2015 has been my year of fermenting. I’d sort of dabbled a bit last year with kombucha (killed it) and sauerkraut (failed). But this year was when I got into it in a bigger way. I got some kefir grains – milk and water – and have been faithfully making those on a daily/weekly basis. Then I had a lesson at the Natural Chef course which opened my eyes a bit more to other forms of fermentation. Plus I’ve been reading Sandor Katz’s book The Art of Fermentation, which I found really inspiring. And so I’ve started making sauerkraut again and I’ve tried making beet kvass and ginger beer. The drinks are great – an easy way to get some probiotics down you, plus a nice alternative to water, especially if you live with someone who grew up with a fizzy drinks habit…
But having fermented vegetables is really awesome. It’s my secret shortcut to quick weekday meals. It’s easier than salad – you don’t even have to wash it! You just open the jar straight at the table and spoon it out onto your plate. It’s also awesome for breakfast; I vowed to eat vegetables at every meal time but often get discouraged by the idea of washing, chopping, cooking first thing in the morning. Similarly, after the raw food class at the Cooking for Health course I attended I vowed to eat raw food with every meal (I haven’t been) – fermenting the veg beforehand just takes it to another level!
Why eat fermented vegetables? According to Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation, the natural bacteria present in the air work on the vegetables and break them down a bit. This makes the minerals more bioavailable, and therefore easier to absorb, and the pre-digested fermented vegetables are easier for us to digest . Furthermore, fermented vegetables are found to have higher levels of vitamin Bs and C compared to their raw counterparts, and fermentations reduces toxins naturally present in food – nitrates, oxalic acid and phytates (in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds). Finally, fermented food give us a good dose of good bacteria for the gut.
It’s important to consume a range of fermented food to get a variety of bacteria strains. I’ve heard that fermented foods contain a wider variety of bacteria strains than probiotic supplements, which is good news for me since I refuse to pay loads of money for probiotic supplements whereas fermented food just costs the normal price of good quality vegetables/milk/sugar! Besides, by taking the probiotics alone you’re leaving out all the other benefits of eating the fermented food. The more I learn about the gut the more I’m convinced of the importance of maintaining a good gut microbiome. It seems to be the starting point to address a huge range of chronic illnesses, but for my purposes the one thing that stands out is this: it is critical for the correct functioning of the immune system. Apparently probiotics stimulate the production of antibodies and activate white blood cells – which is why it’s so crazy that antibiotics have been prescribed on such a huge scale to sick people. Did you know that in many countries pharmacies will give out a prescription of yoghurt alongside a prescription of antibiotics? That’s because they know how damaging antibiotics is for all bacteria in the gut – good and bad! (If you’re interested, I’ve written about how I manage a cold using food including kefir, in a previous blog post.)
So here’s my very basic recipe for red cabbage sauerkraut. There’s nothing crazy or outrageous here – it’s just a good solid foundation to start with.
1 large red cabbage (obviously you can also use white cabbage. I find red cabbage to be more interesting in colour and texture – white cabbage can go a bit limp and watery)
1-2 tablespoon fine salt (I use pink Himalayan because that’s what I have ground fine but you can use any good quality salt)
4 tablespoon whey (optional. If you don’t have whey use the extra tablespoon of salt)
A 1-litre jar with a tight-fitting lid. Kilner clip jars are an excellent choice.
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage. Throw away any manky ones but choose one or two good whole ones and set aside. Shred the rest of the cabbage. I’m not too fussy about uniformity or fineness of the shreds but the finer you slice them the quicker they’ll ferment. I like a good range of textures so I am not too particular at this stage. You can use a food processor but I don’t bother because it’s a lot of effort for one cabbage. If I was doing two or three cabbages I might consider it.
Put cabbage shreds in a big bowl and add a tablespoon of salt. Massage for 10 minutes. Really, set the timer. 10 minutes is longer than you think. By massage I mean squeeze, push, pound, toss, repeat. You can also use a rolling pin or meat mallet but I like using my hands – like kneading bread, it’s therapeutic, and it’s a good way to get your finger and hand muscles moving! It will feel like nothing is happening, just keep pushing through. If you’re not using whey, add another tablespoon of salt halfway through.
About 5 minutes in you’ll suddenly realise that there is some water collecting at the bottom of the bowl. You can do an excited dance but keep going – you’re only halfway through.
Once the 10 minutes is finished you should end up with a bowlful of cabbage about half the volume you started out with, and a decent amount of liquid at the bottom of the bowl.
Sterilise your jar – fill with boiling water, swirl, pour out. If you have time you can put it in the oven to dry out but I don’t really do this.
Pack your cabbage into the jar. Every couple of handfuls, tamp down with a fist. Once all the cabbage is in, tamp down firmly. The liquid should come way up over the cabbage. If it doesn’t seem like there’s enough water, keep bashing it down with your fist or a rolling pin.
Pour over the whey if you have it. Neatly tuck the saved cabbage leaf around the top of the cabbage to keep any loose shred down. Make sure the liquid is covering the cabbage well, seal the jar and leave in a dark corner of the kitchen.
Taste after 5 days and see if you like the flavour. If it still tastes salty, leave for another few days. Keep tasting until you get a flavour you enjoy and then refrigerate.
If it still tastes salty after a couple of weeks out you can try leaving it out for longer, but it’s likely that it was over-salted which kills the bacteria. It’s a really fine balance between enough salt to preserve the cabbage, and too much to kill the bacteria. Besides, the fresher the cabbage, the fewer the pesticides used, the more good bacteria there is naturally present on it so buy organic if you can (or find out what the pesticide practices are) and make sauerkraut as soon as you buy the cabbage. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out – just try again with another cabbage. Trust me, I gave up for a year before getting the guts to try again. Fermenting is not an exact science and X tablespoons of salt for Y cabbage at Z room temperature just might not work!