This is one of the most unambiguous bifurcation of humankind. Either you love fermented vegetables — Sauerkraut, Kim Chee, etc — or you can’t stand them.
But though I do not believe in “Intelligent Design” I think the fermentation of food is one of the best ideas God hypothetically had. Think about it: Wine, Beer, Pickles, Cheese, Yogurt, Kim Chee, Kraut, Sourdough Bread. These are all ways that with only a minimum of care, you can enlist invisible animals to take perishable foods and make them last longer and taste awesome.
There are numerous instructions on the Internet for making Kraut, but I’ve had good luck with a much quicker, simpler method. They also call for big stoneware crocks, and I’ve found a simple, cheap reusable substitute: The 2 Liter Mason Jar. You can get a flat of 6 giant mason jars at the hardware store for under $10. They’re perfect for ice tea as well.
- Buy a good-size (2-3 pound) Cabbage. Red or green? Both work great. It depends on if you whether you want that brilliant purple color (and the inevitable brillant purple spots on your clothes) or not.
- Finely chop the cabbage. You can do this with a knife, a hand shredder, or a food processor.
- Set aside a couple of tablespoons of Kosher Salt. Kosher or non-Iodized salt. Iodized salt works but seems to take longer.
- In a very clean container — some people sterilize their crockery with boiling water, but I don’t think it’s critical — add your shredded cabbage, a handful at a time, with a pinch of salt. Pack it in the jar with a wooden spoon or other utensil.
- STOP adding cabbage 3 or 4 inches from the top of the jar. A little above the handy 1500 ML marking.
- Pound down the cabbage for a minute or two, to release water. Top off with water, just covering the cabbage — it shouldn’t take much.
- Push a watertight plastic bag into the jar on top of the cabbage, and fill with water. This is an airtight ‘lid’ over the cabbage to prevent mold or oxidation. Leave enough room for the whole bag to fit in the jar.
- Twist the plastic bag and push it down in the jar. Put the lid on the jar, but screw it on loosely.
- Leave the jar to stand at room temperature for several days to a week
Then wait for the magic to begin! I’ve found that you have nicely tart slaw after as little as 4 days. Some recipes call for letting the kraut ferment for several weeks, but I’m not that patient. Plus the young kraut keeps well in the refrigerator and is crunchy and fresh tasting. Even if you dislike commercially made sauerkraut, you should give this stuff a try — it tart and wonderful, and works well as a garnish for foods — like pork chops — that you normally want to salt.
What I find cool about this is how idiot-proof it really is. Just a small amount of salt — you can use even less than I recommend — inhibits the reproduction of undesirable bacteria — the stuff that will turn a cabbage into nasty brown sludge. The lactobacillus bacteria that you want to reproduce is salt tolerant. It’s also an anerobe — it reproduces without oxygen. That’s why you cover it with the plastic bag full of water.
Here’s an idiot move NOT to execute. Don’t tighten down the lid. During fermentation, carbon dioxide is released. If you’re doing this in an airtight jar, tremendous gas pressure will build up, and you run the risk of a sauerkraut explosion.
There are many variations on this process. You can buy cukes at your farmer’s market and ferment them in brine. You can use shredded Daikon Radish, or pretty much any vegetable you can imagine. You can leave the salt out entirely, but then you probably should sterilize your crock/jar, and boil the water you add to the vegetable, and make sure you get a good airtight seal over the fermentation mixture. In this case, you won’t have salt to inhibit undesirable bacteria, you’re depending on oxygen deprivation.