Me and Sauerkraut go way back! My love for the sour cabbage actually might be the last bit of German-ness that has survived years spent abroad.
I grew up on Sauerkraut, we often had it at home when I was a child…in the least vegan way possible. Traditionally in Germany Sauerkraut comes with potatoes and, well, a piece of meat and in our house it also came in a plastic package from the supermarket all ready to be heated up.
Now, apart from cutting animal products out of my life I also dropped the habit to buy pre-packed, preserved “food”. Switching to a vegan diet has made me wondering where my food is coming from, and by that I mean ALL THE FOOD. I got increasingly suspicious of anything cheap, wrapped in plastic with an essay of unpronounceable ingredients and numbers on it with an informational value close to zero.
So what to do if you want to know where your food is coming from, what is in it and how it has been made? DIY, people, Do it yourself!
I started browsing the webs for Sauerkraut recipes, not knowing that the actual making would involve a couple of days. I had simply assumed that the cabbage is cooked and then made sour with vinegar. That was when I started to become interested in fermentation. Now I am only beginning to understand the process of fermentation and the little knowledge I have is enough to make your own ferments at home. There is a great amount of blog posts about DIY fermentation that give you good inspiration for recipes! If however you are like me and like to know how processes like these actually work and how the cabbage gets sour, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper.
The tradition of fermentation originates from times when there was no refrigeration available to people, so fermenting food was a way to preserve it from going off. All vegetables and fruit can be fermented requiring nothing more that a jar, water and salt. Nature will provide the rest! There are different types of fermentation, the type involved in fermenting food is called lacto-fermentation. Now this has nothing to do with the lactose that is present in milk but refers to the lactic acid that is produced in the process of fermentation and gives fermented food it’s typical sour taste. Be aware though, because some recipes do involve whey protein as a fermentation starter which is a by product in the cheese making process. But as it is always the case with dairy: WE DON’T NEED IT!
So what is actually happening in that jar of vegetables, salt and water? Basically, through fermentation we are wiping out the bad bacteria by literally drowning them in a salt water brine. The good bacteria survive this bath and are multiplying, feeding on the sugar/ glucose that is present in the veggies and fruit. (Since fruits are higher in sugars they will ferment faster as the bacteria have more to feed on). In lacto-fermentation it is the “lactobacillus” that is growing and producing lactic acid as a by product, which is responsible for the acidic taste at the end. Fermentation can only take place in the absence of oxygen and this is where the glas jar comes into the picture. Oxygen will help the wrong organisms to grow (think mould) so we need to keep it out by screwing a lid onto our jar tightly. Some sites try to sell you fancy sealing/ air pumping system since gases that develop during fermentation might cause your jar to explode. But so far there were no major Sauerkraut explosion happening in my kitchen! Just make sure you push the vegetable firmly into the jar using a masher or your fist so you break all oxygen bubbles. Before screwing on the lid I also cover the top up with an extra big cabbage leaf (also when I am not fermenting cabbage) and I feel like this help containing the gases. I did unscrew the jar every 2 days to check the smell and taste and like this gases can also escape.
So we covered the what and how. Leaves us with the “why?”. Right, where shall I begin? There are many many reasons to make fermented food part of your diet.
First, as I mentioned before it is a way to naturally preserve fruit and vegetable without adding anything nasty. Once you put your jar into the fridge the fermentation process will stop since it is to cold for bacteria to keep on multiplying. You can then keep it in the fridge for weeks! So no food waste.
Second, it tastes great! I love that sour, acidic taste. When you prepare your jar you can add all sorts of spices and herbs to make it your own recipe. There are endless combinations possible so it will also stimulate your creativity in the kitchen.
Third, fermented food seems to be really good for your body and has several health benefits. It is like a self-made superfood ;). Through fermentation we are increasing the number of beneficial bacteria, basically cultivating probiotic food. The bacteria are especially beneficial to our guts and digestion and help strengthen our immune system. Western Society has this weird obsession with cleanliness, aiming to eliminate all bacteria not only from the food we eat but from our habitat in general. Think of all the ridiculous cleaning/ bleaching products available that are supposed to make your home as sterile as an operation theatre. Scientific evidence has exposed how the lack of (all kinds of) bacteria in our environment has weakened our immune system and plays a big role in the development of allergies in our society. I sometimes feel like we have lost our common sense when it comes to deciding what is good for our bodies and what is not. Most blogs and DIY articles on fermentation start by telling you that you shouldn’t be scared of fermentation, that the risk of getting sick is quite low. Funny isn’t it, how we seem to be incredibly scared to poison ourselves with a jar of vegetables yet seem not to be concerned at all feeding our bodies pulverised, instant food full of E-numbers and preservatives prepared in our freshly chemically treated kitchen. Let’s bring the bacteria back into our lives!
Since fermented vegetables are essentially raw they are still very high in vitamins and nutrients that get destroyed in the cooking process.
I have eaten an entire 2L jar of purple kraut (in record time btw) and I am still alive! So I am quite confident sharing this recipe with you. No noticeable side effects except that I am addicted now to fermenting and find myself wandering around the market looking for new fermenting projects.
But let’s start with the Purple Sauerkraut!
I got inspired by this recipe here but I changed a few things, which I like to do with recipes in general. “Make it your own” is my number one kitchen rule and it should be yours too. Whatever ingredients, herbs and spices you have at home, you will make it work!
To prepare before
– mason jar (mine was 2L for one cabbage), it needs to be really really clean so I rinsed it with hot water and it is now my designated fermentation jar, I am also recycling old glass jars, just make sure the jar has a lid that you can screw on tight
– use organic vegetables! Fermentation is a natural process so it does make sense that we don’t want any sort of chemical or pesticides or unnatural fertiliser involved (consider this also for fruit and vegetables that you are not fermenting btw )
1 red cabbage
lemon juice and zest from 3 lemons
5-6 tbsp of coarse sea salt, good quality
1 tbsp of cumin seeds
1 tbsp of whole peppercorns
a couple of cloves
1. Leave two big leaves of cabbage (without mould!) intact. Grate the rest of the cabbage and onion thinly. Put it in a big bowl and add the salt. Massage the salt into the cabbage for a couple of minutes.
2. Add the lemon juice, zest and the herbs and mix well using your hands.
3. Add the whole mixture to your jar. It might not fit in at once so with your fist or with a masher (or any other instrument you think will do the job) push the cabbage firmly into the jar. Press it really well so you can get the oxygen out of the cabbage and the jar. The cabbage should be entirely covered in moisture. Then put your two cabbage leaves on top to cover the mixture, they should not be covered by the fluid. Screw the lid on tightly. Put it in a place where it is not in the sun directly but is still at room temperature (20-22 degrees on a kitchen shelf f.i.). The warmer the environment, the faster the process will go.
4. Let is sit for at least 2 days, after 2-3 days you can open the jar, smell it and have a little taste. If your ferment goes off you will notice! The smell will be quite revolting if it does.
Now it is really up to your own taste. I let is sit for 4 days but you can chose a longer period too. When you like the taste and structure just place the jar into the fridge to stop the fermentation. It should keep in the fridge for about 3 weeks.
A comprehensive book about fermentation (although not vegan)
“The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz
A book with 64 recipes for fermenting vegetables
“Fermented vegetables” by Kirsten K. Shockey
Scientific review of the benefits of consuming fermented foods for people who want a bit more background information (available on google scholar)
“Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health by S. Parvez, K.A. Milek, S. Ah Kang and H.Y. Kim