To delight in the moment when you bust into a flavorful batch of sauerkraut is such a blessing within the alchemy of fermentation. The nutrition, the time saving, the community gathering to make and eat, well its fabulous. Thus I present the article below on my version of fusion foods, Asian Kimchi/ Northern European Sauerkraut; a lactobacillus ferment. While my dear fermenting friends at Fab Ferments have a line of sauerkrauts’ with names like Spicy Dill, Seaweed Sensation, Holy Jalepeno, Cosmic Curry, and others, the recipe I have come up with over the years of experimenting in and out of the PDC is Gringo Kimchi. But in general, the pattern to make a sauerkraut ferment is below. It’s like an open recipe for you to dabble and then delight in whatever creation you come up with!
Fermentation Vessel Selection
Before you ever buy the cabbages, the first thing you have to find, buy, or borrow is a fermentation vessel. While traditionally done in fired clay glazed crocks, these days it’s not so common to find several in the pantry anymore. However they are possible to purchase either locally or online. They come in a variety of sizes and if you are a serious fermenter, a home gardener, or the like, you may want to invest in such an asset. If properly cared for it will last for quite sometime. You maybe tempted to buy ones at antique shops but rumor has it, at least in the states, there was a time when they were painted with a lead based paint which is not what you want to ferment in. I often use glass jars since I am on the move so often but with glass jars, bigger the better. Make sure its a thicker glass jar cause as I experienced for the first time while taking pictures for this article, they can crack and break with the heat of sterilization. With glass jars make sure the mouth of the jar isn’t too narrow, you will need to be able to fit your whole hand inside.
Once you have the vessel to ferment in, then you can go to the garden, the farmers market or the local organic shop or cooperative and get what you need. At the very least you need cabbage and salt. After that its up to your wildest imagination. How much cabbage for what sized jar? As all my students know, I say now, it depends. How big is the cabbage, how dense is it? Is it standard cabbage, the wrinkly one, or the red one? So pick some up and over time you will get to know just how much volume. If you have some extra, cook it
or get another jar to ferment in! I always recommend one red cabbage for every six regular green cabbage. Red cabbage can be tough to work with at first so start with a lot less in comparison to green cabbage. It does give it a nice color though when you have this ratio as the red bleeds out into a soft pink. After the cabbage I get some root crops, I prefer carrots for my recipe but sometimes I have also added turnip, celeriac, or rutabaga. I usually don’t add beet but some people like to in these type of ferments. From there you will need some herbs to help keep the good bacteria in and the bad guys out and kick in the flavour. I use garlic, ginger, spicy chili pepper fresh or powdered, and coriander seed. Without the last one its too much like kimchi but I absolutely love chomping into a fermented coriander seed. And then you need one more thing, a very precious mineral on earth that we often take for granted, salt. You can buy fine salt, non iodized please, or if you have coarse already you will need to grind it down to fine with a mortar and pestle.
Beyond this you will need some cutting tools and a chopping board. Most have that in a kitchen. However a tool made for the kitchen in general or some even specifically for cabbage and fermenting, have a slicer horizontally placed where you run the cabbage back and forth to grate in finely and fairly evenly (seen at the top of the picture below). Furthermore, I leave the peeler out of it cause I buy or grow organic and am looking for the microbes that are on the skin anyway of the root vegetables. You will also need a big plastic or glass bowl to temporarily house the cut cabbage. Having other small bowls for the cut ginger and garlic are helpful so you can add as you go. If you are using a glass jar you will also need another small but tall glass jar that fits inside the fermentation vessel. You need access to fire and a pot to heat water to sterilize the jar, which is the next step.
Food and Materials Preparation for Making the Ferment
The only part where I am super clean about things is the jar itself. Having sat around for some time, I rinse it with water on the inside and out and then boil a small amount of water. You don’t need to fill the whole jar as the steam will do the rest. So you simply boil some water and along the way to its boiling point pour a little bit of hot water in your glass jar (not needed for ceramic). This helps to heat the jar a bit as it might crack if it goes through too much of a temperature swing in a short time. I swirl the warm water around to heat the entire jar and just throw that out. Once the water boils I simply pour a bit of water in, a couple of inches worth (5-7 cm) and then close the lid immediately. If there is no lid to the jar, which is not necessary, I put a plate on top. The steam will swirl around and be sufficient in temperature to sterilize the jar. After a few minutes I pour the water out as I am beginning to chop vegetables. Its good to not let it sit too long as it takes a bit of time for the glass to cool back to room temperature.
Prepare and Cut Ingredients, Sides
From there I begin the chopping of the vegetables and preparing the herbs. I usually start with the ginger and garlic since I want to add quite a bit of this. For a gallon jar I usually add about a half a root of ginger from what you normally buy at an organic shop. I dont bother to peel it and I chop it fairly finely. Furthermore, I usually add around two whole bulbs of garlic. I know it sounds like a lot but I like it garlicky. I chop this into a medium sized chunk and always remove the green shoots, which are not so healthy for use when the garlic begins to sprout in the middle. With both of these I put them in small bowls on the side so I can just grab handfuls in the later parts of the process. I cut the chili or have the powder on hand as well along with the coriander seed. If you need to grind the salt now is the time as well. Make sure you get it fine eh. I then also cut the carrots or other root veggies. I prefer to grate them as cutting root vegetables finely can be quite a process. A grater is composed of about 30-50 “knives” so I prefer the lazy way that gives them lots of edge to be fermented quicker.
From there I quarter the cabbages or cut them in half if they are smaller. I do this so I can measure how much salt goes in. I do a very non scientific measurement of a fat pinch with two fingers and thumb for every quarter of a cabbage (farmer sized hands so for smaller hands use three fingers besides the thumb). This goes for your standard round head that is of quite some size and compactness. Otherwise just measure accordingly to what would be a quarter of a standard cabbage. If you don’t buy organically the juiced up ones I usually count as six parts instead of four. From there I either cut finely with a sharp knife or if you are willing to invest in the aforementioned cutting tool it does speed the process. I take the cut cabbage and add it to the big glass or plastic bowl on the side and remember how much I added of cabbage so I can measure the salt.
Mix and Pound in Separate Bowl
With cabbage cutting underway and all the other ingredients prepared, I then begin to mix and pound the cabbage to integrate the salt. Before adding carrots and the other herbs, I squeeze the cabbage and salt together to suck out the moisture. In the end it will be very juicy and no water or vinegar is needed, just the action of salt drawing out the moisture of the cabbage. So I fill the bowl with cabbage, add the salt, squeeze vigorously and pound, and the contents usually reduce to about half. I then cut more cabbage and repeat until the squeezed cabbage equals about 2/3 of the bowl. From there I add the carrots and other ingredients except the chili. I add a pinch or two more of salt for carrots or other root vegetables. I continue to squeeze and integrate those ingredients and finally add the chili just before I add it the fermentation vessel. I mix that in and I usually have about half of what will go into the gallon jar.
Add to Vessel
Once the mix is complete I then take the vessel and add handfuls of the pounded ingredients. By then is should be sloppy with moisture at the bottom of the bowl. If not you need to keep pounding. The adding process is slow so that you don’t spill the hard work of all that cutting. At the end pour the liquid from the bowl into the vessel. This is very important material so again be careful not to spill. I repeat the above cutting, pounding, and then filling the vessel until it is 3/4 full. Don’t go over that because as the fermentation kicks off the salt will keep extracting liquid from the cabbage and filling the jar. Also displacement is used to further bring up the liquid level in the jar so that all the ingredients stay below the water line. This ensures the anearobic lactobacillus fermentation process will take place instead of rots and molds breaking down the carbohydrate resources.
Put the Leaves and Jar on Top
Thus to finish and make sure these conditions are in place and none of the cut ingredients are spoiled, the outer leaves that were removed in the beginning of the process are now placed on top of the cut ingredients. The liquid should already be to this level and most likely already submerging the cut ingredients below. To help make sure they always stay below the water these leaves are added. The first thing to do is clean the outisde of the jar with a towel to see what needs to be cleaned from the exposed inner part of the jar. All, or as much as possible, of these ingredients inside the vessel should be pushed down into the others so they can ferment and the environment stays clean. Then you fold the leaves back onto themselves so that the folded edge is clean and the loose part is facing below. Then you carefully fit the leaves into the corners in alternating directions so no ingredients can be seen below as you look down into the jar. It takes four to eight leaves and they should be pressed downwardly together at the end of that process. By then the liquid should be starting to come up over those leaves as well. To ensure they stay down and the liquid rises even further a secondary jar that was sterilized in the beginning is the fitted into the fermentation vessel. I fill this jar with water so that weight is there to hold everything down and displace the space so the water volume really rises. In a clay crock two half-moon pieces are placed on top of the cut ingredients to do the same process. Sometimes people sterilize rocks if the jar is small but again go bigger with the fermentation vessel so that you can also do this part easily and have more ferments at the end!.
Cover and Store
Once this is done, I then cover it with a towel or two. This helps to keep the humidity up below the towel as the summers of Portugal really suck this moisture out. Also the dry-aired winters of Ohio do the same! It also helps to keep the curious fly out and that pesky sunshine, which is no good for ferments. I then store it out-of-the-way but like all in permaculture and living systems management you need to do observation. It’s good to store it in a place of a stable temperature. In the winter you may want to store it higher in a room so that it ferments quicker because of warmer conditions. However big crocks and long storage, like the old days, requires more of a root cellar type of setting. If the ferment goes through rapid heating and cooling it may spoil. The warmer it is the quicker the ferment so plan accordingly. As a final note on storage, a question that is often asked, is do I seal the jar? Some glass jars have the flip down lids that use a hinge to seal them. DON’T DO THIS!!!! It’s a fermentation process and like alcohol fermentation there is off gasing and can even lead the jar exploding if it the pressure is not properly released from time to time.
Watch and Wait for Fermentation
So how long does it take before you can eat it? As always, it depends! In the winter I usually advise three to four weeks where as summer it is more like 10-18 days. If you don’t like it too sour, then go on the shorter side and if you like it with more tartness leave it longer. However if you have a warm spot in a kitchen in winter it might be the summer-time time length. In the first few days you should watch the water level rise and make sure you note the level of the fermentation liquid so that if it is spilling over you don’t make this mistake again! You will see it bubbling air up and smell the ferment already. As it continues the smell will get stronger and this may also be factor of where you store the vessel as it ferments. Your roommates or parents might not like it so much so please do consider this. To me it smells alive, makes the kitchen feel vibrant, and makes me salivate with the next batch coming. After the first few days you will want to keep an eye on the water level in these dry times of the year. You may need to add a bit of sterilized water to keep the process going. The best way to screw it up is by letting the salt water sink too long thus exposing the leaves and ingredients below. This has happened to me and it gets a bit funky smelly. I scrape this off and often eat it if the other parts still smell good. You will know when it is off as fermentation and putrified organic material smells quite different. Also be on the look out for other films on top of the liquid. The most common is yeast especially in a kitchen where bread baking takes place often. I skim this off with a wooden spoon as to not build up the populations.
Eat with Gratitude
In the PDC in our summer courses, we make the ferment on day two and by day 11 or 12 we are eating it. To introduce people it’s a good amount of time as most people have this awful image of hot dogs and sauerkraut which is boiled cabbage pickled in terrible vinegar and sealed. Not the real deal. Outside of the PDC I usually am saying wait, wait, wait and then one day when the ingredients in the kitchen and garden are low, we dive into it. To do this remove the leaves and jar and have a clean plate to store them on. Scoop out what you need with your hands or a wooden spoon and never metal as it can spoil quicker through doing this. When done with the meal, put the leaves and jar back on top and cover with a towel again. The fermentation process will continue on until you finish. Keep an eye on the water level as when you are scooping out you are also taking moisture with you. Some people will wait till the whole fermentation process is complete then jar this up and store it in the fridge. This slows or stops the fermentation process and keeps for a long time. I don’t have a fridge where I currently live at Terra Alta (2016) in Coastal Portugal so we just eat as we go.
I like to eat the ferments with anything and everything. Meat, veggies, rice, it doesn’t matter to me. The thing that matters is that I get them in my diet as often as possible to keep my stomach health up, mental fatigue and sickness down, and nutrients pumping into my body. Our stomachs and bodies are like compost and soil, you got to feed them with microbes and chop and drop. You here that term often in Permaculture, chop and drop, and its the same for fermentation. You chop the veggies, drop them in a jar with salt, and you wait and then enrich your body. The probiotic world is rapidly increasing and instead of pouring money down the drain with the pills just chop and drop and enjoy immensely.