Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oktoberfest: Making Sauerkraut

3-Gallon Crock of Sauerkraut
My grandmother, Christine Weiler, came from a beautiful little town on the Rhine River called Engers, Germany. She was born in 1903 and met my grandfather while he was stationed in Germany during WWI. They married in 1918 when she was 15 years old. I can only imagine the shock she must’ve experienced when he dragged her home to the 80-acre hardscrabble cotton farm in Chalk, Texas, that was to be the beginning of her adult life. (She probably felt a lot like the Elizabeth Taylor character in “Giant!”)

It was there in the arid, barren sandpit of the world that they raised 5 boys, one of which was my father. He continued to farm that 80 acres until he retired, along with another 147 acres he managed to buy across the road from it and we still own most of that property today. Our own homestead was about 10 miles away, but I grew up playing among the old house and outbuildings his family had built there in Chalk.

I never got the impression that they were “poor” although I suppose they probably were by today’s standards. But then, money didn’t really buy very much of value back then. Most everything they needed was readily available from their own land and their own labor. Lumber was cheap and my grandfather and his sons built a beautiful little house there. It is so well built that if hunters and poachers hadn’t destroyed most of it by turning it into a deer stand, it might still be liveable.

My grandfather died in his 50’s, leaving my grandmother to raise the 3 youngest alone. I can’t imagine how hard that must’ve been, but she managed well enough and I never heard my dad or any of my uncles complain about hardship. By the time I came along, she lived in a small house in town and valued her solitude and privacy above all else. She was a respected woman about town who attended church faithfully, though she’d get a little miffed if the preacher kept the congregation late on days when the Dallas Cowboys were playing! She wore her wedding ring until the day she died and never so much as dated another man, though she had lots of friends at the senior center where they met to play dominoes most days.

She was frugal beyond belief, no longer out of necessity in her golden years, but out of habit. She had 2 or 3 nice Sunday dresses and maybe 7 or 8 more for daily wear and that was her entire wardrobe. She did not wear pants, EVER! She never owned an electric washer or dryer even though they were available by the time she lived in town. (And what I wouldn’t give NOW for those 2 old washtubs that sat in the back of her kitchen where she washed her clothes!) Every evening, she rinsed out her underthings in the bathroom sink and hung them on a rack to dry in her claw-footed bathtub. She had a fondness for potted meat and rather than waste fuel heating it on her kitchen stove, she’d set her little cans of meat and vegetables on the blue-flame heater in the living room since it was already running.

I’d like to say that I learned to cook from her, but truth be told, after raising 5 children with no labor-saving luxuries, she only cooked on holidays and for the occasional Sunday dinner. And, like all women who knew how to cook, she only wrote down recipes for desserts – cakes, pies, cobblers and such – she knew how to cook everything else from memory.

I did inherit a good many of her dishes, the most treasured of those being the bowl in which she served banana pudding in for special meals. She made a fantastic banana pudding from scratch and I’ve tried numerous recipes and never been able to duplicate it. Perhaps it’s best that way.

Another treasure of hers I’ve only recently resurrected is her pressure canner. I found it sitting outside by an old tractor one time when I was at the old homestead. God only knows what it had been used for – changing the oil, collecting drips from a leaky roof? In any case, I brought it home with me and carried it around for some 20 years, thinking one day it might be useful for something – a planter maybe? Earlier this year, I was thinking of ordering a smaller pressure cooker/canner than the All-American I have (which holds 14 quart jars). That’s when I spied my grandmother’s old “National” cooker/canner sitting on top of the kitchen cupboard collecting dust bunnies. Turns out those old canners can be refurbished with a new safety valve, petcock and gauge. Once I got it cleaned up, it works beautifully. It’s the perfect size for cooking down a tough old hen or ultra-pasteurizing 4 quarts of milk or broth.
My Grandmother's Old "National" Canner

Anyway, I didn’t learn to cook German food until I got older, but there seems to be some genetic memory there that craves it. Curtis and I both love the heavy, rich foods that are the backbone of the cuisines of Germany, Austria and many of the Eastern European countries. I’d planned on featuring both sauerkraut and homemade sausages in this post, but the sausage will have to wait until next time. Good sausage is worth waiting for!


I’m sad to say that I didn’t grow the cabbages shown in the sauerkraut crock. Cabbage takes a long while to mature and I’ve not figured out how to nurse it along through the hottest days of our Texas summers so that I can have some available for the first batch of kraut. But cabbage is cheap this time of year and our new grocery has some really nice ones.

However, I’ve grown some beautiful cabbages through the winter and enjoyed them during the early spring. Cabbage and kale are not the least bit affected by our mild winters and as long as you start the seeds early enough (no later than the first of September), they will start heading up nicely in February and by March or April, you’ll have some big, beautiful heads with the finest flavor you can imagine. Seedlings are available locally in late January/early February for harvest by early summer. They will not have the fine, sweet flavor of cabbages grown during colder weather, but what is summer without coleslaw?!

If you plan on growing your own cabbages for kraut, go for some of the old heirlooms that get BIG. Baker’s Creek has a good selection and many of those will reach fifteen to twenty POUNDS! That’s a lot of kraut. Or coleslaw.

I made 3 batches of kraut last year and will probably make at least that much this year. We rarely eat salads during the winter, so the kraut filles a niche for raw food with the additional benefits of lactic-acid fermentation. For every proponent of some health craze, you’ll always find people who claim it’s bull-hockey. But people all over the world have been proclaiming the health benefits of lacto-fermented foods for at least a couple thousand years. In one study, birds that were fed lacto-fermented veggies recovered from Avian flu.

We just think it’s delicious. Lots of vegetables can be pickled like sauerkraut – green beans, cucumbers, beets, onions, daikons – there’s really no limit and you can find lots of sites on the net devoted to lactic-acid fermentation (also called “probiotics”). It’s always helpful to have a jar of raw sauerkraut put back in the fridge since a teaspoon of the juice can be used as a “starter” to get those other veggies pickling – otherwise you sometimes have to use whey, which is not something I happen to have lying around.

Last year for Thanksgiving, I brought along a jar of kraut to share with the in-laws. That’s when Curtis’ mom remembered there was a “cabbage shredder” somewhere out in her garage that had belonged to Curtis’ grandmother. She asked if I wanted it. I’d been looking at “kraut mandolins” on the internet and had no idea what she was talking about! I couldn’t believe my eyes when she brought it out. It was covered in dirt dauber nests, dirt and rust, but I knew immediately that it could be made to work again. My in-laws are very “hygenic” when it comes to food safety and my sister-in-law gave me a strange look that I was actually planning on USING it, but here’s what it looks like now that it’s been cleaned. Mineral oil dissolved every last bit of rust on the blades and they’re still razor sharp. Beautiful, isn’t it? (And most likely much better made than the beechwood “Krauthobels” available from China new for about $50!)
Curtis' Grandmother's "Krauthobel"

If you don’t have a “mandolin” don’t rush out and buy one unless you’re already certain that you’ll use it a lot. Just shred the cabbage with a sharp knife. The pieces will be a little thicker than without it, but I made several batches that way last year and they were just fine. Sorry, but a food processor doesn’t really work well for shredding cabbage.

(Something that has been on my wish list for awhile are these beautiful Harsch fermenting crocks made in Germany. I can imagine someday having a big root cellar lined with these, bursting with all kinds of wonderful fermented pickles. After I have more money than sense, of course – they ARE expensive! J )

I’m not going to go through the entire process of making kraut – there are PLENTY of sites devoted to that on the net and after you’ve made it once, you’ll be an old hand and you’ll only need to remember the ratio of salt to cabbage.

Here is the basic recipe:
*5 pounds shredded cabbage
*3 ½ tablespoons of non-iodized salt (I use pickling/brining salt found in the canning section of the mart.) This works out to 2.1 teaspoons per pound of shredded cabbage, if that’s helpful.

I also like to add 1 tablespoon (per 5 pounds cabbage) of either dill seed or caraway seed. Juniper berries are also a nice addition.

Now, how much cabbage to start with?
The crock above holds about 3 gallons. It was less than $20 a few years back from Wal-mart. I started with 22 pounds of cabbages to fill it. That was 6 heads weighing about 3 ¾ pounds, minus the core, outer leaves and the last bits that are hard to shred. (Incidentally, a quart jar holds about 1.5 pounds of veggies, if that’s helpful at all.) Resist the urge to add any water to the mixture on the first day – the salt will continue to draw water out of the cabbage for a couple of days and it will likely bubble over if it’s too full. This will also happen if you pack too much kraut into the crock – leave a couple inches of headspace between the kraut & the rim of the crock.

It is necessary to make sure the entire contents of the crock are completely submerged. Here is my method: After pounding the kraut and packing it into the crock with a potato masher, take about 12 of the whole outer leaves you removed from the cabbage before shredding. Cut the thickest part of the stem out so they lie flat. Layer them over the top of the shredded cabbage, tucking the edges of the leaves down into the cabbage. Cut down a styro-foam paper plate so that it fits through the opening of the crock, then use 2 chopsticks (you’ll have to trim them with wire or bolt –cutters), crossed over each other and secured under the rim of the crock. (You’ll have to use a different method if you use a straight-sided crock.)

Be sure and save the whole leaves of cabbage after the kraut is done if you plan on transferring the mixture to jars. I fold up a leaf and tuck it on top of the contents of the jar to keep all immersed in the liquid. Kraut can be water-bath canned after it’s ready, but that will destroy the beneficial bacteria. We almost always eat ours raw. My kraut is usually ready within 7-10 days, fermented at approximately 70 degrees with cooler night-time temps.

Whole Pickled Cabbages

My friend Jack (Maryland’s genius!) has a cousin who married a woman from Bulgaria. Her family not only grows their own cabbages, but they pickle them WHOLE in trash cans or drums for making cabbage rolls (sarmas). I’d never heard of such a thing and subsequent googling didn’t turn up much either. Simona doesn’t measure the salt in the brine, but does it “by taste”. Knowing fully well I’m not capable of such a thing, I compared kraut and other brining recipes to come up with a reliable formula for doing it safely. Try it at your own risk. J

The biggest problem with these is that you need BIG cabbages (at LEAST 5 or 6 pounds) to get leaves that are big enough to roll and cook without tearing. I made them with smaller leaves, but it ended up being a very small batch and I didn’t dare cook them for as long as the recipe suggested. (I also cooked them in the oven so they didn’t bubble and tear as easily as they might have on the stovetop.) So you really need to grow your own for this dish. Keep in mind that this is as much a method of preservation as it is preparation – if you have a cool garage rather than a cold root cellar, this might be just the thing for you.

With a long, sharp paring or boning knife, cut the core from a cabbage. (The core only goes down a few inches, not the entire length of the cabbage – don’t cut so deeply that you damage the outer leaves.) Weigh the cabbage, then spread the interior leaves out just a bit without breaking it up. Add 2 teaspoons brining/pickling salt (per pound of cabbage) into the hole and work it into the leaves just a bit. Fill the hole with water and set the cabbages with the hole upright into a barrel, drum or trash can. After all the cabbages are in the container, make a weak brine using 10 parts water to ¾ parts salt and gently pour over the cabbages until they are all submerged. You’ll have to find something to hold them under the surface of the liquid until they wilt a bit. They’ll also need to be “aerated” (stirred around gently) occasionally, maybe once a week, to ensure even pickling. Kept in a cool place, they’ll be ready in about 4-6 weeks. (I’m told the fermented liquid left in the barrel is an excellent “tonic” for “cleansing” the digestive tract…) J

(clicking this link will take you to someone who actually makes these on a regular basis!)

Here’s my recipe for a very small batch (will serve about 4) of Sarma. It uses ONE whole pickled cabbage. But DO click on the link above to see the detailed instructions. Makes 12 rolls.

*12 large pickled cabbage leaves + smaller leaves for shredding
*1 pound bulk pork sausage (breakfast sausage or bratwurst is good)
*2 ½ cups water or stock
*¼ cup wild rice
*½ cup long-grain white rice
*1-2 smoked ham hocks or neckbones

Sauce (makes 6 cups):
*1 ½ cups sour cream or yogurt
*2 cups sour pickling brine from cabbage or kraut
*2 ½ cups water
*½ teaspoon salt
*caraway and paprika to taste

Bring the water or stock to a boil and add the wild rice and a little salt or bouillon. Cook, covered, for 35 minutes. Add the white rice and cook 10 minutes more, covered, stirring occasionally. Saute the sausage, cutting it with a pastry cutter to make it fine. Mix the sausage into the rice and fill the leaves, using about ½ cup filling in each large leaf.

Chop most of the small leaves and place them in the bottom of a large casserole or roasting pan. Drizzle about a cup of the sauce over. Layer the rolls and smoked meat on top. Pour about 3 cups of sauce over the top. Cover with whole smaller leaves or more shredded kraut. Top with the remaining sauce. Dust heavily with paprika. Cover and bake in a slow oven (about 250-300 degrees) for 2 hours.
Sarma (Cabbage Rolls)

As an aside, the first time I pickled a cabbage whole, I packed 2 of them into the center of the kraut jar, like this. It will take an additional week or so for the whole cabbages to pickle after the kraut is ready. After they’ve pickled for the initial 7-10 days amongst the shredded kraut, they’ll be soft & wilted enough you can remove the leaves & continue to pickle them whole that way, as it takes up less space in the brine. You’ll probably still have to add more pickling brine after removing the kraut though . One large cabbage will give you enough large leaves to make the smaller batch of Sarma in the recipe above.
Whole Cabbages Packed into the Kraut

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