It’s hard to say when the world looking at bacteria as the enemy, but if you pay attention as you go about your daily life, you’ll probably notice hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, and signs telling you when, why, and for how long you should wash your hands in just about every building around.
Don’t get me wrong – personal hygiene is important – but bacteria is not always a bad thing. Our digestive tracts contain billions of bacteria, some good and some bad. The “good” bacteria in the gut are hugely responsible for maintaining our immune health, warding off illnesses, and may even play a role in weight maintenance and prevention of chronic diseases. How do we make sure we have plenty of healthy bacteria? Start by eating a balanced diet with lots of whole, found-in-nature foods to create a healthy environment in which the good bacteria can grow, then add probiotic-rich, fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut or pickles, yogurt, miso, or kefir for a bacteria boost.
Sauerkraut’s characteristic sour flavor develops through a process called lacto-fermentation. We’re not talking about dairy here: lacto refers to lactic acid, a byproduct of the fermentation process. All fruits and vegetables have healthy bacteria such as lactobacilli on their surface, and when the bacteria are placed in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, they break down sugars in the vegetables and produce lactic acid. This process allows the good bacteria to proliferate and thrive while the lactic acid stops any bad bacteria from taking over. The result is a delightfully tangy, crunchy, probiotic salad with millions of good bacteria in every bite. Yum! Feel free to pick up sauerkraut from a grocery store, but if it’s bacteria you seek, always look for one that’s raw. Most commercially produced sauerkraut has been pasteurized, and the beneficial bacteria have likely been killed off by high temperatures.
When introducing fermented foods into your diet, it is important to start slow. If your body is not accustomed to taking in good bacteria, it may get overwhelmed, so let’s play it safe. I recommend starting with just 1 tablespoon per day and increasing gradually to 1/4 to 1/2 cup daily or as desired.
An important note on safety: when fermenting any food, sterile equipment is very important. Be sure to wash your vegetables thoroughly and sanitize anything that will come in contact with them, including your hands. During the fermentation time, weird things may happen: you might see the mixture bubbling a bit, or white foam may develop on top. These things are signs of a healthy fermentation process. If you see mold, skim it off immediately along with any surrounding cabbage. Your fermenting kraut should smell sour and almost vinegary, but not moldy. Trust your sense of smell and your taste buds. If it smells and tastes like something has gone wrong, throw it out and start again.
Raw gingered sauerkraut
Makes 1 quart
1 small head green cabbage (about 3 pounds), washed
1/2 medium red onion (about 2/3 cup chopped)
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
- Carefully sterilize a quart-size glass jar, a wooden spoon, and a large bowl or stockpot. You can do this by pouring boiling water in/over them.
- Remove the limp outer leaves from the cabbage and set aside. Shred the cabbage and red onion into the size you prefer. I like my kraut veggies shredded in thin, inch-long pieces for easy bites. Combine the cabbage, onion, and ginger in the sterilized large bowl. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables.
- Begin to massage and squeeze the vegetables with clean hands. The vegetables will become limp and release their moisture, and you will see liquid begin to pool in the bottom of the bowl. This is good! It will take 5 to 10 minutes to fully break down the cabbage and onion, and when finished, the vegetables will be soft and will resemble sauerkraut.
- Begin to put the softened vegetables into the sterilized glass jar, mashing the vegetables down with the wooden spoon or your fist periodically to pack them in and squeeze out any air pockets. Pour the liquid from the large bowl into the jar and pack everything down again. Leave about 1 inch of head space in the jar above the vegetables.
- Trim one of the outer cabbage leaves you reserved earlier to fit inside the jar and place over the top of the vegetables, pressing down to ensure all of the jar’s contents are submerged in liquid. At this point, you can add some filtered water if necessary to ensure that everything is covered in brine.
- Next, you’ll need to weigh down the vegetables to keep them below the water line. You can stack smaller jelly jar in the mouth of the jar and weigh it down with a few stones, or fill a Ziploc bag with water and place it on the vegetables. Cover the jar with a clean cloth and secure with a rubber band so it is able to breathe but is protected from potential contaminates. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight.
- Allow the jar to sit on your counter for 3 to 10 days or up to 6 weeks, tamping the vegetables down periodically to ensure that they stay submerged in liquid. Ideal conditions for fermentation are between 65 and 75F, but keep in mind that warmer temperatures will cause faster fermentation, so you will probably reach an ideal level of sourness faster in the summer than in the winter. Begin tasting your kraut at 3 days, and when it tastes good to you, remove the jelly jar, Ziploc bag, or other weight of choice, seal with the lid, and refrigerate to slow the progression of fermentation.