A little over a month ago during an intense moment of food geekery, Claire, Stephane and I decided to make our own choucroute (sauerkraut) and saucisse(sausage) from scratch. The deal was that I’d make the sauerkraut and they’d tackle the sausages.
The next day I went out and bought a large head of cabbage and got started on my epic sauerkraut fermentation experiment. The following is a chronicle of the high and low points of the past 34 days.
Day 3: I walked into the bedroom last night and thought to myself “what died in here”. The bottles are bubbling and it’s getting stinky. I’m hoping it’s one of those things where it gets worse before it gets better, otherwise I may need to toss the whole batch out.
Day 5: Either the stench has dissipated or I’ve lost some smell receptors. The cabbage is taking on a bleached appearance.
Day 12: Opened it up and cautiously tasted it. Briny, tart, delicious! Needs more time though.
Day 34: While still quite firm and crunchy, it’s almost white in color and has the perfect balance of tartness and brine.
During the winter months, the cold weather results in cabbage with leaves that are dense, thick and very sweet, making them perfect for sauerkraut. When you pick the cabbage (regardless of the season), look for a head that is relatively dense. You can judge this by picking the heads up and comparing the weight to other heads. You can also test it by pressing into it with your thumb. A really good head of cabbage should be very heavy for its size and should not give at all, under moderate pressure.
Fermentation is a bacterial process where microorganisms (typically yeast or in this case Lactobacillus) on the fruit or vegetable, break down the sugars and form new compounds. In the case of booze, the end product is alcohol, but for sauerkraut, the lacto-fermentation creates organic acids that gives it its tart flavour.
The key to fermenting anything is sanitation and temperature control. We want to create an ideal condition for the right types of bacteria to flourish, while making it difficult for the undesirable type to colonize our cabbage. That’s why it’s critical to make sure all cutting surfaces, bowls, plates, knives, containers, and most importantly your hands are as sterile as possible, so we don’t introduce any organisms that will make the sauerkraut go funky. I always start by running any implements I plan to use through the dishwasher and thoroughly scrubbing my hands with anti-bacterial soap.
While filling them can be a bit of a pain, I like using clear plastic water bottles for a few reasons. First, the bottles are sterilized at the bottling plant, so as long as you haven’t been drinking straight from the bottle, they should be sterile. Second, it’s the perfect size to hold 2 liters of brine and half a head of cabbage. Third, with this particular type of bottle, there’s a taper at the very top, so if it’s filled almost all the way, there’s less surface area in contact with air (usually where mold forms). Lastly, because it has a lid (which you’ll need to poke holes in), you can shake the bottle every couple of days without using some kind of stirring implement that might introduce new bacteria. If you decide to use a mason jar, or other container, make sure you wash it with bleach and rinse it well before use.
Homemade Sauerkraut (Choucroute)
1 large head of cabbage
1/2 C kosher salt (less if using table salt)
4 liters of water (about 16 cups)
2 empty 3 liter water bottles (only use clear plastic) or a glass mason jar
First, we need to prepare the bottles. Because fermentation releases gasses, it’s critical that we put holes to vent the gases, otherwise your bottle will explode and you will have a nasty, stinky mess to clean up. For these plastic bottles, I just take a long pin, get it red hot over a burner and poke about 6 holes in the lid.
Cut off any part of the bottom of the cabbage that looks like it’s been cut before (around the stem). Remove the exterior layer of leaves on the cabbage and rinse the head of cabbage well. On a sterile cutting board, cut the head in half.
Use a French mandoline (the Japanese ones typically shred the cabbage too thin for this purpose) to shred half a head of cabbage into a clean bowl.
To prepare the brine. Add 2 liters of water to the bottle. Add 1/4 C of kosher salt to the bottle, secure the lid then shake to dissolve, making sure you cover the holes in the lid with the palm of your hand.
The hardest part of this whole process is getting the cabbage into the bottle. I used a 4 layer strip of foil that I folded into a funnel to help move this process along. Just pinch some strands of cabbage between your thumb and fingers, then put them in the funnel and force them down into the bottle with your fingers. As long as you’re putting them in lengthwise, you should be able to get quite a bit into the bottle in each batch. Repeat until the cabbage is gone.
Now do this again with the other half of cabbage and the other bottle. The bottles should be more or less filled, but you may want to make some additional brine using the same water/salt ratio if they are not coming close to the top. You want to leave about 1″ of air at the top, since the contents will bubble during fermentation, and you don’t want it to overflow.
Secure the lid then shake to make sure the cabbage is evenly distributed. Loosely tent some plastic wrap over the lid to prevent dust from getting into the holes.
Put the bottles in a cool (under 70 degrees F) dark place for about 1 month. Shaking the bottles every day or two to redistribute. Start tasting the sauerkraut after 2 weeks and keep fermenting until you are happy with the flavour. A foul sulfur-like smell is normal, but should dissipate after a few days. The sauerkraut should never get mushy, slimy or moldy and needs to be thrown out if any of this happens.
When the sauerkraut is ready, use a knife to cut the top off the bottles, drain the sauerkraut and rinse lightly. To store for a longer period of time, drain the sauerkraut, reserving the liquid. Then boil the liquid. Pour it back over the sauerkraut and keep it in the fridge.