I know what your thinking: This is no time to be making sauerkraut. Enough cabbage! Enough of winter vegetables! Bring on the fava beans, the asparagus, the artichokes!
Ya, ya, ya. I know all that. Thing is, I'm on a mission. In about a month, I have to feed all the parents of the kids I teach in my "food appreciation" classes. Including the kids and the after-school staff, that's about 100 people. And the food needs to be somehow representative of the things we've already made in the class. At least I think it should.
In fact, I just got to the bottom of the huge bucket of sauerkraut the kids and I made in class last December. Now, that was a sauerkraut! It had reached perfect ripeness, just sitting in a back room of my house. Not only did we serve it in class (with sausage), but I had enough to cover at least two choucroute-style dinner parties. And I still have two eight-cup containers full in the fridge.
All it cost me was the price of the cabbage and a little bit of salt. Nature does the rest.
Personally, I could eat this kind of sauerkraut--naturally fermented, with live bacteria in it--all year long. I do understand the urge to leap into spring. But there's just something terribly exciting about pulling back the kitchen towel that covers my bucket of kraut and tasting the sauerkraut as it morphs into delicious ripeness. I've never made any bad sauerkraut, but I do contend that I am getting better at it. This last batch was the best ever.
The point is, I thought that while I'm making a new batch, I'd show you how simple it is. You will need a kitchen scale, a couple of big bowls (preferably stainless), five pounds of cabbage (that's two or three heads, usually), some pickling salt or fine sea salt, and a clean, heavy-guage plastic bucket (everyone will tell you a "food grade" bucket, which you might be able to get at a restaurant or your local deli, but I simply buy a new bucket at the paint store.)
Here's what you do:
Put your stainless bowl on the kitchen scale and adjust the reading to "zero." Start thinly slicing the cabbage. I usually do this by hand with a serrated knife. Divide the head in quarters and remove the core and any damaged outer leaves. Then lay the quarter on its side and slice into widths of about 1/4-inch. Add the sliced cabbage to the bowl until you have, say, 2 1/2 pounds. Put the cabbage in a second bowl (I use a restaurant-style plastic bus tub) and begin tossing with salt. The formula is, 3 tablespoons salt for every 5 pounds cabbage.
As you finish salting batches of cabbage, transfer it into your bucket (I use a 5-gallon bucket, but a smaller bucket would be perfectly adequate depending on how much kraut you are making. You can also purchase ceramic crocks that are made specifically for sauerkraut.) Press the cabbage down firmly--as hard as you can--using your balled fist as illustrated in the photo above.
Continue this process until you have all of your cabbage salted and pressed in the bucket. What I made yesterday was 20 pounds of cabbage to feed about 100 persons, or roughly 3 ounces per person, which is plenty. That represents a little over 22 pounds of cabbage that I purchased at the store, minus the cores and damaged leaves.
Place the bucket in the coolest spot in the house, maybe in the basement, and cover it with a clean dish towel. Take a look at it the following day. There should be plenty of liquid in the bucket now, representing all the water the salt has pulled out of the cabbage. This is the brine in which the beneficial bacteria grow that ferment the cabbage, turning it into sauerkraut. Brine is good.
Note: you do not need to add any bacteria to your kraut. The bacteria are already present on the cabbage when you buy it at the store and in the atmosphere all around us. That's why this is called "wild" fermentation. And it is, don't you think? Wild?
Now you just need to find a heavy ceramic plate, or cut a piece of non-resinous wood, such as ash or oak, that will just fit inside the bucket. Press this down until the brine comes over the top of the plate or the wood and weigh it down with a heavy non-reactive object, such as a plastic jug filled with water. It is very important to keep the cabbage submerged in the brine and free of oxygen to avoid spoilage.
If for some reason there's not quite enough brine, just add some water. I've never had to add water.
Replace the dish towel over the bucket and monitor your kraut every few days. You may see a layer of mold growing in there. Not to worry: just scrape it away. You should have finished sauerkraut in a couple of weeks or a month or perhaps more, depending on the ambient temperature. The bacteria like a temperature around 68 degrees. A lower temperature just slows them down. A higher temperature speeds them up. I prefer a slightly lower temperature to give the cabbage a good, slow aging--one reason why its easier to make the sauerkraut in winter.
When the sauerkraut tastes right to you--or tastes the way you like it---you can serve it up or store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for months.