Sauerkraut is Life

My pedigree is one part German. As a German, I inherited a love of cabbage. My birth family, specifically my Opa, made sauerkraut. One of my treasured memories is being six or seven-years-old and watching Opa, my uncle Bob, and my father shave cabbage using a Krauthobel, or “Hobler,” adding salt, and waiting while it magically changed into sauerkraut.

When neophytes first taste sauerkraut, they often think it has vinegar in it. I think it’s because of the tart, tangy taste qualities associated with sauerkraut, or other fermented foods. Actually, fermentation is what makes sauerkraut and similar raw foods unique and in my opinion, so amazing. Fermentation also is an active process, which makes it different from many of the “dead,” processed foods most of us consume too much of.

Start with a little bit of shredded or cut cabbage.

Start with a little bit of shredded or cut cabbage.

There is something inherently radical about the process of fermentation. Maybe that’s why fermentation and fermented foods attracts an assortment of radical people, or at the very least, people not satisfied with the status quo, and who are doing something–even the smallest of things–to push back and protest our societal march towards the lowest common denominator.

I heard Sandor Katz, or Sandorkraut, give a talk on fermentation at the Common Ground Fair 15 years ago. This was right around the time I was being reintroduced to the traditions of making sauerkraut by my cousin, John.

Katz showed how he made sauerkraut, which was very similar to the Baumer method. This validated my efforts in wanting to learn a traditional means of preserving food and embrace a part of my family’s heritage.

If you don’t know Katz, I’d suggest at least checking out his website. We own his book, Wild Fermentation, which any radical should have on their bookshelf, guiding them along the path of fermentation and healthy living.

Perhaps my love of sauerkraut has affected my objectivity towards fermented cabbage. Or perhaps, there is something in my Teutonic DNA, enhanced by the experiences growing up in a family culture partial to sauerkraut that makes me love everything about sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut assaults your senses and shakes you from sleepwalking through life. For me, winter is sauerkraut season, so I’ve always associated the delicacy as a tonic and asset to offset winter’s woes. Another lesson I learned from Katz that September in Union was that sauerkraut can be made at any time of the year. In fact, at the time, Katz had been touring the country for months with two crocks of sauerkraut fermenting behind the front seat of his pickup.

Add a little salt, pack, and repeat.

Add a little salt, pack, and repeat.

Another memory I have from youth associated with sauerkraut was that it was “put up” at my Opa’s house on Pleasant Street. Opa  stored it in a crock in his shed. It was cool and dark, which is what cabbage loves when it’s becoming sauerkraut.

About once a week, my father would stop by Opa and Nana’s house, usually on a Thursday or Friday and fill a kettle with enough sauerkraut for Sunday’s dinner. In our house, sauerkraut often was served along with pork roast and boiled potatoes.

When my father got home, he put the kettle in the cool part of the basement for storage. This allowed me to sneak a few handfuls of raw sauerkraut (the best kind) on the sly. In fact, I’d have been happy to eat half of the supply if I could have gotten away with it.

I’ve been AWOL when it comes to making sauerkraut the past few years. As much as I talk about finding new ways forward on the path of reinvention, growth and innovation sans sauerkraut is really short-changing the process.

It helps to have the right tools; these of course are pretty basic and low-tech.

It helps to have the right tools; these of course are pretty basic and low-tech.

Our son, Mark, gave me a wonderful gift for Christmas. He found a handmade crock in Providence where he lives. The crock was made by a local artist with what I’d characterize as radical leanings (see the connection between ‘kraut and radicals?), not that there’s anything wrong with that. Her name is Meredith Stern.

What I think derailed my previous fall ritual of putting up 50 pounds of cabbage and turning it into sauerkraut is that it became too process-driven and forced me to set aside a large chunk of time in order to complete my sauerkraut-making. It also involved a heavy commercial stock pot that I picked up in lieu of a crock, as large crocks are hard to find. This all got too big for me and making sauerkraut got shoved aside.

The smaller crock and the DIY presentation that accompanied the crock made me realize that making sauerkraut doesn’t have to be exactly like Opa’s process. He made a lot because there were multiple families involved. Since I’m the primary fan of sauerkraut in my household, maybe making a smaller amount and making it more often will become a more workable model for me.

Everyone should have their own crock.

Everyone should have their own crock.

I made sauerkraut nearly two weeks ago. All it took was couple of heads of cabbage, some salt, and about an hour of my time. It’s now setting up in my basement and I’m hoping it might be just about right in another week for me to grab a handful and experience once again the wonders of raw, fermented cabbage that I first discovered 45 years ago.

Here’s a simple recipe to get you started with your own do-it-yourself sauerkraut tradition:

  1. Chop or cut cabbage into thin strips (or get your hands on a Hobler).
  2. Add salt; this is more art than science; some recipes like this one suggest ½ teaspoon per pound of cabbage, which is a bit sparse for my liking.
  3. Make it rain; pound, pack, and vigorously squeeze the salted cabbage. Small batches make this process more amenable.(making sauerkraut can be akin to an aerobic workout).
  4. Pack the cabbage and liquid tightly into a ceramic or glass vessel.
  5. Push the cabbage under its liquid with a board, a non-metal lid, or some other cover, weighted with a rock, or a glass jar filled with water.
  6. Store in a cool dark place to begin the magic of fermentation.
  7. Taste daily (the fun part)–when it tastes like sauerkraut, it’s ready.

**Thanks to Peter Glantz for this recipe, with a few personal suggestions of my own.

Add a little bit of sauerkraut to your life. You’ll begin experiencing the benefits soon after.

Sauerkraut in seven easy steps.

Sauerkraut in seven easy steps.

3 thoughts on “Sauerkraut is Life

  1. I can’t remember if it was the pot or the hobler my mother gave you some time back. I hope either serves you well. I know there are others in your clan that would love sauerkraut. Share the wealth.

    BTW, your uncle says it’s too cold to make kraut now. I confess I don’t understand his objection. Outdoors, yes, but indoors, it’s just slower.

    • The Hobler was courtesy of your Mom. It makes the process much easier. I thought these were hard to come by, but I saw a link last night while web surfing (which I linked to in the post) and a new Hobler (aka Wooden Box Cabbage Shredder/Slicer 70-1401-W) will only set you back $38.59, which seems like a great deal and money well spent. Of course, if I care for the one gifted to me, it might last forever.

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