Okay, I've started you on your levain journey, and hopefully you have a good basic idea of how to begin. But the thing about a starter is that it's a long-term relationship. Or at least it can be...
Every autumn, there are certain things I am compelled to do. Perhaps it’s the change in the weather that drives this compulsion; the urgency of the leaves turning and falling; the weakening sunlight.
I find myself taking silent inventory of pantry provisions: 4 jars pickled beets, 10 jars apple butter, 3 jars brandied figs… I freeze and can and preserve and dry almost compulsively. I realize I am not unlike a squirrel, its cheeks full before the waning season.
Apple butter is one of my yearly preserving pursuits. I typically make several batches of the stuff through some feat of nesting fever. I have a love-hate relationship with the process: hours of stirring and splattering and sticking, pounds upon pounds of apples reduced to a few small jars, and enough chopping and straining for three people.
But again, it’s an urge strong enough to make me not mind the inevitable burns I will get on my forearms while attempting to stir the lava lake of molten apple pulp. An urge strong enough to make me forget, every time, about how I will need to scour the stovetop and the floor afterwards.
This is the same urge I yield to when I make my annual batch of sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut might be in my blood. According to family legend, one of my great aunts would make sauerkraut beneath an old oak tree, only on the full moon. Sounds a bit like witchcraft, and if you’ve ever made sauerkraut before, you know that it feels a bit magical.
Sauerkraut is one of the easiest things to make in the pickle realm. Chop cabbage, add salt, wait. Okay, so there’s a teensy bit more to the process than that, but not by much.
Sauerkraut is the gateway fermented food. It’s straightforward and simple, the materials are inexpensive, and the payoff is fairly quick. It keeps well, and it’s far more delicious than anything you can buy. You may have seen gourmet sauerkraut at your local natural foods store. It often comes in an attractive jar, and it will cost upwards of six dollars.
The ingredients? Cabbage and salt. Maybe some caraway seeds. You can make a gallon at home for six dollars. So roll up your sleeves and embark upon a fermentation journey with me.
I first made sauerkraut because of Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. As it happens, Sandor Katz referenced the Joy of Cooking when he first started to get into fermented foods. Small world.
According to both JOY and Katz, the proper ratio of cabbage to salt is 5 pounds to 3 tablespoons. Katz gives recipes for low-salt or salt-free sauerkrauts, but for our purposes, we’re going to start with the basic salted sauerkraut. Salt not only helps preserve the cabbage, but it keeps the cabbage crunchy. You may use sea salt (widely available from supermarkets of all stripes), canning salt, or kosher salt, although, as kosher salt is coarser, you will need to use slightly more (about 1 1/4 times the table salt you might normally use). The only salt I've been told to avoid is table salt (due to anti-caking agents and additives in this salt, which may turn your brine cloudy). However, I have in fact made delicious sauerkraut with iodized salt. Kraut is a very forgiving ferment--which salt you decide to use is irrelevant. What matters is that you use enough salt--3 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces) per 5 pounds vegetable matter. We tend to keep kosher salt around more than iodized--kosher is generally better for cooking, as you can add pinches of it without worrying about oversalting your food. However, table salt will work fine here.
This is a very versatile recipe. You can use any variety of cabbages—green, red, savoy, napa, or a blend of different cabbages. You can add apple, caraway or dill seeds, shredded carrots, turnips, beets, and so on. The only thing to keep in mind is the ratio of vegetables to salt: five pounds to three tablespoons.
5 pounds firm, unblemished cabbage heads, outer leaves removed
Remove the cores, and thinly slice or grate the cabbage on the large holes of a box grater. I like to dice the cores and add them to the kraut as well.
Place the cabbage in a large bowl with:
3 tablespoons canning or pickling salt, sea salt, or kosher salt (if using kosher or sea salt, weigh out 1 3/4 ounces or 54 grams, which is the equivalent of 3 tablespoons--do not use coarse sea salt, as the chunks are too large to dissolve properly in this application)
Massage the cabbage. You can do this with squeaky-clean hands or with another utensil, such as a spoon or even a potato masher. I like to use my hands because it enables me to better manipulate the cabbage and get it to release more water. However, do wash your hands thoroughly every time you work with a fermented product so as not to introduce harmful bacteria. As you do this, you’ll notice that the cabbage begins to release water and wilt. Continue to massage the cabbage for up to 30 minutes. This length of time is not mandatory by any means, but it won’t hurt, and if your cabbage is particularly resilient, you may need to massage it for longer.
Pack the kraut into a small stone crock or a half-gallon Mason jar. Press down firmly to submerge the cabbage beneath the brine.
Ideally, the cabbage has released enough water on its own to create a brine in which the cabbage remains fully submerged. However, some cabbages are drier than others. I find supermarket cabbages to be on the dry side, while farmer’s market cabbages release more moisture. If your cabbage does not release enough water, make a brine of:
1 ½ tablespoons canning or pickling salt (or sea salt) per 4 cups distilled water (I prefer distilled over tap water for the simple reason that tap water may introduce contaminants--if you have faith in the quality of your tap water, it should be fine to use that)
Pour this brine over the cabbage to cover it. At this point, you need to weight the cabbage to keep it submerged. I almost always use a freezer-safe zip-top bag (freezer safe bags tend to be more durable) filled partially with brine of the same strength as you used for the cabbage, above. The bag conforms to the shape of the container you use and is easy to manipulate.
Cover the crock or vessel to keep out flies, but make sure it can breathe. I use a square of kitchen towel secured with a rubber band for this purpose.
Check the kraut once or twice a week. Within a few days, it should start to bubble—this is an indicator that fermentation has begun. Stir the kraut regularly to prevent scum from forming on top. If some scum does form, don’t worry. Simply scrape it off and discard it, then stir the kraut well.
When the bubbling stops, within 3 to 6 weeks or so, the fermentation is complete. At this point, you may pack the kraut into a quart jar and refrigerate it. Some prefer their kraut a little less sour. Feel free to taste the kraut as it matures in the crock. When it reaches the point that you like the taste, refrigerate it. Refrigeration will not stop the fermentation process, but it will slow it down significantly.
Kraut keeps indefinitely. JOY gives a shelf-life of “several months,” but I have year-old kraut in the fridge that tastes wonderful. If your kraut goes bad (in this case, it would be slimy and have a strong, disagreeable smell), discard the kraut without tasting it, and wash and bleach your fermentation vessel. A word of encouragement--I've never made a bad batch of kraut.