One hundred years ago, no household, rich or poor, was without a larder packed with fermented vegetables: pickles and sauerkrauts, of course, but also beets, carrots, collard greens, corn, even sweet potato and rhubarb. With the advent of reliable refrigeration and high-temperature canning techniques, fermentation became a lost art. And more than that, the home cook dropped an easy way to preserve the harvest and put nutritious, delicious and inexpensive food on the table all year round.
Fermentation allows vegetables to retain the healthy enzymes, minerals and vitamins often lost in cooking or freezing. Further, the good bacteria (lactobacillus) that drives the process boosts the B and C vitamins in fresh vegetables and acts as a natural probiotic. Fermentation enhances the natural flavors of vegetables, giving them an added tang that’s prized by the poshest chefs.
Best of all, fermentation is easy. All you need is a knife and cutting board, a bowl, a jar or crock, a weight and salt.
From that point, the steps are simple. The list here is for sauerkraut, but you can use the same method for any vegetable that can be sliced or chopped.
1. Clean your tools, work surface and hands with soapy water (NO antibacterial soap–it will kill the good bacteria needed for fermentation).
2. Rinse your cabbage in cold water.
3. Shred it and add it to the bowl with a tablespoon of salt per head of cabbage.
4. Massage the cabbage until it’s soggy. That’s the brine that drives the fermentation. Let the bowl sit covered for three to four hours until a good puddle of brine collects at the bottom.
5. Pack your crock or jar with a wooden spoon, potato masher, or even your fist. Add cabbage little by little, pressing down and watching the brine rise until it’s about four inches (10 cm) from the top of the crock or 2 to 3 inches (5-8 cm) from the top of the jar.
6. Place a layer atop the veggies to keep pieces from floating up. This can be an outer leaf from a cabbage, clean cheesecloth, plastic wrap, a food grade plastic screen cut to size, or the like. On top of that place a second layer of a similar sort of material. Many use a plate (with a tiny bit of airspace around the sides) in crocks. The idea is to make sure all the bits of vegetable stay submerged and out of the air as that can encourage mold.
7. Next top everything with a weight so that all the vegetable matter stays under the brine. You can use anything from a water-filled jar to a (scrubbed clean) rock to a reclosable plastic bag filled with water. Weights designed just for fermenting can also be purchased in a variety of sizes for various jars or crocks. Avoid using any sort of materials that could break down or react in the salt water (this includes most metals).
8. Cover with a cap with an airlock, a loose top, or a clean towel, anything that will let carbon dioxide escape while also keeping the fruit flies out.
9. Place your creation in a dark corner and check frequently, pressing the cabbage back into the brine if needed.
Foam will appear on the top of your ferment. This is normal and should not be removed until the ferment is done, unless it’s spilling over the top (every time you dip into your ferment, you reduce the brine level and increase the possibility of contamination).
White scum that forms at the top is a harmless yeast called kahm yeast. Removing it before the ferment is ready is a frustrating task that also puts your ferment at risk of contamination.
Mold, bluish or orange, should be removed. It won’t hurt your ferment as long as your veggies are protected under the brine.
If at the end of the ferment, the batch is pink or soft and slimy, or if it has a rotten odor (as opposed to pleasantly sour), or if you have any concerns about the quality, discard the batch. Since you are working with natural organisms, results can sometimes be unpredictable, and while failures may happen, the process is so simple it is easy to just begin a new batch.
How soon your kraut is ready will depend on the size of your container and the temperature of your dark corner. A small jar in hot weather can be ready in three days; a large crock can take a month or more. When the cabbage looks cooked (more yellow than green), smells sour, feels soft and tastes acidic (like pickles), it’s ready. Seal in a jar and keep in the refrigerator for up to six months.
Experiment with Other Veggies
Chop carrots, slice peppers and onions, chop garlic, shred turnips and parsnips, cut beets and ferment them in the same way. Or mix and match for beautiful and healthy salads and side dishes that will have you savoring summer flavors all year long.