Salt and Sauerkraut

I’ve talked a lot about the what and why of fermentation – my case made for the importance of and fun within fermentation, so I am going to shift gears to the how with the common fermentation practice of making sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut is the classic example of fermented vegetables in North America and is often the gateway recipe to shelves full of fermented vegetables. Making sauerkraut is pretty simple: get a cabbage and slice it into thin strips. Have on hand salt and a vessel for fermenting. Mix salt into cabbage and squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze. Pack into vessel and then weigh the cabbage down with a weight to ensure it stays under the juices created by mixing salt into cabbage and squeezing. Store in a cool, dark place for a few weeks and then you can start testing and tasting it. Once it has fermented to the taste and crunchiness/softness you like – you can start to eat it. You can also move it into an even cooler place (even into your fridge) in order to slow the fermenting down. That’s it.

Sauerkraut is an example of a dry salted ferment because the salt is added to the vegetable and mixed in, drawing out the water from the vegetable and building a brine from there. Other vegetables are fermented using a brine: dissolving the salt in water and pouring that over the sliced vegetables and spices.

The basic principle that you are following is that you are creating an anaerobic (no-oxygen) environment under a liquid and keeping the vegetables in that environment so that the beneficial bacteria can do their job and are not destroyed by molds and non-beneficial bacterias. You are creating an environment where the food transforms instead of rots.

The salt is key to facilitating this process and environment

  • it draws out the water in the vegetables, allowing them to be submerged in their own juices
  • it makes the vegetables crisper because it slows the action of the enzymes that will eventually make vegetables mushy
  • it narrows the range of which bacteria can grow, giving the beneficial bacteria (which are salt tolerant) an advantage
  • it adds flavour, some ferments could be done without salt but most people find they taste better with it

Since salt is so key to fermentation, I don’t cheap out on salt. I use either an organic sea salt or a jurassic salt, directly mined from salt deposits which have had less change of contamination from industrial activity. As a ferment progresses, the salt level is reduced so I am not concerned that I am using a fair amount. Also, the salt I use includes trace quanitities of minerals that our bodies need so by using them I am including these minerals in my diet.

I know I’ve left out a lot of details in that explanation especially if you’ve never done it before and want to start. I would recommend The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation, both by Sandor Katz. The first book is his newest and goes much more into the process and principles of fermentation. I like this because it’s given me a deeper understanding of how fermentation works – I like to make up my own recipes and combinations. Wild Fermentation is more recipe focused and instructional, which other people prefer. My point here is to show how simple the process is and how once you know the process and principles you can jump off from here with your own experiments…. I mean, recipes.

The following piece is part of a regular column in the local newspaper that Brenda writes, often inspired by our farm journey and adventures.  It first appeared in The Chautauqua in 2013.

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