Sauerkraut .... a riot of happiness in the mouth

By jess

written by Cass

I actually missed this Science and Cooking (fermentation) meetup in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago, but wanted to share my personal experience with making sauerkraut.

I was reminded that this would be a good blog post when a friend who is a registered nurse recently commented about how distressing it was that morning at work to be wearing a hazmat suit one minute while packing the wounds of a patient with one of those deadly MRSA infections, and then breaking for lunch. He was wondering how it's possible to eat after such a fearful activity. The answer for him was, "I couldn't! It's too scary!"

For those who are unaware of what "MRSA" means, my friend elaborated, "MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. It's a drug-resistant superbug that causes awful infections." Well, I guess I might have added, ". . . a CLASS of superbugs . . ." because there are more and more kinds turning up all the time, even including new versions of familiar bugs that as infections go had previously been considered fairly benign.

MRSA are the result of rampant overuse of antibiotics that put pathogens on the fast track for adaptation and survival in the face of antibiotics.

My suggestion to combating this threat, I say, "So eat your sauerkraut!" Here's my take. As medicine, it's a plug for an ounce of prevention over a pound of cure. And as culinary art, it's a recommendation anyone can try to revive an old time favorite recipe, an incentive to create new and delicious applications, and an invitation to get ready to pucker and crunch.

Naturally fermented sauerkraut provides numerous probiotic advantages to the digestion, like all fermented foods are wont to do, replenishing the intestinal tract's beneficial bacteria. This includes naturally fermented vinegars, yogurt, tempe, kashi, and kombucha to name a few. Another benefit from these is that they provide a powerful boost the immune system. With good digestion and a strong immune system, threats from infections (whether bacterial or viral) are vastly diminished.

Sadly, though, most sauerkrauts available in the markets of the U.S.A. are not "alive" with the beneficial components I'm talking about here. Having been "stabilized" or "preserved" with distilled vinegar, they are devoid of the living organisms we need and love so very much. And the "living" examples of the product (available at health food stores) can be quite expensive because of relatively short shelf life compared to stabilized forms.

This is true because, left undisturbed under normal conditions, fermentation will continue until there is nothing left for these good bacteria to consume, somewhere distant along the timeline resulting in a stinky mess no one (or at least very few) would be willing to consume. Fermentation slows with lowered temperatures, but the product really must be consumed when "ready" just like all good food, within a certain window of delectability.

Cultivation of fermented foods is a fun, easy, interesting and even entertaining way to make it ever more likely that people can live life to the fullest through knowledge and the exciting adventures of learning to look after oneself.

To make your own sauerkraut at home, try the recipe, below. It is easy and inexpensive, delicious and healthful.

Cassie's Sauerkraut Method

I usually make sauerkraut with Savoy cabbage because of the krinkles in its leaves, which make it wiggle when you eat it, creating a riot of happiness in the mouth. I also like Red cabbage, beautiful for its color and flavor and the extra nutritional benefits signalled by that rich color. If I have both on hand, I may layer the Red on the bottom and the Savoy on the top. Yet any kind of cabbage, plus numerous other vegetables will "sauer," i.e. "ferment," admirably.

Recipes for natural sauerkraut use no vinegar, instead drawing whatever is needed from the air reacting with salt, vegetable fuel (and other components, no doubt) to allow fermentation to begin.

You will need to gather together:
A crock (or any kind of pot — earthen, glass, or stainless steel)
Two or three new plastic bags of the type found in the produce section at the market
Shredded cabbage
A heavy, unbreakable object for bruising the shredded vegetables, and

Chop or otherwise cut up the cabbage, bruise it slightly with a chef's kudgel or other heavy object, then add sea salt or other natural salt — up to a couple of tablespoons for a large head of cabbage‚ and mix thoroughly.

You may also add chiles (to make kimchi), ginger (which itself ferments nicely), or other spices or vegetables.

Pack the cabbage tightly into the crock. Leave enough space at the top, 3 inches or so should suffice, for the weight, to be added when ready to seal it off. Add a little extra water to the cabbage, just enough to assure everything is immersed, then compress with some kind of weight, and cover so that it is airtight.

I found the sealing and weighting part a little awkward until I devised the following method using plastic bags. I use two or 3 bags, placed one inside the other, to achieve multiple thicknesses that will assure it doesn't leak:

Place the bag(s) on top of the packed kraut. Pour a quantity of water into the innermost bag. This creates a good weight for the appropriate pressure. Reaching into the pool of water you have created, press gently around the edges to expell any air bubbles, then tie the bag off.

Leave the crock in a spot out of direct sunlight for 2-3 weeks. In warm temperatures, fermentation will proceed more quickly; cooler temperatures take longer.

In two or three weeks, pour the water out of the water bag/weight and push it aside so you can remove a few bites for tasting. If necessary, replenish the water and return to its resting place. Taste it every so often.

When fermented to taste, transfer the sauerkraut to clean glass jars, packing it well, and refrigerate. Refrigeration greatly slows fermentation. Sauerkraut kept this way will last in the refrigerator for many months. Before using, rinse well.

You may use it raw or add it to stir-fry. Try making cole slaw with it -- it's amazing! You can also make other vegetable pickle, exactly as described above, using carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, ginger, or an assortment of these and other things such as turnips, kale, or rutebaga.

(Use "dense" vegetables only. Do not use onions or cucumbers, as these are too watery and will rot instead of ferment unless pickled with a different method that involves heat and sterilization.)

It's alive! It's so good, and good for you. You may find, as we have, that our immune systems get strong, making us tough and resilient, so that we hardly ever get sick with the usual cold- and flu-bugs that are making the rounds. In fact, the last time I got sick was in the winter of 2004 when I was working in a commercial art studio where the air was very dry due to forced air heat. (Properly humidified air is another factor that goes a long way toward preventing winter illnesses.) My co-worker was a lady with small kids, and that family would get several colds a year. So I caught it, whatever it was. But even so, my own discomfort lasted a mere 24 hours and did not recur after the initial infection — and that was nine years ago.

To your health!

At some point when writing about health and well-being, I usually find myself reminding readers of research stemming from HIV and AIDS that revealed more than twenty years ago the fact that white blood cells, or "lymphocytes," are not one type of cell, but several types. Yet a general increase in the white blood cell count remains the signal that most medical tests still use to recognize the presence of infection.

But the white blood cells, in and of themselves, are not actually the body's first line of defense. We now know that only 10-15% of these are what are now called "K" cells, or "killer" or "natural killer" cells, and that it's these "K" cells that are often the first to recognize pathogenic invaders within the body and to initiate the crucial immune responses to foreign pathogens. When other components of the lymphocytes like the "T" cell and the "B" cell, and others, rise and display elevation in the general white blood cell count, it's an indication that the body is already very ill.

It's amazing how quickly knowledge is lost, as hardly anyone seems aware of this today, only a couple of decades on from this wonderful and important discovery.

Naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut (and others, some of which were mentioned above) feed and support the immune system's first line of defense, the "K" cells. The critical ingredient in foods that help in this way is N-acetyl cysteine.

N-acetyl cysteine, a mere atom or two distant from living vinegar, has been found to maintain a rather predictable presence in space rocks, not to mention in the very air we breathe. This suggests to me, at least, that the same credence some might afford to Deity might also be paid to vinegar, since N-acetyl cysteine has been demonstrated to be ubiquitous in the universe whereas symbolic expressions of deity are only presumed to be.