a crock or food-grade bucket. Sprinkle with salt and toss to distribute evenly. Allow cabbage to sit while you shred the next 5 lbs. By then you should see juices released from the cabbage in the crock. Tamp this cabbage down with a potato masher or the flat end of handle-free rolling pin until it's as firmly packed as possible. Repeat this process with the rest of the cabbage. By now there should be a good amount of brine forming, but if not, don't worry. Check again in 24 hours and if the cabbage is not well submersed, you can add salt water (1 teaspoon salt per cup water) until it is.
Once all the cabbage is evenly packed it must be weighed down to keep it submersed in its brine. The Gartopf comes with its own weights; otherwise, fill a large food-grade plastic bag with salt water (1 teaspoon salt per cup - the salt is added in case there's a leak) and set it on top of the cabbage, covering it as completely as possible. Place the top on the Gartopf or cover an open crock with a towel. Place in a cool area, no colder than 60 degrees.
Check the kraut every 2 days to ensure there is still adequate brine and to skim any scum that may have formed. If using a Gartopf, check the water level in the trough. Once fermentation begins you should see bubbles rising to the surface and you may begin to smell the cabbage. Begin tasting after 2 weeks; it may take 6 weeks or longer depending on room temperature and taste preference. Once the kraut is to your liking, pack it in mason jars in its brine and keep it in the refrigerator. It should last at least a couple of months this way.
My crock will live on my bottom floor. I'll post updates as the wondrous alchemy progresses!