Growing up I remember when we’d dedicate a whole day to making sauerkraut. My parents have German roots and also lived in Germany for several years while Dad was in the Air Force. What passes for sauerkraut in the grocery store would never cut it in Mom’s kitchen. Out would come the wooden kraut cutter and the crock. I usually got grating duty. Mom would salt and supervise, and Dad would punch down the cabbage. I don’t know to where the kraut cutter disappeared, and the crock was retired due to concerns that it might contain lead. There are some beautiful, food-safe crocks on the market now. I’d love to have one of someday, but a few large glass jars make a fine substitute.
When an absolutely beautiful head of local cabbage found its way into my CSA basket last month, I decided it was time to live up to my heritage and do a solo kraut making adventure, well, if you can consider making only four phone calls to Mom “solo.” I used our traditional method, but decided to experiment with adding whey from cheese making. This has become a popular method based on my research, so I thought it would be interesting to compare batches made with and without whey. After tasting the results a few day in, I knew that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with my scant half-gallon of old-fashioned goodness.
“Young lady, WHAT are you going to do with all that cabbage?” asked the grocery cashier as I loaded fifty pounds of cabbage onto her conveyor belt. She enjoyed the fact that Mom and I were going to spend some quality time together making kraut. “This lady behind you is going to ask what you are doing with it,” she said in a conspiratory whisper. “I’m going to tell her you’re on a diet.” Nice.
I’m all for experiments, but I know my limits. I loaded the cabbage into my car trunk and drove until I hit gravel road. Mom had agreed, in advance, to be part of a joint effort. The next morning, Mom headed to church, and I went for a run. Over the years, we’ve each found our preferred way to pray. When she got home around 8:30, I had most of the heads stripped and washed. I chopped each head into twelve wedges, sized to go through Mom’s food processor. My chef’s knife, my pride and joy, is off-limits to Mom. This woman is a terror with knives, ice picks, garbage disposals, and tall ladders. I refuse to be the cause of her losing an appendage, so she got shredding duty. My Dad purchased Mom’s Oster Kitchen Center 35 years ago. With a new home and a growing family, tinkering with his 1950’s Ford pickup was a hobby he could no longer afford. He sold his truck to my cousin for two-hundred dollars. The proceeds when to purchase Mom’s birthday gift. That’s love, folks. You won’t hear me running down a Kitchen Aid product very often, but Mom’s old shredder attachment puts the Kitchen Aid stand mixer’s shredder add-on to shame.
As Mom shredded, I weighed and salted, three tablespoons of canning salt to every five pounds of cabbage. After mixing each five-pound batch, I it dumped into lugs, each of which held about twenty pounds. We then packed the cabbage into five gallon jars, punching it down tightly. Mom finally agreed, after the fact, that six jars would have been the way to go, but we managed. The brine created in this process easily covered the cabbage. We took the jars out to Mom’s canning kitchen, which is far nicer than my “real” kitchen. I’m not a big fan of using plastic bags as airlocks, but as wasn’t really in a position to complain. With my small batch, I just punched the kraut down by hand daily, but some kind of weight to keep the cabbage submerged is ideal. With Mom’s method a water-filled bag serves as the weight and keeps air out of the jar.
Sauerkraut making is both art and science. The fermentation process will take about a month, depending on ambient temperature and a variety of other factors. You will know if something goes wrong in that time, trust me. Mom will can much of this batch, but I will snag several unprocessed jars to stash in my fridge. Unprocessed sauerkraut is a powerhouse of healthy enzymes. These are lost with high-heat processing.
From washing the cabbage to closing the door to Mom’s canning kitchen, this process took about five hours. Mom and I have developed a rhythm together in the kitchen over the years and that made the process efficient and pleasant. There’s a lot of good talking time to be had when the shredder is cooling off. I can’t remember a morning I’ve enjoyed more.