Sauerkraut translated is "acidic cabbage." I always thought it was named after a Teutonic curmudgeon. Guess not. Sauerkraut is a prominent in cuisines from the cold regions of Europe, and in many parts in the US and Canada. It has good keeping qualities and a distinctive sour flavor that both result from lactic acid, which forms when the bacteria ferment sugars in the fresh cabbage.

Many cultures consume live fermented foods. Some familiar ones include: miso, tempeh, kimchi (a Korean cabbage dish), sake, sourdough, bleu cheese, silage (a fermented food for cattle) and cucumber pickles. By fermenting (the opposite of homogenizing and making uniform) foods and drinks, the microbial populations enter our intestinal ecology which can help lower our susceptibility to disease and improve maladies such as leaky gut syndrome, candidiasis and colitis.

Sauerkraut is made by a process of pickling called lacto-fermentation that is analogous to how traditional (not heat-treated) cucumber pickles are made. No special culture of Lactobacillus is needed because Lactobacillus is already present on raw cabbage. In the production of sauerkraut, mature cabbage heads are washed and shredded. The salt is mixed with the shredded cabbage and then tightly packed into an airtight container so that no oxygen gets in which permits gases produced during the fermentation to escape. If exposed to air, molds and yeasts will be let in and could cause it to spoil.

The purpose of salting the cabbage is twofold: It causes an osmotic imbalance which results in the release of water and nutrients from the cabbage leaves. The fluid expelled is an excellent growth medium (rich in sugar) for the microorganisms involved in the fermentation. The salt also inhibits the growth of many spoilage organisms and pathogens. If salt concentration is too low or high the batch could spoil or not ferment fully.

Sometimes other vegetables are added, such as carrots and beets. Spices such as caraway (my Dad’s standard) and juniper berries may also be added. Red cabbage is sometimes used to make sauerkraut, but this is rare and not traditional. When sauerkraut is made from turnips or rutabagas, the product is called sauerruben.

Sauerkraut can be eaten raw as a condiment for meat (hot dogs, especially!). It can also be served as a salad with oil and onions, but it’s commonly cooked before it is eaten. Raw sauerkraut is an extremely healthy food. It is an excellent source of Vitamin C, Vitamin K (a very important factor in blood clotting, in bone formation and repair), lactobacilli (even more than yogurt), and other nutrients. However, the overabundance of lactobacilli can easily upset the stomach of people who are not used to eating raw sauerkraut. Sauerkraut provided a vital source for these nutrients during the winter in cold European climates and was taken on long sea voyages to help fight scurvy. Some current thinking says that kimchi may help deflect the dreaded avian flu, too.

Cooked sauerkraut appears in soups and stews; in filled “pierogi” dumplings and with other ingredients such as bacon, apples, carrots and potatoes (not all at once, though).

There are many fermentation techniques but here’s a simple one for this seasonal favorite:

From Lena Sanchez (courtesty of Google)

To prepare the cabbage, remove and discard the outer leaves. Wash and drain and then cut the cabbages into halves or quarters while removing the core in the process.

  1. Shred the cabbage in a food processor, with the shreds about is thick as a nickel or dime.
  2. Mix, with wooden spoon or very clean hands, 5 pounds of shredded cabbage with 4 tablespoons of Kosher salt (pickling salt will do but changes the flavor a bit - do not use table salt) and toss and mix thoroughly until salt dissolves (You can make as much as you wish as long as you use the ratio of 5 lbs. cabbage to 4 Tbs. salt.)

NOTE: If you plan on refrigerating and not canning use 3 tbs of salt not 4!

3. When juice starts to form on cabbage from tossing, pack the cabbage firmly and evenly into a clean crock, glass or enamel container. Press firmly to encourage juice formation. Fill the pot no closer than 5 inches from the top.

4. Make sure juice covers the cabbage completely! (This does not always happen unless the cabbage is fresh from the garden). If this is the case, prepare additional brine by putting 1 1/2 Tablespoons of kosher salt into 1 quart of boiling water. Dissolve salt and cool brine to room temperature before adding to the pot of cabbage.

5. Once cabbage is immersed in brine water, place a large food grade, plastic bag filled with brine water and lay on top of cabbage. Lena uses 2 large bags, one inside the other - sometimes a 2 gallon freezer bag - with a couple of quarts of cooled brine water inside - this if the bag breaks it will not water down the cabbage into a tasteless mess).

The cabbage must be well sealed all around with the bag, so no air can get in and contaminate the sauerkraut with unwanted yeasts or molds!

6. Cover the container with plastic wrap, then a heavy towel or cloth and tie securely into place. Do not remove this until fermenting is complete.

7. Put in an area where the temperature will not be above 75 degrees. Fermentation will begin within a day, depending upon the room temperature.

8. If room temperature is 75 degrees, allow 3 weeks for fermentation. If temperature is 70 degrees allow 4 weeks. If temperature is 65 degrees allow 5 weeks. If temperature is 60 degrees allow 6 weeks.

NOTE: If temperature is above 75 or 76 degrees, the sauerkraut may not ferment and could spoil!

9. Once fermented, taste to see if your required tartness exists. Tartness will weaken as you process in canning so make sure it is a bit more tart than you like!

Can be eaten immediately if you desire!

Some bury the cabbage "butts" or "hearts" and ferment them along with the shredded cabbage. They supposedly taste like pickles and can be eaten raw. Some bury peeled horseradish roots to add flavor without the heat.