WILD KITCHEN + APOTHECARY

December 3, 2018

By Nicole Schanen

As I write this, the first snowfall carpets the earth, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a week away. It’s a season of settling in for the long winter ahead, and also a time to give gratitude for all that we have, and all the people who have come before us to show us the way.

My family immigrated to the United States in the early 1850s from Luxembourg — a tiny European country wedged between Belgium, France, and Germany. They came to this country fleeing war and famine. They sold everything they had to buy a ticket to a new start, and embarked upon the many-months-long journey across an ocean and half a continent to begin again, bringing with them centuries and generations of knowledge about how to live off the land. 

Both my parents grew up on farms, and it always amazes me how little my grandmothers and great grandmothers bought from the store to feed their families. They had enormous gardens, and a great deal of their time was spent tending them, harvesting, and preserving food to last through the winter months. Carrots and potatoes were kept in large crocks in the root cellar. This is also where they fermented and stored the sauerkraut.

In my maternal grandmother’s childhood home, they made their sauerkraut in large stone crocks covered with a towel. Throughout winter, they would go down to the cellar and scoop out the sauerkraut as they needed it. She insists that the longer it aged, the better it got, unlike the carrots which were very limp and unappetizing by the time March rolled around.

Making sauerkraut is not difficult. It can be made simply with only two ingredients — cabbage and salt. —Photo Edwina MC, Pixabay

Of course, Luxembourgers aren’t the only people who preserve cabbage through fermentation, and sauerkraut did not originate in Europe. The first fermented cabbage came to us by way of China where it was made with cabbage and rice wine. The European version replaced the rice wine with salt, and those are the only two ingredients in sauerkraut to this day — cabbage and salt. Time and lactic fermentation provide its distinctive sour flavor.

There are many variations of sauerkraut, and you can play with adding other ingredients such as carrots, apples, parsnips, or beets. You can also add spices and herbs. Caraway seeds are most often associated with sauerkraut in Milwaukee, but I personally prefer to use juniper berries. Look  below to find a basic sauerkraut recipe to get you started. 

Nicole Schanen is a Wisconsin native and lifelong resident of Southeastern Wisconsin. She enjoys cooking, reading, caring for the herbs in her garden, and experimenting with different fermented foods. Nicole can be reached by email at schanenn@gmail.com.

Basic Sauerkraut

 Supplies

Large, wide-mouthed glass jar
Tea towel or coffee filter, Rubberband
A smaller glass jar filled with water, or some other clean object to use as a weight

Ingredients

1 medium head of green or red cabbage
1-3 Tbsp. pickling salt. (It is important to use a salt that does not include an anti-caking agent, as that can hinder fermentation. You can find it at most grocery stores.)

Optional seasonings, such as caraway seeds or juniper berries

 Instructions 

1. Carefully remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and place to the side. You will be using them later. 

2. Chop the cabbage in half, and then into quarters. Remove the core at the bottom of each quarter.

3. Shred the cabbage into thin slices, and place the shredded cabbage in a large, clean bowl.

4. Add the salt, a half tablespoon at a time, and vigorously work it into the cabbage with your hands. This will take some elbow grease. Pound and squeeze the cabbage. The goal is to get the cabbage to release some of its juices. This will naturally create the brine in which the cabbage will ferment. In terms of saltiness, you want the mix to taste lightly salted. The salt is there to inhibit growth of harmful pathogens, creating an environment that promotes the growth of the lactobacilli.

5. Once the cabbage is softened and very wet, you can mix in your optional seasonings. 

6. Begin packing the cabbage tightly into the glass jar. Press it down firmly as you go, with the goal of getting the liquid to rise over the top of the cabbage. 

7. Once all the cabbage is in the jar, and it’s submerged beneath the brine, place one of the outer cabbage leaves on top, and place the weight on top of the cabbage leaf. This will keep the cabbage submerged beneath the brine, which is crucial to inhibiting the growth of mold.

8. Cover the jar with a tea towel or coffee filter and hold it in place with a rubberband. Move the jar to a cool, dark location and allow it to sit for a week. After a week, you can begin tasting the sauerkraut every few days until it has the texture and sourness you prefer. The longer it ferments, the more sour and softer the cabbage will become.

9. When you are happy with your sauerkraut, place a lid on the jar, and store it in the refrigerator, where it can keep for several months.

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