When years ago my young Moldovan friend Cristina asked me if I’d ever fermented whole cabbages, I just looked at her dubiously. I’d never even heard of fermented whole cabbages. Could salt really penetrate through an intact cabbage before rot set in? I wondered if Moldovans simply tucked little second-crop cabbages into crocks of shredded cabbage while making sauerkraut. But I’d never heard of that practice, either.
So when my daughter sent me pictures of big fermented whole cabbages in a Moldovan market, I had to figure out how to make such things. I found an article that two Cornell researchers had published in 1961 with the help of their Yugoslav exchange student, Gordana Niketic. As Gordana had apparently explained to her mentors, “In Yugoslavia, particularly in the republic of Serbia, whole heads of white or red cabbage are packed in salt brine. Although sometimes the cabbage cores are scored crosswise before packing the heads in brine, more often the heads are packed with no alteration of the cores.” Just as in Moldovan, the fermented cabbage leaves were used to make meat-and-rice filled rolls, or sarma, an originally Turkish word for food wrapped in leaves; the Moldovan term is sarmale or galush. Yugoslavs also baked slices or chunks of the cabbage with turkey, goose, or pork and served the cabbage cold as a salad. After fermenting whole red cabbages, they would drink the pretty pink brine as an appetizer.
Since methods of fermenting whole cabbages varied from one Yugoslav household to another, Gordana and the Cornell researchers decided to experiment. The first year they packed whole cored cabbages tightly into barrels and added brine at three different strengths. The second year, they packed a barrel the same way, at the highest brine strength from the year before, but with uncored cabbages. The third year they packed a barrel as I’d imagined, by mixing dry-salted shredded cabbage with whole small cabbages placed among the shreds.
The best whole-cabbage kraut from the first year, the three concluded, was made with the strongest brine, 3.5 percent, “calculated from the combined weight of brine and cabbage.”* Whereas the least salty cabbages were soft throughout, and the medium-salty cabbages were soft at the core, the saltiest cabbages “showed only slightly soft cores and their leaves were firm and flavorful,” with “an enjoyable blend of taste and mellowness.” When the leaves were used for sarma, their taste perfectly complemented the meat filling.
Far superior than even the saltiest version from the first year, at least in the judgment of “a former native of Yugoslavia” (Gordana? Someone else?), was the whole-cabbage kraut made in the second year, from uncored cabbage. So, coring turned out to be unnecessary and possibly also detrimental to flavor. The researchers concluded that the best whole-cabbage kraut was made from uncored cabbages pickled at a brine strength of 3.0 to 3.5 percent—calculated, again, as the weight of the salt to the weight of cabbage and brine.
The third-year kraut, made from small whole cabbages packed with shredded cabbage and dry salt, proved a disappointment. The quicker fermentation that resulted made this kraut more pungent and sour—like ordinary dry-salted, shredded sauerkraut, I suppose.
I began my own whole-cabbage pickling experiment late last fall. Because most of my fall cabbages had been damaged by freezing weather, I used the second growth from spring cabbage plants, seven very small heads harvested before the weather turned very cold. I sliced each stem at the base of the head, leaving the core intact, and half-filled a 10-liter crock with the cabbages. I added 10 tablespoons pickling salt dissolved in 5 quarts water, to make an approximately 3.5-percent brine, calculated—because I’d read the Cornell study too carelessly—in the way that’s familiar to me, as the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine. In other words, my brine was weak, perhaps half the strength recommended by the Cornell team. I weighted the cabbages, and, a week or so later, I skimmed the brine once. The small amount of yeast growth didn’t continue.
A little more than two months after immersing the cabbages in their brine, I took them all out and examined them. Some of them showed a little softening around the edge of the core, and the largest one, 4½ inches across, had softened at the center of the leaves as well. If I’d used bigger cabbages, they might have rotted. Perhaps I could have prevented the softening by ending the fermentation sooner. But I simply cut away the soft parts, and all that remained tasted sweet, mellow, and very mildly tart and salty—really much nicer than typical shredded sauerkraut.
Last night one of the fermented cabbages made an excellent dinner salad, sliced and mixed with toasted walnuts, black pepper, and unrefined sunflower oil. No vinegar was called for; the cabbage was already tart. Walnut oil or roasted hazelnut oil might be nice in place of sunflower oil, Robert suggest, and maybe next time we’ll add some smoked meat.
The rest of the cabbages are resting in their brine in a gallon jar in the refrigerator. My next challenge will be to make some of them into sarma, or sarmale. Or maybe I should say golabki (in Polish), golubtsy (in Russian), malfoof (in Arabic), kohlrouladen or krautwickel (in German), or töltött káposzta (in Hungarian). There are a lot of other names, too, because cabbage rolls—made from fermented, briefly brined, or simply blanched cabbage—are eaten throughout much of the world. Every region has favorite ingredients, and every cook seems to have a unique recipe. I guess it’s time for me to develop my own.
*In other words, 3.5 percent was the strength not of the initial brine but of the finished pickle. Because the amount of brine needed to cover whole cabbages can vary greatly, depending on the relation between the size of the cabbages and the breadth of the barrel, the researchers controlled the salt content with a much more accurate measurement than that of initial brine strength (the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine). To do as they did, put the cabbages into the container, weighing each and noting the weight, in metric if you have a digital scale. Cover the cabbages with water, measuring the water in liters as you add it and noting the volume. Then calculate how much the water weighs: Every liter weighs a kilogram. Add the weight of the water and cabbage, in kilograms. To determine how much salt to use, use the following formula:
Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x x/100-x, where x is the desired brine strength. So, for a brine strength of 3.5 percent, your formula becomes
Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x 3.5/96.5
Remove enough of the water from your container to dissolve the salt in, and pour this brine back over the cabbages.
If this calculation seems too much bother, I suggest simply fermenting your cabbages in a strong brine—say, about 1 cup fine salt per 1 gallon water. You’ll need at least half as much brine, by volume, as the volume of the cabbages. For example, if your cabbages rise three-quarters of the way up a 4-gallon crock—to the 3-gallon level—you’ll need at least 1½ gallons brine. Mix up more brine as needed so that the cabbages are well immersed.