There is more talk and certainly more awareness centred around the importance of probiotics and their absolute necessity to life as we know it these days, and the conversation invariably turns to fermented foods and how these can be incorporated into the diet. (I myself have just finished writing an article for Willow magazine on the importance of probiotic use before, during and after pregnancy).
One of the most well known fermented foods that is making quite a comeback from its traditional beginnings is sauerkraut, and it’s a great starting place for many people as it can easily be incorporated into your meals and works well as a side dish to many foods. It’s also ridiculously easy to make! YAY!
There really are some great sauerkrauts available these days and I would encourage you to visit your local farmers markets as most regions will have dedicated individuals creating some absolutely delicious local krauts. Or, you can make your own, because as I mentioned, it is ridiculously easy to make. YAY!
What is it? How does it work?
Historically fermented foods have played a role in most diets around the world. Every traditional society consumed some type of lacto-fermented food; dairy, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables and herbs in Europe, pickled vegetables particularly kimchi in Asia, even the Inuit’s ate fermented fish and sea mammals.
Whilst the preservation advantages pre-refrigeration and pre-canning are obvious, it is the supreme health benefits of fermented foods, particularly lacto-fermented foods that keep us coming back for more!
Sauerkraut directly translates as: sour cabbage. It is finely cut cabbage that has been lacto-fermented (fermented by various lactobacillus bacteria) resulting in a distinctive sour flavour and a long shelf life.
- Naturally occurring Lactobacillus bacteria are responsible for the fermentation process. Various strains are present on the surface of all plants, especially those growing close to the ground. Through a naturally occurring fermentation process they can convert sugars into lactic acid.
- Lactic acid is a natural preservative that will inhibit the growth of any harmful bacteria. Lacto-fermented foods are also pro-biotic foods (meaning pro-life) as lactic acid promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in our digestive systems.
- The fermentation process increases the bioavailability of nutrients (i.e increases vitamin and mineral levels) making it more nutritious than the original cabbage. Sauerkraut is a source of vitamins B, C, K, calcium, magnesium, folate, iron, potassium, copper, manganese and fibre, it also contains the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.
- Enzyme levels are increased during lacto-fermentation helping to increase the digestibility of the fermented food. This along with the beneficial bacteria helps to create a healthy intestinal environment, balances stomach pH and helps with the breakdown of proteins in our food
The process is quite simple:
lactobacillus (naturally present) + sugar (naturally present) + a little salt – oxygen (anaerobic process) + time =lactic acid fermentation.
Making sauerkraut is not only a great way to increase your health and nutrition but it is also very easy (and fun) to make!
- Sharp knife
- Chopping board
- Large sturdy bowl
- Glass jar (I find the flip top lids with the hinge work best but any will do)
- Cabbage (Fresh is always best)
- Salt (Unrefined and natural is best. I have used sea salt and himalayan crystal salt. I wouldn’t recommend Iodized salt as the iodine can inhibit the beneficial bacteria in cultured vegetables)
- Finely slice, shred or chop one medium head of cabbage (depending on your desired outcome).
- Put cabbage into a sturdy bowl and sprinkle with 1-3 tablespoons of salt.
- Squeeze the salted cabbage with your hands for about 10-15 minutes to release the juices, kneading it thoroughly to break up the cellular structure. (It does take some time and patience but is actually pretty soothing and meditative!) If you would prefer you can use a wooden mallet or meat hammer to pound the cabbage instead of using your hands.
- Spoon the cabbage into your jar making sure that you press it down firmly to eliminate air bubbles and so that all the juices come to the top and cover the cabbage. If necessary you can add a little water to completely cover the cabbage. (This is important as the brine creates an anaerobic environment which prevents the proliferation of any harmful bacteria).
- Cover and allow the cabbage to culture at room temperature for 3 – 10 days. (You can leave sauerkraut to culture for much longer, 1-6months even, so don’t be worried if you forget about it for a few days).The length of time needed will depend on the temperature of your room and the flavour you prefer. The longer that you leave the sauerkraut the stronger the taste will become.
- When you are happy with the result you can transfer your jar to the fridge where it will keep for several months.
How do you know that it’s ready?
- The fermentation process is continual and the flavours will continue to change and develop over time. There are some tell-tale signs that your fermentation process is underway, and these will tend to vary from batch to batch and season to season as temperature plays a role in how quickly flavours and aromas develop.
- One of these signs is bubbles! The lactic acid bacteria create gases as they feast on the cabbage and you can often see these bubbles forming in the jar after a few days. This is a good sign so don’t stress!
- When you open the jar after a few days you will most likely smell a sour, sometimes vinegary-like aroma, sometimes strong at first but it should still be pleasant. If you smell something reminiscent of rotten or spoiled food please discard the cabbage and begin again.
- When you have the first two elements down, bubbles and pleasantly sour smelling, it’s time to taste. You can continue fermenting the cabbage at room temperature until you reach your desired flavour and then pop it on the fridge to slow down the process.
- Sauerkraut pairs wonderfully with meats, particularly pork and sausages, as it helps to increase their digestibility and break down the proteins. It also makes a fabulous side dish to most meals, and I’m particularly fond of a big spoonful on the side of my salad, eggs, or plate. Enjoy!