If you’re like most people, you’ve heard little bits and pieces about the health benefits of sauerkraut and wondered how this strange food—which we all tried on hot dogs as kids—could be so good for you. What is it about sauerkraut that makes it a “probiotic” food, containing many of the same “good” bacteria as probiotic supplements? For answers, we turned to Alex Lewin, a sauerkraut expert and author of Real Food Fermentation, who runs fermentation workshops in many cities around the country. He told us about the most healthful types of sauerkraut to buy and, best of all, how to make delicious sauerkraut at home…
WHAT MAKES SAUERKRAUT SO HEALTHY?
Sauerkraut is shredded cabbage and salt that has been fermented.
Fermentation is a natural biological process that has been used for centuries. During fermentation, enzymes produced by “good” bacteria change the flavor of food or drink. The enzymes and/or the bacteria produced during fermentation break down the proteins and carbohydrates in the fermented food, making them easier for the body to digest and absorb. In addition to good bacteria, sauerkraut also contains vitamins and minerals—and is especially rich in vitamin C.
Realize though that we’re not talking about canned sauerkraut that you might find in the grocery store—this type of sauerkraut has been pasteurized, and the heat used in the process has killed the healthful bacteria. Canned sauerkraut also is high in sodium. No, we’re talking about sauerkraut that is typically sold in the refrigerated section of health-food stores or at farmers’ markets. Sauerkraut can be served on its own or as a salad or side dish. For vegetarians, sauerkraut goes well with tempeh and smoked tofu.
MAKE YOUR OWN SAUERKRAUT
It is easy to make your own sauerkraut—and extremely cost-effective, too. Sauerkraut sold at the health-food store might cost about $6 to $14 for a 16-ounce jar, but you can make your own for less than $2. Homemade sauerkraut is delicious, and you have a great deal of control over how it tastes. All you need is cabbage, sea salt—and a clean jar.
Here is what happens: To make sauerkraut, shredded cabbage is worked with sea salt until it is very wet. The wilted cabbage is packed into an airtight container, such as a glass canning jar, and allowed to sit at a cool temperature. Without access to oxygen, the cabbage and salt combination provides a hospitable environment in which the live, healthful bacteria can grow.
Alex Lewin’s Basic Sauerkraut
Makes 1 quart
2 to 3 pounds green or red cabbage, or a combination (preferably organic)
4 to 6 teaspoons fine sea salt (about 2 teaspoons per pound)
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and discard them. Quarter the cabbage vertically into four wedges. Cut away the hard core from each wedge. Slice the cabbage wedge as finely as possible. The finer it is cut, the faster it will ferment.
Place the shredded cabbage into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle on the salt. With clean hands, firmly massage and knead the cabbage and salt. The cabbage should become wet—so much so that excess water comes out of the mixture. This process can take between five and 15 minutes depending on how fresh the cabbage is and how hard you squeeze.
Next, pack the moist cabbage (and the excess liquid) into a jar, preferably a Mason jar or Ball canning jar. Use a potato masher or the bottom of another, smaller jar to push the cabbage down as much as possible into the jar and to get rid of any air bubbles. Make sure the cabbage is submerged in the liquid. Leave at least one inch of space between the top of the liquid and the mouth of the jar because the cabbage will expand as it ferments.
Close the jar lid tightly. This is very important since fermentation takes place without oxygen, and the liquid seals the cabbage away from air. Set the jar in a cool, dark place such as a basement or garage.
Check the sauerkraut every day or two. You can open the jar and smell and taste the cabbage. It is very important that you use a clean fork—and don’t put the fork in your mouth and then back in the jar. You don’t want to interfere with the good bacteria that are growing in there.
Fermentation takes place quickly. By day four, you will have crunchy, salty sauerkraut. As the weeks go on, the sauerkraut will get softer and tangier. You can eat the sauerkraut anytime that you want—after four days of fermentation up through four months. You can experiment to see just how crunchy or tangy you like it. To slow the fermentation process, you can put the jar in the refrigerator.