In my mostly German family, sauerkraut was the meal, not a side dish. Served with pork, for flavoring, some type of sausage, and mounds of mashed potatoes, it was a feast most of the family eagerly looked forward to while it roasted slowly in the oven most of the day.
My mother, who had a dash of Welsh diluting her heavily German blood, would prepare the food, but not partake. She would sit at her end of the dinner table with two boiled eggs in front of her and a pained expression on her face. For days after she would grouse about the smell, and the fact that no matter when in the year you made the dish, it seemed to revive more than a few flies, which then buzzed around the house lethargically. In my household, sauerkraut was not served during warm-weather months for just this reason.
Three years ago, I started dating a man with a strong German heritage. What else could he be, with a name like Vogelsberger? His mother, Freda, a cooking dynamo who raised five sons, still made her own kraut. Since I never have lost my love for the dish, I wondered, would it really be worth the trouble to make?
So two years ago she and I embarked on our first combined effort. And the results were astounding and well worth the time and trouble. Homemade 'kraut outshines store-bought so dramatically-- it's crunchier and less salty -- that sauerkraut-making is permanently on the fall schedule. Cabbage is widely available at farmers markets now, making it the perfect time to try it yourself. The process is quite simple: Mix up some shredded cabbage, canning (non-iodized) salt and time, and you've got a mess of kraut on your hands.
A few weekends ago, Mrs. Vogelsberger, my niece Dana Tabay of New Brighton, and I gathered in my kitchen with 150 pounds of cabbage and began work on this season's batch.
It's impossible to make sauerkraut without making a mess, so don't even try. It's easy enough that kids can help, and once the initial work is done, you let the crock sit, and the contents ferment for about six weeks, with occasional monitoring (more about that later).
To get started, you'll need cabbage, and, of course, a way to shred it. We use a large meat slicer set to the finest cut to expedite the shredding (150 pounds equals lots of slicing). I also have used an old-fashioned cabbage slicer. If you are not planning to make a large amount, a food processor will work fine.
I make my sauerkraut in two heavy crocks, a 5-gallon and a 10-gallon. You will need about 50 pounds of cabbage to fill a 5-gallon crock.
Finding crocks locally can be difficult, but they can be ordered from acehardware.com and delivered, free of charge, to a local Ace Hardware; rural farm-and-feed stores often carry them, too. I have seen recipes that call for a food-grade plastic bucket for the fermentation process, but I don't recommend it. While I have not done it, fellow kraut-makers Patty and John Fitzurka of Robinson report that they did make a batch in plastic and were not pleased with the results, because they found the consistency of the finished product to be slimy and un-appetizing.
The crocks we scrubbed, rinsed and set in the corner of my kitchen. I do recommend that you fill the crocks where you plan to let them sit and ferment, as they are quite heavy to move once full.
Here's the rest of the process:
• Weigh and shred the cabbage in 5-pound increments. Place the shredded cabbage in a non-reactive bowl (plastic, porcelain, glass or stainless steel, not aluminum), and hand mix with 3 tablespoons of canning salt. Toss the cabbage well, then turn into the crock, and tamp down as firmly as you can with a potato masher (kids would love doing this). Continue adding to the crock in 5-pound batches. (Note: It is not critical that each layer is exactly 5 pounds of shredded cabbage, just so the measurements are in the ballpark; the same with the salt.) When the crock is a little more than three-quarters full, I stop.
• Place a large, clean ceramic plate or platter over the kraut in the crock (find one that will cover as much of the shredded cabbage as possible), weigh it down and cover the crock overnight. (For a weight, I use a brick that has been run through the dishwasher, wrapped in plastic film, placed in a freezer bag and sealed. Some people use freezer bags filled with brine, others use a gallon jug filled with water.) The purpose of the weight and platter is to keep the kraut underneath the brine that will form, once the salt begins to work on the cabbage, causing it to release its liquid.
• Check the cabbage the next day. It is impossible to tell how much brine will be released by the cabbage -- I have had too much brine released, and the crock ran over (quite a mess), and this year, not enough brine, requiring more brine. So this step is essential. You want enough brine in the crock to keep the cabbage completely submerged. If you need to add brine, mix together water and canning salt, about 1 quart water to 1 tablespoon of canning salt, and pour it over the cabbage until you have about 1 to 2 inches of brine covering the cabbage.
• At this point, I fill food-grade, quart-size freezer bags with salt water, seal them and add that weight to the top of the plate, pressing the bags around the edges of the crock. I then seal the entire crock with stay-tight plastic film.
• Now it's a waiting game. The crocks stay in my kitchen, which remains at about 72 degrees. At that temperature, you can expect to have a fully fermented batch of kraut in about six weeks. If you place the kraut in a cooler place, such as a basement, it will take longer to ferment. The kraut should be kept indoors, NOT in your garage or unheated areas of your home.
Periodically I check the cabbage. If scum forms on top of the brine, skim it off, wash the plate in hot soapy water, rinse, then replace, re-weight, and cover the kraut. Scum is a normal occurrence; sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't. As long as you keep the cabbage submerged under the brine at all times, the kraut will be fine. If you need to add brine any time during this period, go ahead.
Sauerkraut will have an odor while it is fermenting, which I don't find displeasing, but if you don't want to smell it, then it is a good idea to place the crock in an out-of-the-way place, such as a heated basement or laundry room.
I usually can tell when the kraut is finished by looking, but you also can taste it. Raw kraut is delicious. It's done when you think it is, you can tell because it starts looking like sauerkraut. The finished sauerkraut can be canned or frozen. I have done it both ways, but I prefer canning it in quart-sized jars, using the raw pack method outlined in the "Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving."
This sure isn't rocket science, but as many of our ancestors knew, sauerkraut is both a delicious and healthy food. Add to that that it's quite cheap to make, and uses locally grown produce, and you've got a winner all the way around.
Don't be afraid: This might be the year to give it a try.
Freda's Sauerkraut in a Slow Cooker
In this "recipe," ingredient amounts are up to the individual cook. Just make sure you layer the potatoes and sausage on the bottom, where they will cook better.
Peel and quarter enough potatoes to cover the bottom of a crock pot.
Layer kielbasa over the potatoes.
Dump sauerkraut and juice over the potatoes and kielbasa, making sure they cover the meat and potatoes. Slice a small onion and place it on top of kraut, then sprinkle with a little bit of brown sugar.
Cover and cook on high for 4 hours, or on low all day.
Note: To make the slow cooker cook faster, put a sheet of aluminum foil over it and under the lid, then replace the lid.
-- Freda Vogelsberger
Susan Banks: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1516. First Published October 6, 2011 4:00 AM