July 25, 2012
The usual time of year to make sauerkraut in Connecticut is in the late Fall. After a few frosts, the huge heads of cabbage are a little sweeter and more tender. But mid Summer is a good time to make sauerkraut too. You will need more heads of cabbage since each one is smaller, but they are tender and and have more juices in them. The warmer Summer temperatures make fermenting faster and the room does not have to be heated to stay around 70 degrees here. The shredded mid season cabbage is much easier to pound down into the fermenting crock. You don't need the heavy 'stomper' or 'dasher' used in the Fall on tougher and dryer 'Winter' cabbage.
Sauerkraut is just salt and shredded cabbage packed tightly and allowed to ferment in a brine which forms from the salt and juices in the cabbage. The ratio of salt to cabbage has to be correct. It is 3 Tablespoons salt to 5 pounds of cabbage. Too much or too little salt and it will not ferment. Do not use salt which has Iodine added like most table salts. Buy 'Canning' 'Kosher' or 'Pickling' salt. After each batch is mixed and pounded down into the crock, another one is prepared and added on top in layers. You will need to leave enough room for a weight to hold the sauerkraut submerged under the brine. The tangy taste is a result of fermentation, not from adding vinegar.
Everything which comes in contact with the brine or sauerkraut must be completely clean and have no traces of soap or bleach. Scrub carefully to remove any organic material and then scald with very hot water. A crock is ideal for fermenting sauerkraut. Other traditional containers include wooden barrels but they are much harder to clean. A modern alternative would be a food grade plastic bucket or tub. You will never get the vinegar like taste out of it. My opinion is it can not be cleaned as well as a crock for reuse. Even with a crock, once you have salted meat or pickled in it, save it for those uses.
Once the cabbage is shredded, salted and tightly packed into the crock and the brine forms you must keep air from contacting the sauerkraut as it ferments. I carefully chooses a dinner plate just smaller than the crock to hold down the cabbage. Lay it in from one side so no air is trapped under the plate. A stone for weight keeps the plate submerged in the brine and holds down the cabbage. Since the stone is porous, it should be scrubbed, scalded with very hot water and then boiled to kill any bacteria or spores in it from the soil. Now days some fill large bags of water and lay them on top of the plate sealing off all air from the brine. If you use this method you will not have to skim off any foam as it ferments. There will be no way to determine exactly when it is done though. Use a different recipe for that method. I don't like plastic in contact with our food that much. Never use any sort of metal in contact with a salt solution. Stainless steel ware sold for home use is not acceptable either in my opinion. As always, the responsibility for food safety belongs to the cook in the kitchen. There are many recipes for making sauerkraut from just cabbage. Some add slices of apples in layers or beets and other garden crops can be fermented including turnips as well.
It may take 4 or 5 weeks to finish fermenting depending on room temperatures. A warmer room may be quicker and a cooler room slower than that. When it stops 'working' and bubbling it is done. The traditional method is to move the whole crock to a cold cellar and regularly take sauerkraut off the top to eat over the Winter. I always can our sauerkraut after it is done fermenting so it keeps on the shelf and we can enjoy it year round.