Fermenting and Storing Kraut in Small Jars, without Pasteurization or Refrigeration

cabbage-heads-2-croppedI’ve more than once seen Extension home-ec agents roll their eyes when asked if it’s possible to store sauerkraut in the same jar in which it has fermented, with no heating or chilling. Where do such ideas come from? the agents ask.

From Extension’s mother agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of course! Randal Oulton recently sent me a 1936 USDA press release, intended for radio broadcast, about how USDA researchers had made and stored sauerrüben—fermented shredded turnip—in just this way:

Shredded [and salted] turnips were packed in 2-quart glass jars, which held approximately 4 pounds of turnips each when packed firmly. Because of the pressure produced by the gas released during the initial fermentation, the lids of the jars had to be left loose. By this means the gas was allowed to escape, yet at the same time a sufficient concentration of carbon dioxide to prevent aerobic spoilage was maintained over the fermenting material. As the evolution of the gas lifted considerable quantities of the juice to the top of the jar, causing it to overflow, the jars were placed in enameled pans until the period of gas formation was over. Once each 24 hours the lids were removed, the shreds were pushed down into the jars by means of a wooden spoon or blunt wooden stick, the lost juice was returned to the jars, and the lids were replaced.

I wonder if the researchers strained out the fruit flies before returning the juice to the jars. Anyway, the report continues:

As soon as the gas ceased to be given off, which required about 4 days, the jars were sealed tight and stored at room temperature. The fermentation was generally completed in 12 to 14 days, and the product was then ready for use. The product put up in this manner has been kept for 3 years and is still in excellent condition, although heat has not been applied.

Presumably the jars were stored in a cool place such as a cellar and not in a really cold place like a refrigerator. We aren’t told what kind of lids the researchers used and whether the lids formed a vacuum seal. In any case, the method worked, and the writer suggests trying it with 1-quart as well as 2-quart jars. The article makes no mention of exploding jars, which the home-ec agents always warn about.

I would certainly prefer to try this method over another recommended in the same piece: After fermenting the shredded turnip in open stone jars, you cover the surface with mineral oil.

Have you tried making and storing sauerkraut or sauerrüben in small jars without heating or chilling? How well did your method work? I’d love to hear your stories.

USDA Approves Steam Canners

Many home preservers love steam canners (such as the Victorio), because they use less water and less energy and take less time to preheat than boiling-water canners. For at least two decades, however, the USDA and its Extension employees have warned that steam canners may be dangerous. This has kept a lot of people from buying steam canners and has made the people who swear by the devices at least a tad nervous.

A 2003 position paper published by Oregon State University detailed the concerns: Cold spots might occur between the jars or under the dome; steam might lift the lid of the canner, which would allow cold air to enter; jars might break or heat unevenly; the user might mistake cool vapor for steam and so might underprocess the jars; the user might be burned by steam.

The fears of breaking jars and uneven heating always seemed bogus to me. The supposed problem was that the jars weren’t separated by a rack. Racks that come in boiling-water canners are usually divided into sections, one per jar, but many people do their boiling-water processing with unsectioned cake racks or pressure-canner racks or even with towels instead of racks. Most home preservers know better than to jam their jars tightly together in a canner.

I’ve never used a steam canner myself, but I’m pretty sure that the vent holes in the side must keep the lid from lifting off like an umbrella in the wind.

Steam burns seem like a true risk with steam canners, but you get a faceful of steam if you’re careless in opening a boiling-water canner, too.

Now Dr. Barbara Ingham, of the University Wisconsin-Madison, has actually done some research on steam canners, and she has found they work pretty well. She has convinced the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the USDA division that oversees home canning, to approve the use of steam canners.

Dr. Ingham, however, identified one important limitation of steam canners: They hold too little water to allow for processing times of more than 45 minutes. This presents no problem for pickles and jams, but the USDA recommends processing tomatoes for long periods, from 35 to 85 minutes (or even longer at high altitudes), depending on how the tomatoes are prepared. You could use a steam canner for tomato sauce or juice, but a boiling-water canner or even a pressure canner is probably a better choice. If the boiling is too vigorous in a steam canner, Dr. Ingham found, the pan can boil dry in twenty minutes.

Dr. Ingham suggests some guidelines to follow with steam canners:

  • Use USDA recipes; don’t rely on the instructions that come with the canner.
  • Fill the jars with hot liquid, and put them into the canner while they are still hot.
  • Make sure that a 6- to 8-inch jet of steam streams from the vent holes throughout the processing period.
  • If possible, check the temperature of the steam—it should measure 212 degrees F—by inserting a thermometer through a vent hole. (Actually, if you live above sea level the temperature will be somewhat lower.)
  • If you’re canning at an altitude of 1,000 feet or higher, you should process your jars longer, just as you would in a boiling-water bath.
  • Let the jars cool at room temperature, as usual.

According to Jeanne Brandt, Family and Community Health director for Oregon State University Extension, OSU still doesn’t like steam canners. But I think I might give one a try.