Who says sauerkraut can’t be prepared in a small batch?
Homemade sauerkraut is an excellent food rich in vitamin C and full of probiotics and it goes great with a variety of meats and legumes. In this blog post, I am writing you all the details you need to know about the lacto-fermentation of vegetables, and I also bring you 3 ideas on how to ferment cabbage in a small batch, perfect for those people who live in tiny apartments (like me).
A Brief Look at The History of Fermentation
Although fermented foods gain on its importance in recent years, they have been part of human civilization for thousands of years.
If we take a deeper look into our history, we will very easily come to the conclusion that the first fermentation probably occurred by (happy) accident. Yet, over time, Babylonians started to make beer, the Egyptians learned to make bread with yeast, yogurt, and cheese, and Chinese fermented soy, tea leaves, and vegetables.
And that was only the beginning!
Scurvy, a disease caused by chronic vitamin C deficiency, which can leave people with terrible physical and psychological consequences, has had a huge impact on malnourished sailors during great geographical discoveries. But James Cook, a British explorer, and cartographer realized that more attention needed to be paid to the quality and storage of food during those long voyages. That’s why he loaded the ship with canned soups, malt, and – sauerkraut.
A far greater number of sailors returned happily to their homes.
But even though we have used it for thousands of years, all the way to Louis Pasteur and his contributions to understanding the magical world of microorganisms, people have not fully understood what exactly happens in the fermentation process. This French biologist and chemist, the man after whom pasteurization got its name, began to distinguish between two terms: aerobic and anaerobic and, thus, greatly helped us to understand what was actually going on during this process.
In the early 20th century, food fermentation was a relatively broad method of preserving food from (complete) decay, especially during the cold winter months when people did not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. During the 1920s and 1930s refrigerators started to come in many households. That completely transformed relationship between humankind and bacteria. Today, ironically, we are in a situation in which the fear of microorganisms has become ridiculously unbearable. From excessive use of antibiotics for a whole array of health issues, frantic scrubbing of all surfaces in the house with aggressive detergents to industrial food production in which, food is preserved in a reverse process: destroying as many microorganisms as possible.
While writing this text, I remembered my biology teacher, who used to say to us: “Remember kids, bacteria will have the last word.”
I would like that, instead of being afraid of microorganisms, that we relearn to coexist with them again, instead of being afraid of them. Otherwise, we could easily become their victims. Changing this relationship through food is one of the first steps we can take in this process.
The homemade sauerkraut recipe is really just one tiny step towards a better understanding of these little creatures and a big step towards more exciting and less predictable food that can be beneficial for our health in many, many ways. After more than 2 years of making my own kefir milk and making my own rye sourdough starter, I decided to learn as much as I can about lacto-fermentation and share with you everything I learn during this process.
So, if I manage to pass on at least one part of this enthusiasm to you, I will be extremely happy!
Let’s get to know the basic concepts first.
What is Food Fermentation
Simply put, food fermentation is a process in which microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeast, under anaerobic conditions, feed on carbohydrates from food. As a result of this decomposition, alcohol, acids, vitamins, and other by-products are formed, which completely changes the taste of our food and its properties.
People have been using fermentation for centuries. There isn’t probably a single person who hasn’t encountered fermented food and drinks in some part of their lives. Some of the most known food that was created by the fermentation process are:
- yogurt and kefir
- different types of cheese
- sourodugh bread
- soy products (soy sauce, tempeh, gochujang, tamari..)
- preserved vegetables (pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi…)
3 Different Types of Fermentation
There are 3 main types of fermentation: alcohol fermentation, acetic acid fermentation, and lactic acid fermentation. For the homemade sauerkraut recipe and other vegetables, we need to know the basics of lacto-fermentation, so my focus here will be on it.
Why To Make Your Own Sauerkraut
During reading this post, at some moment you maybe started to think: “Why would anyone nowadays make sauerkraut at home when it can easily be bought at the store?”
My motivation in this endeavor was twofold:
- I can season my sauerkraut just the way I want it – I don’t know what is the situation in your country, but in Croatia in stores we can buy only sauerkraut seasoned with salt, most of the times. With so many spices and other opportunities for even better flavor, it would be really shame not to experiment. That’s why I decided to try some new flavor combinations. Also, I find storebought sauerkraut to be too sour for my taste.
- Learning about fermentation of food and preserving excess vegetables – preparing veggies and observing what will happen in these wonderful jars, for me, is an amazing experience! For example, sauerkraut won’t have the same taste on the 7th and on 14th day of fermentation. Moreover, it is more likely that the taste will change completely. I don’t know about you, but this is absolutely fascinating to me. Also, because I constantly try different recipes, I often find myself in a situation where I don’t have enough time to use up all veggies before they spoil. I hate throwing away food and lacto-fermentation is a great way to prolong its life.
How Does Lacto-Fermentation Works
Lacto-fermentation of food is a process in which the Lactobacillus bacteria convert naturally occurring carbohydrates from food (in this case vegetables), into lactic acid.
During this process, carbon dioxide is also released, especially in those first few days of fermenting. In this process, Lactobacillus can be considered as “good bacteria”, which, if we provide them with desirable conditions, will sweep away those “bad bacteria” and make our food very tasty and funky.
What you need to pay attention to is that these types of bacteria can only survive in an anaerobic environment (environment without the presence of oxygen). That’s why you need to pay special attention that your cabbage stays under the brine the whole time during the process of fermentation. Otherwise, various molds, fungi, and other bacteria that we consider undesirable for us can develop. This will spoil the cabbage and we will not be able to consume it.
Wait a Minute, Can Salt Harm Good Bacteria?
It won’t, as a matter of fact, in the initial stage of fermentation, the salt will prevent the development of unwanted bacteria so that Lactobacillus can do their job. Salt also helps our vegetables to stay crispy, along with spices it develops flavor and controls the speed of fermentation, which is especially important during the warmer times of the year.
You may be wondering which salt is best to use for lacto-fermentation?
Someone says you should use Himalayan, not table salt, someone that you should use sea salt. The authors of the great book “The Art of Fermentation” Sandor Ellix Katz and Michael Pollan say that it doesn’t really matter what salt you use. I use sea salt most of the time in my cooking, so I used it in this recipe as well.
What Do you Need For Lacto-Fermentation
- Vegetables – With process of lacto-fermentation we can preserve almost any veggies that comes to our mind. Since I decided to make a homemade sauerkraut, I bought two cabbage varieties: green and red cabbage. You can use any type of cabbage you prefer. And you don’t need to stop there; add shredded carrots, parsley, celey root or even beetroot.
- Salt – I prefer to use fine sea salt.
- Clean jars – Wash them througly with hot water and detergent. If you want, you can also sterilize them at 100°C (212°F).
- Weights – The key to successful lacto-fermentation is to ensure that the vegetables remain submerged in water and salt. This can be done in different ways – you can put few extra cabbage leaves and press them with clean rock or you can use store bought weights. I like to use clean plastic zip bags (make sure they don’t leak) filled with tap water – they do their job pretty good!
- Time – waiting is definitely the hardest part. After a few days the cabbage will already start to change its appearance and taste. Expect a lot of CO2 in the first week. Keep your jars with veggies on the surface that can easily be cleaned. If you don’t like very sour sauerkraut, you can consume it after a few days. However, I recommend you to be patient and wait at least 10-14 days, or preferably longer, in order for the flavors to further develope and deepen.
- Vessels – traditionally, vegetables were most often fermented in clay vessels. Some people use plastic today, but for such a small amount of sauerkraut, glass jars proved to be the most practical solution to me. The wider the opening of the jar, the better. While you wait the Lactobacillus to do their job, you don’t need to close the jar hermetically with a lid. Also, always leave at least 6-7 cm to the top of the jar to get a room for your weights.
Ideal Temperature For Lacto-Fermentation
The length of fermentation will also depend a lot on the room temperature. During the summer, it will certainly take less time for veggies to ferment in comparison to cold, winter months. Generally, the best temperature for lacto-fermentation is between 16 and 24°C (60 – 75F).
In this post, I will show you 3 varieties of homemade sauerkraut that I made. In the images below you can see what cabbage looked like on the 1st and on the 14th day of fermentation.
7 Sauerkraut Recipe Ideas
Although I like to eat sauerkraut mostly during fall and winter instead of salad made from fresh veggies, it can easily become a part of a whole new dish or serve us as a great side dish! As our body looks for different kinds of foods during the cold months, you cannot go wrong with combining homemade sauerkraut with cured meat, different types of sausages, or bacon.
For example, I bought some delicious sausages in the local butcher shop and combined them with red sauerkraut, ajvar, and pickles in hot dog buns, and boy, what a great treat that was!
Here are some ideas for using sauerkraut in different recipes:
- Sauteed sauerkraut (my family’s favorite)
- Istrian jota
- Potato and sauerkraut casserole
- Grilled cheese and sauerkraut sandwich
- Warm turkey salad
- Ukrainian sauerkraut soup (kapustnyak)
More recipes for preserves to try: