How to make sauerkraut

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Matt Partsch shreds cabbage as Joe Triglia holds the cabbage shredder in place on Nov. 12. (Liz Partsch photo)

BETHEL PARK, Pa. — Since I was a little girl, I can vividly remember a sour, pungent smell filling my nose when I would stand too close to the fermenting sauerkraut stashed in my grandma’s basement.

At the time, I would blame the smell on my brother; as many people equate the smell of fermenting sauerkraut to the smell of a bad fart.

Now, I know much better than to be lurking around the basement during the months of November and December.

Despite the smell, sauerkraut is a staple dish in my family and a food highly treasured in the Partsch household during the winter months.

Already a few weeks into fermenting, this year we used 115 pounds of cabbage. Having a little more cabbage than usual, we had two extra hands helping my dad, aunt and I make our annual supply of sauerkraut.

History

Sauerkraut has been a staple dish in German cuisine since the 1600s. The name directly translates to sour cabbage in German: sauer (sour) kraut (cabbage).

Despite popular belief, sauerkraut actually originated in China over 2,000 years ago when the Great Wall of China was being built. Workers lived off of cabbage and rice and, during the colder months, mixed cabbage with rice wine to preserve the vegetables — marking the beginning of what would turn into sauerkraut.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that Europeans fermented cabbage in its own juice to make sauerkraut. Sauerkraut became a part of American cuisine in the 18th century when German immigrants traveled to the United States.

Since the beginning of sauerkraut consumption, it has been valued for its health benefits. Because it undergoes the process of fermentation, sauerkraut contains beneficial probiotics that help food become more digestible.

Probiotics also help the gut absorb the vitamins and minerals contained in food. Sauerkraut has many beneficial vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, potassium, etc.

Nowadays, sauerkraut is seen on the iconic Reuben sandwich and used as a topping on hot dogs. Sauerkraut is also commonly eaten on New Year’s Day with pork. This tradition originated in Germany and was believed to bring good luck into the new year.

When German immigrants migrated in the 18th century, many settled in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which is why many of us, my family included, picked up this wonderful tradition.

How to make sauerkraut (Partsch recipe)

Supplies:

Cabbage
Cabbage shredder
Salt
Bin
Large mixing bowl
Several large buckets (depending on how much cabbage you have)
Plates
Gallon jugs or Ziploc bags

Tip: Making sauerkraut is much easier when you have a group of people assigned to different steps in the sauerkraut-making process.

Step 1. Preparing the cabbage: Gather your cabbage. Discard outer leaves or mushy, discolored leaves. Slice the cabbages in half and take out the core.

Step 2. Shredding the cabbage: Now that your cabbage is prepped, transport the cabbage to your cabbage shredder. Place a bin underneath the cabbage shredder. Put the cabbage in the holder, and go back and forth until all the cabbage that is left is shredded in the bin below. If you are making a large amount of sauerkraut, do this in increments.

Matt Partsch and Joe Triglia shredding cabbage using a cabbage shredder on Nov. 12. (Liz Partsch photo)

Step 3. Mixing the cabbage: Take the bin with the shredded cabbage and dump it into your large bowl. Mix in salt. We made our sauerkraut in increments of 25 pounds. For every 25 pounds of cabbage, we mixed in a cup of salt. If you’re unsure, taste your cabbage to make sure it has a very salty taste.

After mixing, set aside for 5 to 10 minutes. While you wait, this is the perfect opportunity to continue prepping and shredding more cabbage if you have any left.

Matt Partsch mixes shredded cabbage with salt on Nov. 12. (Liz Partsch photo)

Step 4. Packing into buckets: You’ll know the cabbage is ready when brine (salt and water) starts to accumulate at the bottom of the bowl. The cabbage needs to be moist before you pack it.

Take a bucket and place a handful of cabbage into it. Using your fists, press the cabbage down until it is compact. Then take another handful of cabbage and repeat the process until all the cabbage in the bowl is gone. When you’re done, there should be no room for air in the bucket.

(From right to left) Eileen Schmura places shredded cabbage into a bucket as Joe Triglia packs it down. (Liz Partsch photo)

Step 5. Prepping the bucket for storage: Once your cabbage is fully compact in the bucket, take a plate and place it over the bucket. On top of the plate, place a gallon jug of water or a gallon Ziploc bag filled with water.

Having a weight is an essential part of the process as it creates an anaerobic environment for the sauerkraut to ferment in. Without a weight, air can easily slip into the bucket which can lead to the development of mold and yeast, ruining your sauerkraut.

Step 6. Finding your cabbage a temporary home: Where you put your cabbage to ferment depends on how soon you want to be able to eat your sauerkraut.

The cooler the environment, the longer your cabbage will take to ferment, the warmer the environment, the more quickly it will ferment.

According to Penn State Extension, when placed in a temperature between 60-65 F, fermentation can take up to six weeks. When placed in an environment of 70-75 F, fermentation can take as little as three to four weeks. If placed in an environment above 80 F, the sauerkraut can become soft and spoil.

The completed buckets of sauerkraut waiting to be sent to the basement to ferment on Nov. 12. (Liz Partsch photo)

Step 7. Eat and enjoy: After your cabbage is done fermenting, it is time to store the sauerkraut long term. You can keep the sauerkraut in the bucket, place it in the fridge, freeze it or can it. However, canning sauerkraut will kill off all the good bacteria over time.

Once you find a more permanent home, feel free to serve it up as a side or as the main course. One of our favorite foods to pair sauerkraut with is kielbasa.

(Feel free to tell us how your family makes sauerkraut at editorial@farmanddairy.com. Reporter Liz Partsch can be reached at epartsch@farmanddairy.com or 800-837-3419.)

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