Friday, February 16, 2007

Homemade Sauerkraut & Choucroute Garnie





I know I am not the only Washingtonian who heaves a sigh of relief when winter finally arrives south of the Mason-Dixon line. Summers here are notoriously muggy, besides which I grew up in Chicago, so I have a certain amount of ice water in my veins. Shirt sleeves in December just seem unnatural to me. There should be frost on the pumpkin at least by Thanksgiving. These kinds of traditions are fading because we no longer recognize the conventional seasons. Thanks to cheap fossil fuels (for how long?), we can now get virtually any kind of fruit or vegetable any time of year. It's just that I don't want to be eating tomato salad in January. I think eating "fresh" asparagus when there's snow on the ground is an abomination. No, when icicles are hanging from the gutters I want to be eating root vegetables (perhaps my rutabaga souffle, but that's another story). I want to be roasting beets, or cooking onion soup. Or, better still, simmering a pot of my own fermented sauerkraut. This time of year, we are trekking to the butcher's for all the fatty and smoked pieces of pork that become the protein component of an unctuous, scandalously calorie-rich batch of choucroute garnie--featuring, of course, the sauerkraut that has been aging ever so quietly in the back of my house since about two months ago.

Perhaps you have an older relation who remembers grandpa feeding a smelly old barrel of kraut in the basement. I use a five-gallon bucket from the paint store. I slice maybe 30 pounds of garden-variety cabbage, mix it with pickling salt, pack it into the bucket, cover it with a ceramic dinner plate and--voila--in matter of weeks, and courtesy of some friendly bacteria that happen to be living on the cabbage when you buy it at the store, your kraut has fermented into the briny, vegetable equivalent of caviar. Green gold. Brassica for the gods...

I know you're thinking that creating delectable sauerkraut must be more complicated than I am making out, and I swear it is not. No fancy chemicals, no elaborate formulae, no expensive equipment. You're probably also thinking, Fermentation? Isn't that how you make beer? Or wine? Well, yes. And cheese. And yogurt. Fermentation is really just a food preservation technique that doesn't involve cooking, or canning, or refrigeration (although you may want to refrigerate your sauerkraut once it reaches the desired state of ripeness, to slow down the fermentation process. But more about that anon.) What fermentation really is rot in progress. Bacteria or other micro-organisms are munching away on the food in question (grapes, hops, cabbage, milk) and decomposing it until it reaches the point where we humans want to eat it. Just about every culture has a taste for something rotten. Cheese and sauerkraut in Europe. Yogurt in Central Asia. Miso in Japan. Kimchi in Korea. Sourdough bread in San Francisco? Need I say more?

Sadly, most of the sauerkraut we consume these days is not alive, or even that tasty. It's been made in a factory, then pasteurized for safety reasons. Not only is the vibrant flavor of freshly-made sauerkraut missing, but the live bacterial cultures have been killed off. Some people attribute health benefits to those bacteria, similar to the healthful benefits of yogurt containing live cultures. At a store called Morse's in Waldoboro, ME, the parking lot is jammed on weekends with people seeking jugs of fresh broth from the sauerkraut that owners David Swetnam and Jacquelyn Sawyer make on site. My wife and I paid a visit three years ago while on vacation in Maine. Waldoboro is in the middle of a German settlement and Morse's has been making sauerkraut since 1918. It's not a huge operation, but one of the few in the country that sells and ships fresh sauerkraut with live cultures. (Check their website at
http://www.morsessauerkraut.com/. They operate a small restaurant on the premises and a large deli department with a hefty selection of sausages, cheeses, packaged goods.) Watching David Swetnam run locally grown cabbage through his shredding machine, then salting big vats to begin the fermentation process, convinced me this was something I should be doing at home.

It does help to have a guide. And mine continues to be a book called Wild Fermentation by one Sandor Ellix Katz. Katz gives instructions for fermenting all kinds of foods, from yogurt to Andean corn-chewed beer. As Katz explains, the fermentation of sauerkraut starts with bacteria that are already present on the cabbage--hence wild--but really involves a succession of micro-organisms, a kind of tag-team effort that keeps good bacteria working on the cabbage in its brine, and keeps harmful pathogens out. In the beginning, Coliform bacteria take the lead. They produce an acid that is more hospitable to Leuconostic bacteria. As the brine solution becomes even more acidic, a third team member--Lactobacillus--assumes control. The good new is, you don't have to be concerned with any of this. As long as you season the cabbage with a more or less correct amount of salt at the beginning, and keep the cabbage submerged in its brine (remember I mentioned a ceramic dinner plate?), everything will be fine. At the elementary school where I teach "food appreciation," I recently made sauerkraut with kids as young as four. To illustrate the process, I made signs that hung around their necks indicating the three different kinds of bacteria. We made a circle representing the interior of the bucket. Then we had a second group of kids representing harmful pathogens trying to get inside the bucket, but being deterred, of course, by our tag-team of good bacteria. I think if four- and five-year-olds can make sauerkraut, it's a good bet you can, too.


For a small batch of sauerkraut, you'll need either a ceramic crock made specifically for this purpose (available on-line) or a heavy-duty plastic bucket. All authorities advise using a "food-grade" plastic bucket, meaning something that wont degrade or leach chemicals into your brine. I bought mine at the paint store. Chop five pounds of cabbage into shreds. Mix with three tablespoons fine sea salt, or pickling salt--mainly, a salt that has no chemical additives. If using a ceramic crock, load it according the manufacturer's instructions. If using a plastic bucket, pack the cabbage into the bucket very firmly. I lean on it with a clenched fist, a handful of cabbage at a time. When all of the cabbage has been tightly packed, cover the bucket with a clean dish towel. Check the bucket the following day. The salt should have drawn enough liquid out of the cabbage to create a brine at least to the top of the cabbage. Here's where you take a heavy ceramic plate that just fits inside the bucket (or a piece of non-resinous wood, such as ash, cut into a circle), press the plate down firmly until the brine flows over the top of the plate. Now you need to weigh the plate down. I use an eight-cup plastic container filled with water. You can also use a jug filled with water. If for some reason there is not enough brine in the bucket, add some water. Cover the bucket with the dish towel and store in a cool, dark place.


The bacteria seem to like a temperature around 68 degrees. Warmer, and they will make sauerkraut faster. Cooler, and they slow down. Check the bucket periodically. If you see mold or slime forming, not to worry. Just remove the plate, clean it off, wipe down the edges of the bucket, and resume fermentation. Don't be afraid to taste the brine or the kraut. It's done when it reaches your estimation of perfect sauerkraut.


Now, what to do with all that sauerkraut? Well, you can eat it as is. You will be getting the benefit of all those bacteria we discussed earlier. Or you can cook the sauerkraut as a side dish, or as the basis for a magnificent choucroute garnie. My method of cooking kraut is as follows:


2 tablespoons bacon grease or canola oil

1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly lengthwise

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and roughly grated
2 large cloves garlic, smashed then chopped fine

6 cups fresh sauerkraut

8 juniper berries, crushes

2 teaspoons caraway seeds


In a heavy pot or Dutch oven heat the bacon grease or oil over high heat until it just begins to smoke. Add onion and lower heat to medium low. Stir in apple and cook until onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook about 1 minute longer. Add sauerkraut. Stir in juniper berries and caraway seeds. Cover pot and cook gently over low heat for about 1 hour, or until the sauerkraut has turned a golden color and is very tender.


For a real feast, and to show off your sauerkraut making skills, I suggest a choucroute garnie. This is French for "sauerkraut with a whole lot of pig." Basically you want to find a butcher with an array for pork products. I look for such delectables as streak-o'-lean, smoked ham hock, smoked pork chops, "bacon ends" (big chunks of trimmings from slab bacon), a good garlic sausage such as Kielbasa, and possibly some bratwurst, depending on how hungry you and your guests are.


To start, saute about three thick slices of streak-o'-lean in the bottom of a big, heavy pot or Dutch oven until the meat begins to brown and give up some of its fat. Remove the meat and add some bacon grease or canola oil as needed to saute the onion, apple and garlic as in the previous recipe. Add the sauerkraut, the juniper berries, the caraway seeds, then return the slices of streak-o'-lean along with a ham hock and up to a pound of bacon ends. Nestle the meat into the sauerkraut. Cover the pot and braise over low heat for about an hour, or until the bacon pieces are very tender. Meanwhile, brown the sausages over high heat. Add those and a couple of smoked pork chops to the pot, stirring them gently into the sauerkraut, and cook another half-hour.


Turn the hot sauerkraut , meat and sausages out onto a big serving platter for your guests to admire. Serve with boiled potatoes tossed with butter and chopped parsley and some root vegetables (such as carrots, rutabaga, parsnips) sliced and roasted with some extra-virgin olive oil. Crack a couple of bottles of an Alsatian Riesling or Pinot blanc. Put a hearty mustard on the table, along with a basket of sliced country-style bread.


4 comments:

Jim Black said...

Now I'm hungry. Great information and fun to read. Is there a way to catalog your recipes so that they can be retrieved easily at a later date? My wife and I are already buried in cookbooks because we like them, but finding recipes is always a difficult chore. With computer technology, it should be easier. Anyway, I've bookmarked this site and will try to keep up with your creations.

Ed Bruske said...

Welcom, Jack, and very good question. I'm old, but fairly new to blogging. This particular story has been tagged under three different categories. So if you return to the site and look under the "categories," you will find the recipe under "sauerkraut." At least I think that's the way it works.

Ed Bruske said...

Let me amend that slightly, Jim. At the top of the page there is a "search blog" feature. If you type in what you're looking for, it will find the recipe, if it exists on the blog.

Michael said...

I've just started lactic fermenting recently, and have conquered everything from kruat to zucchini relish to bean salad to salsa. I can't believe how easy this is! Why does everyone know and practice this very simple pleasure?! Briny, green caviar indeed!