I have to admit that I’m a latecomer to the enjoyment of sauerkraut and other cabbage ferments and pickles. Perhaps it’s because I moved straight from a little kid eating processed hot dogs to a teenager refusing all meat—I’m not sure I’ve ever had a real sausage smothered in German sauerkraut. I’m not even a fan of coleslaw: it’s usually too heavy on the vinegar or the mayo and still fairly flavorless. It doesn’t help that for years I couldn’t grow brassicas without harvesting more cabbage moth larvae than edible cabbage leaves.
A couple of years ago, we mastered the cabbage moth problem, covering a hoop tunnel frame with mosquito netting and diligently clamping it down when we weren’t harvesting or weeding the broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage protected beneath it. Once I started growing cabbage, I needed another way to deal with the enormous heads besides my favorite use: fresh, raw Asian Cabbage Salad. In discovering fermented cabbage, I learned that the variations developed around the world—from German sauerkraut to Korean kimchi—are as endless as they are for any other pickle.
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 medium apple
2 teaspoons juniper berries
Prepare to shred the cabbage by removing any loose outer leaves, and then set the stem end on a cutting board. With a very sharp knife, slice the cabbage in half and then quarters down to the stem. Cut the solid core from each wedge. Lay the flat of one wedge on the cutting board and slice thin strips, about the thickness of a quarter; do the same with a second cabbage wedge, adding the strips to a large, wide bowl. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of salt and toss the cabbage with your hands or a couple of large spoons to distribute the salt. Repeat the process with the remaining cabbage and salt. Peel and core the apple, and then grate it into the bowl using a large-holed grater; add the juniper berries and toss again, pressing and squeezing so that the cabbage starts to soften and release some liquid.
Pack the softened cabbage mixture and all of its liquid into a clean half-gallon jar, tamping it down firmly. Cover the surface with a whole cabbage leaf or piece of cheesecloth, and then weigh it down or seal it with an airlock (see Tips & Tricks). Wrap in a clean towel and set in a cool (below 75°F) room.
Check the mixture after 24 hours. If liquid doesn’t cover the cabbage leaf or cheesecloth, stir 1-1/8 teaspoons of salt into 1 cup of hot nonchlorinated water until it dissolves; cool to room temperature. Add brine to the jar to submerge the cabbage; store the rest in a small sealed jar, topping off the ferment and making more salt brine as needed during the fermenting process.
Continue to check the fermentation jar daily. As it becomes cloudy, use a small spoon to skim off any scum that collects on the surface. After 2 weeks, taste the sauerkraut; if needed, continue fermenting an additional 2–4 weeks until it achieves your desired flavor. Store the finished sauerkraut in the fridge, replacing the weight or airlock with a plastic storage lid. Makes 1 half-gallon jar.
Tips & Tricks
- You can use red head cabbage in this recipe; it will make the sauerkraut a bright pink. But I avoid it in kimchi (see below); the leached red tones will disguise the color of the other ingredients.
- The most basic sauerkraut consists of cabbage and salt, but I like hints of sweetness and spice, particularly on Smoked-Beet Sandwiches. The apple and juniper berries can be left out or swapped in equal portions for onion and caraway seeds.
- Whereas cucumbers are fermented in a brine, made by dissolving salt in water, cabbage is dry salted: mixed with salt, it may release enough liquid to submerge the shredded leaves. Or it may not—the cabbage variety, fermenting temperature, and even growing conditions can affect water content. You can get away with checking your sauerkraut every 2–3 days later in the process, but check it within the first 24 hours and add wet brine if needed to prevent mold from forming.
- When packed into half-gallon jars with tapered shoulders, cucumbers can stay in place with a brine-filled zip-close bag or no weight. But small shreds of cabbage tend to creep up and around the bag, potentially spoiling the batch. You can still weight with a bag; just cover the shredded pieces with a whole cabbage leaf or cheesecloth first. Once you get hooked on fermenting cabbage, you may want to buy an airlock.
Twice as Tasty
When I first started fermenting cabbage, I thought I wouldn’t be able to make kimchi unless I made room in my little hoop tunnel to plant Chinese or Napa cabbage. But a quick browse of books by my favorite fermentation experts, Sandor Katz and Linda Ziedrich, made it clear I could add any Asian flavors I wanted when fermenting my round heads of cabbage.
Kimchi is thought of as pickled cabbage by many Westerners, but that’s just the beginning: Museum Kimchikan apparently boasts 160 kinds of kimchi and has an exhibit titled “The Sound of Kimchi’s Flavor,” which makes me wish I’d gone beyond the airport on my one transfer through Seoul. For me, Head-Cabbage Kimchi is a chance to move past the basic pickled cabbage I encountered in Germany and Russia and add a little bite and heat. Katz and Ziedrich call their versions kraut-chi and kimchi kraut, respectively; to me, the main point is that if you’re growing or buying head cabbage, you can make kimchi without doubling down for Napa cabbage plants.
5 ounces scallions or onion tops
3 tablespoons minced fresh chili
2 tablespoons minced fresh gingerroot
5 teaspoons minced garlic
5 teaspoons pickling salt
2-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Shred half of the cabbage as you would for Apfel Sauerkraut; cut the scallions into 2-inch lengths and sliver the green and white sections. Place the shredded cabbage and half of the scallions in a large, wide bowl. Add half of the minced chili, ginger, and garlic, and then toss the cabbage with your hands or a couple of large spoons to mix. Sprinkle with half of the salt and sugar and toss again to distribute the ingredients. Repeat the process with the remaining cabbage and other ingredients; while tossing, press and squeeze the cabbage so that it starts to soften and release some liquid.
Pack the softened cabbage mixture and all of its liquid into a clean half-gallon jar, tamping it down firmly. Cover the surface with a whole cabbage leaf or piece of cheesecloth, and then weigh it down or seal it with an airlock (see Tips & Tricks). Wrap the jar in a clean towel and set in a cool room where the temperature is below 75°F.
Monitor the fermentation as you would for Apfel Sauerkraut, checking the mixture after 24 hours, adding a brine made of 1-1/8 teaspoons of salt per cup of water if the cabbage is exposed, and then skimming off scum and adding saltwater brine as needed over the next 2 weeks. Taste and continue fermenting if necessary to achieve your desired flavor. Store finished sauerkraut in the refrigerator, replacing the weight or airlock with a plastic storage lid. Makes 1 half-gallon jar.
Tips & Tricks
- Whether you’re fermenting, mixing up a fresh salad, or creating a stir-fry, cabbage shreds easily with a sharp knife. Other options are a large mandoline (sometimes sold as a kraut board) or box grater. Food processors tend to cut cabbage too finely.
- I prefer flavorful spicy to hot spicy, so for my kimchi, I add fairly mild chilies that blend well with the sharp bite of ginger and garlic. For more heat, go with hotter peppers.
- Kimchi made from Chinese cabbage is ready in just a few days, but it takes longer to soften head cabbage. This also makes it more sour than traditional kimchi.
- As the Seoul museum proves, cabbage is just the start of your kimchi adventures. Radish, particularly, daikon, is common; some recipes include apple and carrot or lemon. Katz notes that even nuts and seafood are mixed into some batches.
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Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- Ball makes wide-mouth, half-gallon jars. Wrap them in a clean towel to keep out the light as you ferment many vegetables. I prefer them to squat, plastic-capped kombucha jars because I can stuff a 4-ounce jam jar in as a weight and cut into old canning lids to install an airlock.
- You can find many types of airlock lids designed for vegetable ferments, but so far I’ve only played with a simple twin bubble airlock with a carboy bung, like those used by beer makers. Take a used canning lid, cut a hole into it just large enough that you can squeeze the bung into it, and insert the bung and airlock; screw on a canning ring, add water to the airlock, and you’re set.
- As I advised for fermented cucumber pickles, pickling or canning salt weighs more by volume than flaky salts, so using it makes your measurements more accurate in this recipe. Reusable plastic storage lids won’t rust while you store your finished krauts in the fridge.
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