Sauerkraut

This post was originally published on September 17, 2013.  I’m re-posting it todayfor those that attended my session at Eat Alberta 2017.

 

Shredding cabbage to make sauerkrautKraut is German for cabbage.  It was also a derogatory term for Germans during the Second World War.  Sauerkraut means sour cabbage, or possibly a German curmudgeon.  Ukrainian, Russian and several other eastern European languages use the word kapusta to refer to fresh cabbage, cured cabbage, and various dishes made with one or both of those.

Sauerkraut is a miracle preparation.  Cabbage and salt.  That’s it.  Somehow liquid appears from thin air and submerges the cabbage.  Over a few weeks, though neither cabbage nor salt are acidic, the mixture develops a piquant tanginess.

I had never eaten sauerkraut before moving to Alberta when I was a teenager, unless maybe once I accidentally got it on a hot dog at a baseball park.  In Edmonton there seems to be a house every couple of blocks that has a big crock of sauerkraut in the basement.  I first learned the process from Yolande at Tipi Creek.

While I’ve made sauerkraut a few times over the past couple years, this was the first year that I went all in and filled a 10 gallon crock.  The ever-resourceful Judy had found us an old Medalta[1] crock, as well as a wooden cabbage shredder, pictured above.  The latter is basically a mandolin with three sets of serrated blades that make quick work of a trimmed, quartered cabbage.  The last piece of the puzzle fell into place on a balmy Saturday morning when I saw that August Organics was selling 50 lb bags of cabbage for $25.

The freshly sliced cabbage, about to be mixed with salt35 lbs of shredded cabbage had the crock brimming, though the volume falls by more than half once the salt is worked in.

The specifics of the preparation are discussed below.

Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 100% cabbage, thinly sliced, roughly 1/16″ wide and  2″ long
  • 1.89% kosher salt
  • optional: spice, usually either caraway or juniper, to taste

The percentages above are equivalent to 18.5 g of salt per kilo of cabbage, or roughly 3 tbsp of kosher salt for every 5 lbs of cabbage.

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bucket or crock.  Let stand for one hour, then mix vigorously until liquid is pooling on the bottom of the container.  (Letting the mixture stand for an hour makes the mixing and liquid extraction easier; you can proceed directly to the mixing, but you’ll have to work harder to get the liquid from the cabbage.)
  2. Once there is enough liquid, use a plate that is slightly smaller in diameter than the bucket to cover the cabbage.  Weigh the plate down (a smaller bucket filled with water works well) until the cabbage is submerged in liquid.  Cover the entire operation in a kitchen towel and secure with an elastic band.  Store at a cool room temperature, maybe 18-20°C.  Most basements are this temperature.
  3. A white scum will slowly form on the surface of the liquid.  For the first week or two, skim the surface every day.  Afterwards, skim whenever you remember that you have a crock of sauerkraut curing in your basement.
  4. After three weeks, starting tasting periodically.  The sauerkraut is done when it has a sharp-but-manageable acidity.

A jar of sauerkraut

 

1. Medalta, short for Medicine Hat Alberta, was once a large ceramics factory in that town.  They produced plain but distinctive pottery that can still be seen in kitchens and flea markets across the province.  One advantage of setting up such a factory in Medicine Hat was the large oil and gas reserves that could cheaply fire the kilns.  In fact it has been said that Medicine Hat has all hell for a basement.[2]  The site of the old factory is now a historic district housing modern ceramics studios and a museum.

2. Most know this phrase from the Big Sugar song All Hell for a Basement.  When that song was first played on the radio, my cousins in Ontario started asking if we had basements out in Alberta or what the deal was.  The song is actually the ballad of an itinerant worker moving to Alberta to find work.  Big Sugar is quoting Rudyard Kipling, who when touring southern Alberta, wrote, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”

The Big Sugar line is: I have lost my way / But I hear tell / Of a heaven in Alberta / Where they’ve got all hell for a basement.

Great lyrics…

Braised Cabbage

Rendering lardonsBraised cabbage is wholly satisfying: warm and hearty and comforting in a way that vegetables usually only achieve in soup form.  I guess it doesn’t hurt that there’s lots of pork fat in it, but the flavour of the cabbage is the star.

With slaw and sauerkraut, braised cabbage forms what I call the trinity of cabbage preparations.  It is a cherished dish at Thanksgiving, and any wintry night.

Cook some type of fatty pork – bacon, loose sausage, and jowl all fit the bill – until it is golden brown and has rendered some golden fat into the pot.

Cook sliced onions and garlic in the pork fat until starting to turn translucent.  Add the cabbage and cook briefly, until it is just starting to wilt.  Add apple cider and vinegar.  Or wine.  The acidity is important for the flavour of the finished dish, and if you are using red cabbage, it is essential to preserve the vibrant purple of the dish.

Bring the liquid to a boil, lower to a simmer, then cover the pot.  Traditionally this dish is cooked until the cabbage is very soft.  I prefer braised cabbage with some bite.  Ten or fifteen minutes should do the trick.

Once the cabbage is approaching its desired tenderness, remove the lid from the pot and crank the heat to reduce the cooking liquid.  This will concentrate the flavours and make the dish less soupy and easier to serve and eat.

A pot of braising cabbage

 

Braised Cabbage

The last time I made braised cabbage I weighed out my ingredients to give you an idea of the proportions.

  • 500 g bacon cut into thick lardons, or an equal measure of some manner of fatty pork
  • 400 g white onion, sliced
  • 30 g garlic, minced
  • 1100 g cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strips 2-3″ long
  • 440 g dry cider
  • 60 g cider vinegar
  • salt

Slaw

Coleslaw with honey mustard dressing and caraway.Recently I was shocked to discover that many people have bad childhood memories of “creamy” coleslaw.  I was raised on chopped cabbage in mayonnaise, a creamy slaw that we called cabbage salad.  Many detest this side dish so much that they have given up slaw all together.

I’d like to vouch for a different style of coleslaw, one that has more in common with the German Krautsalat than the classic mayo-bound North American slaw.

The main difference is that it’s dressed in a vinaigrette, instead of mayonnaise or buttermilk.  But before we discuss dressing, there’s a very important technique to consider.

Lightly Curing Cabbage for Slaw

There are very few vegetables that I truly enjoy raw.  Good carrots, radishes, and snap peas are the only ones that come to mind right now.  I think every other vegetable is better once it has been roasted or blanched or pickled or at the very least lightly cured, as described here.

Once I have sliced my cabbage into thin strips 2 to 3″ long, I toss those strips with 1% of their weight in salt, and 1% of their weight in sugar.  In other words, for each kilo of sliced cabbage, add 10 g each of salt and sugar.  Mix thoroughly and let the cabbage stand at room temperature for about an hour.  The transformation that takes place is subtle, but important.

Raw sliced cabbage is a bit stiff: it tends to stand up, and sometimes it reminds me of straw in my mouth.

During this light curing process, the cabbage starts to leach a bit of liquid.  Not so much that it becomes desiccated; just enough to get the juices flowing.  It takes on a faint luster, a brighter green hue, and the ribbons of cabbage become ever-so-slightly limp.  And of course the cabbage takes on salt and sugar, enhancing the natural flavour of the vegetable.  The strips still have the crunch and mustardy bite of raw cabbage, but they are far more appetizing.

For Krautsalat the Germans and Austrians take this process a bit further, letting the cabbage sit for several hours, then aggressively pressing it to remove excess moisture.

The Dressing

Mustard and cabbage are friends.  They’re both brassicas, and they share a lot of the same flavour characteristics.  Apples and cabbage are also friends, though the reasons for this are much more mysterious to me.  The two main flavours of my slaw dressing are therefore mustard and apple cider vinegar.  I sweeten it with honey, and whisk it with canola oil.  If you want to add another level of flavour, try adding caraway, celery seed, and mustard seed.  My preferred slaw dressing is detailed in this post on vinaigrettes.

Uses

Slaw is an essential component of any barbecue, especially true barbecue like pulled pork.  It’s also a good accompaniment to ham, or fried meat, like schnitzel.  And it’s useful as a dish for picnics.

Allan’s Default Slaw

Ingredients

  • 1 kg raw cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strips about 2″ long
  • 10 g kosher salt
  • 10 g granulated sugar
  • 1 cup of the honey mustard dressing described in this post

Procedure

  1. Toss the cabbage, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and let stand until the cabbage has released some moisture and become slightly limp, 1 to 2 hours.
  2. Lightly press the cabbage and strain out the liquid that has settled at the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Toss the lightly cured cabbage with the dressing.

 

General Slaw Method

The procedure above can be used to make a number of different slaws and salads.  Carrot, for instance, or cucumber.  Lightly cure carrots in the manner described above, then dress them in tangy yogurt and mint leaves.

 

Lacto-Fermented Pickles

Cucumbers

Naturally fermented dill picklesI come from a land of “refrigerator pickles”: cucumbers steeped in syrupy vinegar and spices, and stored in the fridge through the fall. There is another type of pickle called a lacto-fermented pickle.  The idea of producing an acidic pickle with only brine was a revelation.

The procedure couldn’t be simpler. Make a brine of one cup salt in one gallon of water. Cover your chosen vegetables in the chilled brine (most vegetables want to float, so you’ll have to find a way to keep them submerged) and leave for a week at a cool room temperature. This is the only tricky part: the solution must stay below 23°C to prevent the proliferation of harmful bacteria. I don’t have any air-conditioning, so I wait for weeks like this, when it barely reaches 20°C outside, and then crack open the window in my “cold storage room” (also my office, where I am typing this post).

The familiar Lactobacillus bacteria consume something (lactose?) in the vegetables and create lactic acid. Lactobacillus can survive in the saline solution, while most undesirable bacteria can’t.

Once the vegetables have reached the desired balance of salty and sour, they are removed from the brine and placed in a new container. The brine is boiled to kill off any pathogens, then chilled and poured back over the vegetables. The pickles will keep indefinitely in your fridge.

That is my only misgiving about this preservation technique: the pickles are not properly canned, and so they tie up fridge space. The bulk of my cucumbers are cooked into syrupy relish, properly canned, and kept in the pantry. It’s worth saving a few vegetables for this natural pickling process. The taste is exquisite: delicate acidity and a high crunch-factor.

Cabbage

Naturally fermented sauerkrautWe’re starting to get 5lb heads of cabbage from Tipi Creek. While I have a gargantuan appetite for braised cabbage at this time year (apples come into season, I smoke pork, maybe there’s some kohlrabi kicking around…) there’s still plenty left over to make sauerkraut by the traditional brining method. This year I tried canning my sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is often cooked before eating anyways, so I figured it will hold up to the canning process nicely.

There’s still a nagging voice in the back of my mind, a voice insisting that canning without a recipe is dangerous.

I need a book that liberates me, the home-canner, from recipes. A book that says: “This is the pH, salinity, or sugar content required to safely jar food. This is how to measure the pH of your pickles. This is the approximate pH of common household pantry items. This is how to calculate the pH of your pickling solution.” That way, instead of working from a recipe, I could start with a set of ingredients or cured products like sauerkraut and salt pork and test and adjust them to make sure they’re safe to can.

Even though I didn’t have a recipe for the canned sauerkraut, there are plenty of forums and Youtube videos from the northern US that detail the jarring of traditional home-cured sauerkraut. All the folks in these videos have friendly, trustworthy faces, so I gave it a go.