Beer Food: Sauerkraut

A tangy, German accompaniment to lots of great beer food.

Hi brewers,

One of the reasons I got into making beer was that I enjoyed the end result (delicious beer) but also enjoyed the process of making it and making it my own. For the same reason I like to make my own preserves at home. Today’s post is the first of several to come on great food and preserves recipes, many of which go great with beer and cider. We’ll look at things like pickles, meats and drinking snacks.

Before big soulless supermarkets came to be, it was commonplace for households to make all kinds of preserved and jarred foods; jams and relishes to use and preserve blemished and excess fruits from each season, pickled vegetables from cheap and readily available vegetables, sausages, potted meats and patês and even the occasional cured and dried cut of meat.

There were many reasons why people preserved things at home – mostly because of availabilty of fresh produce. Unlike today, vegetables tended to come from much more local growers. As such, the availability of most vegetables was determined by the season. You couldn’t get apricots in winter, nor something like broccoli in the height of summer.

While many think sauerkraut’s history begins in Europe, it is actually believed to have started in Asia and brought to Eastern Europe by the Mongols in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Now, fermented cabbage dishes are found the world over, all slightly different iterations of the same basic idea. In Europe, cabbages would be grown and harvested from spring through to Autumn. Those not used fresh needed to be preserved to last the cold winter months, during which there was little in the way of fresh vegetables. Sauerkraut was the obvious solution.

Sauerkraut is a fermented product that uses wild lactobacillus. The lactobacillus occurs naturally on the leaves of the cabbage and produces a lemony tart sourness that works really well with the cabbage. You may also find other microflora when you ferment you sauerkraut and may even get a pellicle – a raft of skin-like bacteria. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal and safe.

Sauerkraut is pretty simple to make. It has just two main ingredients: cabbage and salt. The combination of these two ingredients and the change that occurs due to spontaneous fermentation changes cabbage from a boring old vegetable to something sharp, tangy, crunchy and utterly delicious.

Ingredients

Green or red cabbage, preferably organic
Cooking or kosher salt
Caraway seeds (optional)

Method

  1. Take your cabbage and pick off any outer leaves that are mouldy, brown or otherwise discoloured. If there are any leaves that are okay but tough, put these to one side.
  2. Weigh you cabbage. For each kilogram of cabbage measure out 1 tablespoon of salt.
  3. Halve each cabbage and shred. You’re aiming to slice or shred the cabbage as fine as possible. By hand mine usually end up being around 5 mm (3/16″) thick.
  4. Place shredded cabbage in a large mixing bowl or container and sprinkle with previously measured salt. Mix well and massage so the salt is evenly distributed.
  5. Place cabbage into a large crock pot or plastic container. Take the outer leaves your reserved, trimming off any mould or brown spots. Flatten them with the palm of your hand and create a layer on top of the packed container. Weigh down the cabbage with something flat, such as a plate. The container I use is actually a square cake container with a insert with two handles to help lift the cake out. I weigh my cabbage down with a few dumbell weights in a snaip-lockp-lock bag. Alternatively, mix up a brine of 1 1/4 tbsp salt to 1 litre of water and put into a zip-lock bag. That way if it leaks it won’t dilute the cabbage.
  6. After a few hours to a day the salt will draw water out of the cabbage. The amount of water will depend on the freshness of the cabbage and when in the season it was picked. The liquid will be salty to the taste. It should completely cover the shredded cabbage by about 2.5cm (1″). If it doesn’t, make up a brine the same as above and top it up.
  7. Now is the easy part, or perhaps hardest part. Waiting. During winter with cool temperatures (18°C during the day) it will take about two weeks. During summer it could be anywhere from a few days to a week. You might notice scum or even a pellicle form on top of the liquid. This is completely normal and part of the process. Over time the cabbage will get more and more sour. It’s completely fine to taste it along the way. When you think it’s sour enough, skim off the scum and process it.

Processing

Small amounts

There is actually very little you need to do if you are going to eat it all quickly. Simply skim off any mould or pellicle and pack the sauerkraut into a jar or airtight container. The sauerkraut will be full of healthy lactobacteria and a range of other beneficial microflora. Store in the fridge and eat it within a few weeks.

Larger amounts

Unless you’re eating sauerkraut with every meal, you’ll likely want to put some away for later on. Thankfully, being an acidic product, sauerkraut is very easy to can.

  1. Skim any scum or mould from the surface of the pickling liquid.
  2. Decant the liquid in a pot large enough to fit both the brine and sauerkraut.
  3. Bring the pickling brine to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes add the cabbage and bring back to the boil. Simmer for 2 minutes and turn the heat off.
  4. Allow to cool slightly and pack into sterilised jars, topping each one up with the pickling brine. Screw or clip on each lid.
  5. Cover the base of a large clean pot with a tea towel and place all of the jars in a single layer. Cover with warm water and bring to the boil and boil vigorously for 10 minutes.
  6. Allow to cool slightly and remove from the water bath. Allow to cool naturally.
  7. The canned sauerkraut will keep well for 12 months and probably longer.

Variations and additions

There are so many variations to sauerkraut. Traditionally it is made from green cabbage. But red cabbage works well too. Germans often add caraway seeds, which help with digestion and flatulence.

You could also add grated carrot, chilli or just about any other vegetable. Most vegetables can be lacto-fermented like sauerkraut.

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