One day last winter, a Russian-speaking client at work brought me a plastic bucket and a fork. She opened the bucket and heaped some of the contents onto the fork and offered me a bite. I don’t speak Russian, and she barely speaks a word of English, but I recognized the contents of her bucket as sauerkraut. She often buys two or three heads of cabbage at our weekly market, so I asked if she had made this sauerkraut herself. She understood and responded, “Da.”
The sauerkraut was crunchy and tangy and not too salty. It took months for Ryan and I to finish the bucket of sauerkraut, even after giving cupfuls of it away to my mom. As we worked through the bucket, we saw that she had layered the shredded cabbage with whole green grapes and bay leaves for flavour, so here I copied her sauerkraut by adapting the sauerkraut recipe from Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation (which I read because it was discussed in Michael Pollan’s newest book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation).
Pollan describes how the bacteria necessary to ferment cabbage into sauerkraut is already present on the cabbage leaves. You don’t even need to wash the cabbage – just remove the outer leaves. Once shredded, salted, and packed into a crock, the Leuconostoc species of bacteria produce carbon dioxide and lactic acid, driving out any remaining oxygen. The lactic acid builds up and the cabbage becomes too acidic for the Leuconostoc mesenteroides and they die out, leaving room for the Lactobacillus species to thrive. Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus cucumeris ferment remaining sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid, thus decreasing the pH of the sauerkraut. Lactobacillus brevis finished the fermentation and brings the pH down to about 3, which is too acidic for most harmful bacteria. These bacteria do not like cold temperatures or really a salty environment, so once the sauerkraut is sour enough for your liking, you can store it in the fridge and stop the fermentation process.
Instead of using a large, heavy clay crock (which I don’t have and didn’t want to buy, in case the sauerkraut didn’t work out), I used a plastic Japanese pickle press that our mom had bought. It is a plastic cylinder with a lid, and through the lid is a giant screw that has a plastic disc attached. Once closed, you use the screw to lower the disc which then packs the cabbage down and makes sure that it is submerged in the brine.
For making this sauerkraut, use non-iodized salt, such as kosher or sea salt; the iodine in regular table salt can kill or inhibit the growth of the good bacteria. Also, if after 24 hours there isn’t enough brine let out by the cabbage, simply mix a tablespoon of extra kosher or sea salt into one cup of non-chlorinated water and use this mixture to top up. You can easily de-chlorinate tap-water by bringing it to a boil in an uncovered pot and then letting it cool.
- 2 lbs cabbage
- 1 Tbsp kosher or sea salt
- 1 cup green grapes
- 10-12 bay leaves
- Keep one large out leaf of cabbage and set aside.
- Shred the remaining cabbage and sprinkle with the salt. Massage the cabbage for a few minutes until the juices begin to run and the salt has dissolved (and no longer feels gritty on your fingers.
- Pack a big handful, about a third, of the salted cabbage into the bottom of your crock or pickle press and tamp it down.
- Layer with about half of the grapes, kept whole. Layer on about half of the bay leaves.
- Pack another big handful, about a third, or the salted cabbage on top of the grapes and bay leaves and tamp it down.
- Layer with the remaining grapes and bay leaves.
- Pack the last third of the cabbage on top and tamp it down. Arrange the large whole cabbage on top, trying to cover any small bits of cabbage.
- Place the pickle press lid on the pickle press, and screw the lid down to help squeeze more liquid out of the cabbage. As the cabbage softens and releases liquid, keep screwing down the lid to keep the cabbage tightly packed.
- In about 24 hours, there should be enough liquid that has been drawn out the cabbage to completely submerge the cabbage. If not, dissolve about 1 Tbsp of kosher or sea salt in 1 cup of distilled or chlorine-free water and use that mixture to top up the brine in the pickle press.
- Leave the pickle press in a cool environment for a week, checking every two to three days to make sure that the cabbage is submerged in liquid and that it hasn't gone off.
- If you see any scum on the surface of the brine, skim it off.
- The cabbage should start to be sour in about a week (depending on temperatures), but you can leave it to ferment for a few more weeks.