Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut: What it is, and why we need it

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Dear fellow krauts,

I love sauerkraut!  You'll probably be hearing more about it soon as I tell you about our recent 400 lb cabbage harvest over at the farm, but for now, let's talk about kraut!

What is sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is German for “sour cabbage,” which is exactly what sauerkraut is.  It is also known by its French name, choucroute.  It is simply lacto-fermented cabbage with a little salt added, to aid in the fermenting process. 

Why eat sauerkraut?
Traditional and ancient methods of food preparation often involved fermentation, as freezers and refrigerators for long-term storage didn’t arrive on the scene until recently.  Fermented foods were even considered sacred in some cultures, and revered for their healing properties.  Sauerkraut, while not only being a delicious and hearty food, is a source of lactic acid bacteria, all of which help to promote a healthy gut and good digestion by providing microorganisms that our bodies need to survive. 

Why eat raw sauerkraut?
Raw sauerkraut is packed with beneficial bacteria and microorganisms, most of which are killed off during high-heat processing or pasteurization.

Why not conventional sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut knock-offs can be found cheaply in many grocery stores because manufacturers skipped the lengthy fermentation process, and simply mixed in vinegar to provide the tangy flavor that is distinctive in fermented foods. 

How is sauerkraut made?
Cabbage is washed, chopped (you can chop it in the Vitamix!) to the desired texture and then mixed with the perfect proportion of hand-harvested, mineral-rich non-iodized sea salt: 5 pounds of cabbage to three tablespoons salt has been my salty sweet spot for fermentation.  Too much salt, and the cabbage won’t ferment properly; too little salt, and it will simply rot in the crocks!  It is packed, smashed and pressed down into special fermenting crocks, then weighted down to extract, over the period of days or weeks, the salty brine.  As the kraut is slowly pressed beneath the weight, it bubbles, ferments, and develops the beautiful array of bacteria and the familiar, heady sour flavor and aroma.  You can leave it in the crocks for some months (watch for mold or bloom on the surface, skim it off, and wash the plate before returning to the kraut), or transfer it into jars in your fridge.  Because every natural fermentation is different, kraut will continue to ripen for months in your refrigerator, and the flavor will evolve and may vary from jar to jar.

This crock is half-full,  and the jars filled with water are pressing the brine from the cabbage

The two smaller crocks hold five gallons each; the large crock is ten.
A cloth keeps dust, bugs and foreign objects from falling into the brine!

 Nourished Kitchen has a beautifully photographed article on preparing kraut at home, so I won't reinvent the wheel by going into too much detail.  I love Jenny's brilliant blog (and she's writing a cookbook, folks!) and I know you'll enjoy visiting her kitchen, too.

How do I eat it?
You can eat it plain as a side dish, or layer it in sandwiches, Reubens, burgers and dogs.  Choucroute garnie is a French method of preparation, where the kraut is served with sausages or other salted meats such as bacon and other charcuterie, and often cooked potatoes as well.  Traditional recipes like German spaetzle, pierogies, sauerkraut soups, casseroles, slow-cooker recipes, slaws, and more all feature sauerkraut. Salted, raw ‘kraut is vegan, gluten-free, GAPS, Paleo/Primal-approved, and of course sugar-free! 

How long does a jar last?
Properly fermented cabbage can last for months in your fridge, said to reach the peak of flavor and fullness at six months, and in some cases it will last for years in a cool, refrigerated area. 

Can I can kraut? 
You can, although processing kraut will kill many of the beneficial bacteria.  However, if (for instance) you suddenly had to move cross country and wanted to bring your gallons of kraut with you, but didn't think it would survive the trip, you could can it all and just enjoy it for the flavor and, yes, there would still be some nutrition.

To can kraut: 
Bring sauerkraut to a simmer (minimum of 185 deg. F).  Do not boil.  Pack hot cabbage into clean, hot jars.  Leave 1/2" headspace.  Bubble and cap.  Process pints 15 minutes, quarts 20 minutes, in boiling water bath (see basic canning instructions here).

Sauering nutritiously,

Mrs H
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