I’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.
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.
At the Good Food Awards blind tastings on September 15, my favorite sauerkraut was flecked with bits of green seaweed, whose tangy flavor and as well as strong color complemented the pale, sour cabbage.* So when I made my last batch of kohlrabi kraut this fall, I decided to incorporate sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis, sent to me by a friend in California. The small, mild-flavored species of kelp, which stands erect in ever-pounding surf with its palm-like fronds exposed to the air, grows on rocky shores from Vancouver Island to south-central California. Its harvest is illegal, however, in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, and even in California some fear the species may be threatened. My friend swore, however, that her sea palm was harvested sustainably, and I was happy for the opportunity to experiment with it.
I used just an ounce of dried sea palm for 10 pounds of kohlrabi, and I cut the long seaweed fronds into short lengths with scissors before mixing them with the kohlrabi. Next time I’ll cut much shorter pieces, because the dried seaweed swells immensely as the kraut ferments. But the moist, mild kraut looks and tastes lovely with the chewy, minerally green bits. Here’s the recipe:
Kohlrabi Kraut with Sea Palm
Peel the kohlrabi with a sturdy knife, and cut any woody parts out of the flesh.
10 pounds peeled and coarsely grated kohlrabi 6 tablespoons pickling salt 1 ounce dried sea palm fronds, cut into short pieces
Thoroughly mix 5 pounds of the kohlrabi with 3 tablespoons of the salt and half of the sea palm pieces, and pack the mixture into a crock or other suitable container with a volume of at least 1.5 gallons. Mix the remaining ingredients in the same way, and pack this batch on top of the first. Weight the mixture, cover the container, and let the kohlrabi ferment at room temperature for two weeks or longer, until the kraut is as sour as you like.
Have you tried seaweed in your sauerkraut? I’d love to know what kinds you have used and how you liked the results.
I have a longstanding horror of the all-white meal—the epitome of domestic artistry in the late nineteenth century, when American housewives drowned meat and vegetables in white sauce and favored angel cake and whipped cream for dessert. When I find myself serving up white fish and new potatoes on the same plate, or bowls of parsnip soup with white bread on the side, I bolt, frantic, for the parsley patch. White sauce is so foreign to my food culture that I had to watch studiously as our French houseguest, Raphaël, whipped up some béchamel for mushroom crêpes the other day. I really should know how to do that, I thought. But I was relieved when all the sauce got rolled inside the crêpes, which on the outside remained brilliant yellow from the healthy yolks of homegrown chickens.
Victorian cooks played with other monotone color schemes, including pink—from strawberries, lobster, and tomatoes, for example. The idea of an all-pink meal struck me as more amusing than scary as I tossed kraut made from grated kohlrabi, pinkened with red shiso, to even out the color. For lunch, I could heat up some of the kraut with sautéed pink shallots and pieces of home-brined, home-smoked picnic ham (grass fed, from Heritage Farms. And we could somehow incorporate the heap of pink oyster mushrooms that Raphaël had brought home from the Mushroomery.
As the Mushroomery’s apprentice, Alex, had warned us, pink oysters are more a delight to the eye than to the palate. With heating, we found out, they turn out salmon orange and rather tough, so I’m glad we cooked them separately from the kohlrabi and ham. But the gently heated kraut kept its lovely pink color, which contrasted prettily with the intense pink of the smoked meat. I only regretted that we had no red-fleshed apples this year; I could only imagine the sweet, tender pink slices of fruit nestled in the tart kraut.
My kohlrabi kraut, by the way, turned out exceptionally moist and tender. And topping the fermentation jar with wilted shiso apparently worked not only to provide a comely color but to prevent the growth of yeast or mold. Next time I’ll use more shiso; I’ll put some at the bottom of the jar and more in the middle, for a stronger pink that’s even throughout. Actually, I still have plenty of shiso and kohlrabi to harvest from the bed where I need to plant garlic soon, so I think I’ll start a big pot of pink kohlrabi kraut today.
Sauerkraut is traditionally made in autumn, when cabbages grow big, white, and sweet in the chilly air. The cold weather helps them develop a high water and sugar content, which in turn helps the cabbages to ferment well. But you can make kraut from early cabbage—that is, cabbage you’ve harvested in mid-summer. I did so recently, when I found my refrigerator drawers overstuffed with the little red and green cabbages I’d brought in from the garden. This was the perfect opportunity, I figured, to try out the airlock mason-jar cap that Richard Washburn of New Eden Farm had kindly sent me.
Devices like Richard’s have become popular among fermentation faddists, folks who will try fermenting just about anything, in small amounts. Many of these new breed of picklers are using little salt—so little that their pickles are prone to spoilage. Some people compensate for this by adding whey to boost the acidity of the brine or by using an airlock to keep out yeast and mold.
Richard makes his device with a standard little plastic airlock, available from home winemaking suppliers for a dollar or two. When the airlock is partially filled with water and inserted in an opening of a sealed container full of fermenting liquid or vegetables, the carbon dioxide produced by the fermentative microbes is released through the water, thus preventing the container from building up so much pressure that it explodes. By keeping air from entering the container, the airlock also serves as a barrier to airborne yeasts and molds that might otherwise contaminate the ferment. This is the same way that a crock with a water trough works.
Richard attaches the airlock to a plastic wide-mouth Ball storage cap with a silicone grommet. The cap fits both a wide-mouth quart jar and a wide-mouth two-quart jar.
One of my 1¼-pound cabbages, grated, would easily fit in a quart jar. I could even add some carrot or apple or both, as Russians often do to boost the sugar content of early cabbage. Since none of my apples were ripe yet, I chose carrots. I cut the cabbage quickly on my inexpensive little Kyocera mandoline, whose secret is its ever-sharp ceramic blade. I grated the carrots on an ordinary box grater.
Because the word sauerkraut usually applies to long-fermented cabbage, and because I intended to ferment my cabbage for only a few days, I will call it—
Russian Pickled Cabbage, by the Quart
1¼ pounds grated cabbage (about 1 small) and grated carrot (about 2) 2 teaspoons pickling salt 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds Mix the cabbage, salt, and caraway. Pack the mixture firmly into a quart jar, and weight the mixture. If it isn’t covered well by brine within a day, stir ½ teaspoon salt into ½ cup water, and add enough of this brine to cover the cabbage well. Let the cabbage ferment at room temperature for 3 to 5 days, and then serve it immediately or store it in the refrigerator.
Using an airlock doesn’t erase the need to weight the vegetables; they must stay under the surface of their brine. So I added a glass candle holder, and then a second, and a third. The third ended up pressing against the airlock cap. A freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine would have worked as well.
By the third day the sauerkraut was bubbly, and after four days it was lightly sour. There was no sign of yeast or mold in the jar, so I can attest that Richard’s airlock cap did not fail me. I replaced it with an unaltered plastic cap and stored the jar in the refrigerator.
Russians often serve pickled cabbage as a salad, dressed with a little sugar and unrefined sunflower oil. Adding sugar may sound strange, but the sweetness balances the sourness of the vegetables and the bitterness of the caraway (which you can of course leave out, if you prefer). Sunflower oil has a strong taste that takes getting used to, but it’s worth trying if you have a Russian market in your area. Otherwise, you can dress your salad with olive, walnut, or hazelnut oil. Or use your pickled cabbage in any way you might use long-fermented sauerkraut.
I’ve recently finished my first batch of sauerkraut in my handsome, chocolate-brown crock from Boleslawiec, Poland. Like the Harsch Gärtopf crock, the Polish crock has fitted weights and a trough in which the lid rests. If you keep water in the trough through the fermentation, no yeast or mold gets inside, so you don’t have to skim scum from the surface of the kraut.
Carbon dioxide produced during fermentation escapes through the water in the trough. You know this is happening by the occasional burp that the crock emits (it’s a puzzling sound to hear in the middle of the night at first, but you get used to it). You can tell how active the fermentation is by the frequency of the burps.
I was attracted to this crock partially because of the rotund shape of the 10-liter size (the 20-liter crock is straight-sided). But the roundness is a little impractical if you frequently fill the crock only about halfway. In this case the weights rest in the broadest part of the crock, where they don’t come close to covering the surface. I guess the Poles can’t imagine anyone making less than 15 pounds of kraut at a time.
Even if you fill the crock completely, you’ll want to cover your kraut with two or three uncut outer cabbage leaves before adding the weights. This will keep little bits of cabbage from floating.
When my friends Wendy and Greg handed me a gorgeous, huge red cabbage from their garden a couple of months ago, Greg told me he loves to make red-cabbage sauerkraut. The Pickle Lady was humbled; I’d never made or even tasted sauerkraut from red cabbages! Now I knew what I would do with my beautiful cabbage.
I decided to take as my model a low-salt red-cabbage sauerkraut recipe from an odd little Canadian cookbook, Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home. I cut the head fine, using a mandoline, and mixed the shredded cabbage with some apple and onion slices, a bay leaf, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. As always in making sauerkraut, I tossed the mixture with salt and packed it firmly into a crock. But several hours later the cabbage had released almost no juice. This was problematic; when you’re making sauerkraut, the cabbage must be well covered with liquid to keep from rotting. The Canadian authors, warning that red cabbage is “a very hard vegetable,” suggested pressing “thoroughly with a potato masher,” but this didn’t work for me. I could have added some brine from one of the big jars of fermented pickles in my garage refrigerator, following another suggestion from the Canadian authors, but then the sauerkraut would have tasted of dill and garlic. A final suggestion from the Canadians was to add whey, strained out of buttermilk or kefir, which they said would jump-start the fermentation. That sounded to me like an unnecessary bother. So I decided to add fresh brine–that is, salted water.
Two weeks later, I pulled from my crock heaps of gloriously hot-pink, tart, delicious sauerkraut. Here’s the recipe. You can add more spices or leave them out, as you prefer.
4 pounds finely shredded red cabbage, plus a few whole outer leaves 1 large apple, cored and sliced thin 1 medium-large onion, sliced thin 1 Mediterranean bay leaf Pinch of caraway seeds 3 juniper berries 3 tablespoons pickling salt (fine, pure salt) 1 quart water
In a large bowl or stockpot, thoroughly mix the shredded cabbage, apple, onion, bay, caraway, juniper berries, and 1 ½ tablespoons salt. Pack the mixture firmly in a crock or gallon jar. Wait an hour or two for the salt to dissolve.
Stir the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons salt into the water, and keep stirring until the liquid is clear. Pour the brine over the cabbage mixture. Lay the whole cabbage leaves on top, and add weights. (I used the weights that come with a Harsch pickling crock. With an ordinary crock, cover the cabbage with a plate that just fits inside the crock, and weight the plate with a capped, water-filled glass jar. If you’re using a gallon glass jar, weight the cabbage with a freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine in the proportion of 1 ½ tablespoons salt to 1 quart water.) The cabbage mixture should be well covered with liquid. If it isn’t, add more brine in the same proportion. Keep the crock or jar at warm room temperature for two to three days, until fermentation gets underway, and then set it in a cooler place. If you’re using an ordinary crock, you’ll need to skim the brine occasionally.
Begin tasting the sauerkraut after two weeks. When it’s as sour as you like, transfer it to a clean jar, and store the jar in the refrigerator. If you like, you can freeze some of your kraut in plastic bags, rigid plastic containers, or glass jars. I don’t recommend canning it. Although with the addition of brine my recipe is saltier than the Canadians’ version, the sauerkraut will still be less salty than the USDA approves for canning.