This post was originally published on September 17, 2013. I’m re-posting it todayfor those that attended my session at Eat Alberta 2017.
Kraut is German for “herb”. It was also a derogatory term for Germans during the Second World War. Sauerkraut means “sour herb”, or possibly “German curmudgeon”. Why this preparation would be called sour herb I have no idea.
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 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.
35 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- After three weeks, starting tasting periodically. The sauerkraut is done when it has a sharp-but-manageable acidity.
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. 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.