Making and cooking with sauerkraut
With the renewed popularity of fermented food, this German preserved cabbage is coming back into its own
Olives, yoghurt, bread, cheese, wine, beer and kimchi are some of my favourite products of fermentation. The other is sauerkraut (which is German for “sour cabbage”).
I used Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking and the Konemann edition of Organic and Wholefoods as my manuals to make a big jar of this refreshingly delicious tart substance that has a sweet, almost flowery, aroma. It is great as a side dish to rich meat or sausages, as a sandwich filling (we have become addicted to toasted sandwiches filled with dijon mustard, melted cheese and sauerkraut!), in German style pasta or as an accompaniment to plain boiled potatoes.
Preserving cabbage by fermentation makes a lot of sense. As McGee says “It requires no particular climate, no cooking, and so no expenditure of fuel ... perhaps some salt or sea water.”
Salt draws liquid out of the cabbage, encourages fermentation and is also the preservative. German sauerkraut traditionally uses 5 per cent salt to cabbage but it can be made with half this amount. I used a little over 2.5 per cent salt. The first time I made it I used 5 per cent but found it too salty so I cut it back for subsequent batches.
Fermentation works by encouraging the growth of the benign lactic acid bacteria in the cabbage, while discouraging the growth of anything harmful. The exclusion of air by keeping it covered with the liquid from the fermenting cabbage is crucial to this process.
Not only does sauerkraut taste good, but the vitamin C is preserved, which is why it was used in the past to stop sailors getting the vitamin C deficiency disease, scurvy.
You can buy sauerkraut in jars and cans but if you want an edible science project and some good ways of using it, try the following.
How I made sauerkraut
This is easy and cheap as it has only two ingredients, cabbage and salt. For success all you have to do is stick to the method.
1.5kg cabbage (white or savoy)
- Discard the coarse outer leaves and stalk from the cabbage. Slice very thinly, rinse thoroughly in cold water and drain well.
- Put the cabbage and salt into a very large non-reactive bowl and thoroughly massage the salt through the cabbage with clean hands.
- Cover and reserve for 1 hour so that the salt draws the liquid out of the cabbage.
- Pack tightly into a very large sterilised jar (or several smaller ones) or other non-reactive container and be careful to pour all the liquid over the top. The container needs to be big enough so there is room at the top to weight down the cabbage and for all the liquid produced to cover it.
- Push the cabbage down very tightly with a sterilised wooden spoon so the liquid covers the cabbage.
- Cover with a sterilised small plate that fits over the surface of the cabbage and add a weight on the plate to hold the cabbage under the liquid (a sterilised jam jar filled with water works well). It is very important the cabbage stays under the liquid at all times.
- Cover with a piece of clean cotton cloth and a rubber band so the carbon dioxide can escape but no dust or dirt can get in.
- Over the next two days, uncover and push down frequently on the cabbage to compress it as much as possible and release more liquid. Recover the container with the cloth after each push-down.
- Leave for 2 to 6 weeks in a dark place at between 18-24C. After about 14 days the sauerkraut can be moved somewhere with a colder temperature, 6-10C. It will be fully fermented in 4-6 weeks. Mine was ready to eat in three weeks and although still a little raw it tasted delicious.
- Small bubbles will appear as the mixture ferments but if any scum or mould appears, scoop it out immediately with a clean spoon. If you see scum or mould, smell the sauerkraut — funnily enough it should smell sweetly like sauerkraut. If not, (if it smells the least bit sulphurous) you will need to start the process again with new ingredients.
- Once done, discard the cloth, cover with an airtight sterilised lid and store in the fridge in its fermentation container. It will last about 2-3 months.
Pork chops with apples and sauerkraut
3 cloves garlic, squashed
½ tsp fennel seeds
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 pork loin chops
Salt and black pepper
3 apples, peeled, cored, thinly sliced (store in a bowl of water with a little lemon or vinegar to stop browning, drain well when needed)
1 tsp sugar
1 cup sauerkraut
100ml dry white wine
250ml beef jus or concentrated beef stock
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp chopped curly parsley
- Put the garlic, fennel seeds and oil into a large bowl, add the chops, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mix well so that the chops are evenly coated.
- Heat a large frying pan over moderate heat and add the chops side by side. Fry gently for about 10 minutes on each side or until cooked through and well-browned.
- Remove from the pan and keep hot. Discard the garlic.
- Add the apples to the pan and fry until browned.
- Add the sugar, sauerkraut and wine and let it bubble for 1 minute.
- Add the jus, bring to the boil and boil until slightly syrupy.
- Add the lemon juice, taste and season.
- Serve over the chops and sprinkle with parsley.
Freiburg market sauerkraut and pasta
I once ate a version of this in the market in the German city of Freiburg. They used spätzle, a fresh German pasta, but any short pasta is fine. It looks rather unassuming but tastes great.
3 Tbsp butter
400g short pasta, boiled in plenty of salted water until tender to the bite, well drained, cooled
1½ cups tight packed sauerkraut
200g smoked havarti, grated
2 Tbsp chopped curly parsley
- Melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the pasta and sauerkraut. Stir-fry for about 4 minutes or until everything is hot.
- Remove from the heat and add the cheese and parsley, mix well and serve immediately