From Grandma's pantry to restaurant menus, fermented foods are hitting their stride in mainstream food trends. The preservation method, which lengthens the life of fruits and vegetables, and the potential health benefits associated with probiotic microbes and live-culture foods, have been hot topics in research. In the kitchen, fermentation has moved beyond simple recipes used thousands of years ago and is getting a long overdue, modern-day makeover.
One of the most popular fermented foods is sauerkraut, a German word that means "sour cabbage." Sauerkraut is one of the simplest and oldest forms of natural fermentation, requiring minimal ingredients and tools to easily produce an inexpensive and unique way to enjoy cabbage.
While Germany is known for this dish, history credits China as the birthplace of fermented cabbage — and it took some 1,000 years before it arrived in Europe with the Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan.
The fermentation process changed slightly in Germany. Instead of using rice wine as the Chinese had, Germans found they could ferment cabbage using only salt and a little elbow grease. This method, which is still used today, is known as natural or lacto-fermentation.
During natural fermentation, the vegetable's own bacteria are utilized. Adding salt helps extract water from the cabbage to create a solution that converts sugars in the vegetable into lactic acid. When the cabbage is fully covered in this solution and not exposed to air, the environment becomes sufficiently acidic so the cabbage can be safely preserved.
The health benefits of eating sauerkraut are similar to those of eating raw or cooked cabbage. Cabbage is naturally a good source of vitamin C, vitamin K and fiber, and by default, so is sauerkraut. Like cabbage, sauerkraut also is a low-calorie food, providing only 45 calories per 1 cup portion. And thanks to the fermentation process, sauerkraut also contains probiotics. However, because so much salt is used during the fermentation process, sauerkraut is considered a high-sodium food. Anyone following a low-sodium diet should avoid or limit consumption or consider rinsing sauerkraut prior to eating or cooking it.
Because many inexpensive foods — such as cabbage, onions and cucumbers — can be fermented, the process is a low-cost and efficient way to savor and extend the life of some of your favorite foods.
3 Tips to Successfully Ferment Cabbage
- Cleanliness takes priority, which includes all work surfaces, bowls, utensils, hands and storage containers. Dirt and bacteria can destroy the fermentation process and produce an inedible or even toxic product.
- Salt is key. Using canning or pickling salt is preferred, as they do not have iodine or anti-caking agents that are present in table salt and some kosher salts, and which can interfere with the fermentation process.
- Room temperature is best for fermenting. Keep sauerkraut in an area that is between 68 degrees and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. A cooler temperature will work, but it slows the fermentation process.
- 1 head green cabbage (about 3 to 3⅓ pounds)
- 1 to 3 tablespoons pickling/canning salt or sea salt
- Peel away the outer layers of the cabbage to reveal unblemished, clean leaves. Rinse the cabbage and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve a few large leaves for covering the sauerkraut before storing.
- Using a sharp knife, quarter the cabbage head. Remove the core and discard, or reserve the core to use in the sauerkraut, if desired. Carefully cut the cabbage into ⅛-inch to 1⁄16-inch slices. Place the shredded cabbage in a non-reactive bowl. Add 1 tablespoon salt to the cabbage and mix with clean hands or a wooden spoon. Salt helps release water from the cabbage, which becomes the brining solution.
- Add more salt, a little at a time, tasting occasionally to prevent over-salting. Working in small batches, transfer the salted cabbage to the fermenting vessel. Use a food-grade plastic container, crock or enamel pot that has been thoroughly cleaned and is free from any cracks or other imperfections — do not use anything metal. Pack the cabbage mixture down into the bottom of the container. Using a wooden spoon, non-metallic rolling pin, crock tamper or a very clean fist, pound the cabbage to release more liquid.
- Continue this process using the remaining cabbage. Once all of the cabbage is in the container, continue to pound for about 10 minutes or until there is enough liquid to cover the cabbage by 1 inch. This process could take more than 10 minutes depending on the age of the cabbage — the older the cabbage, the less moisture it will have.
- Next, cover and weigh down the cabbage using one of the following techniques: use a large inverted plate that fits snugly inside the fermenting vessel; place the reserved whole cabbage leaves over the sauerkraut and top with a heavy weight made for food use; weigh down the cabbage with a food-safe container filled with water; or completely cover the cabbage with a gallon-sized resealable plastic bag filled with a brine solution made of 6 tablespoons salt mixed with 1 gallon of water (brine is used as a weight in case the plastic bag leaks).
- Cover the container with a clean kitchen towel or lid and store at room temperature — 68°F to 72°F — in a dark, well-ventilated area. Check daily to ensure the cabbage is still covered by the brining liquid. Skim off and discard any scum (yeast or mold) that forms on top.
- The sauerkraut can take anywhere from 7 to 21 days to ferment. Taste it periodically to check fermentation and flavor. Once fully fermented, store sauerkraut in the refrigerator. Serves 16.
- Substitute red cabbage for green cabbage. Add 1 bulb of fennel that has been cleaned and thinly sliced, 1 teaspoon whole juniper berries and 1 bay leaf.
Serving size: ½ cup
Calories: 19; Total fat: 0g; Saturated fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 219mg; Carbohydrate: 5g; Fiber: 2g; Sugars: 2g; Protein: 1g; Potassium: 132mg; Phosphorus: 20mg