Homemade sauerkraut is hard to beat

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By Ted Manzer

Friday, June 8, 2018

Local cabbage fields are nearing harvest. Many would be already if fields hadn’t been so wet. I always look forward to fresh cabbage. It’s so versatile.

One of my favorite cabbage dishes is sauerkraut. My mother-in-law made the best I’ve ever tasted. Elloise Minney passed nine years ago, but I can still taste her kraut. She used an old-fashioned wood-framed kraut cutter to slice it just the right thickness.

Sauerkraut is easy to make. I’ve made it myself, but there was always something special about hers. Maybe it was her crock, the coarseness of the cut or the temperature of her cellar. I don’t know, but her kraut was spectacular.

She used a large stone crock, stuffed it with sliced cabbage, salted it by layers and mixed it thoroughly. She inserted a large sterilized smooth stone to pack the cabbage down and keep it submerged. Then she placed a board on the crock with another stone to hold it down.

Eventually, she packed it into jars and stored it in her cellar house. She always seemed to know precisely how long to wait before storing it in jars, and she made sure the jars were not sealed. This would have been difficult anyway, as gas is produced that would break the seal. Somehow, she could tell when it was ready by consistency alone.

This cabbage delight cures by a process called lactofermentation. Lactobacillus bacteria, the same or very similar ones contained in milk and yogurt, convert natural sugars into lactic acid. Lactic acid is the substance that keeps the stuff from spoiling. It also helps give it its incredible tart flavor.

Elloise was always careful to keep all her equipment clean. This keeps competing bacteria and fungi from entering the mix. She didn’t use gloves, but she always was careful to wash her hands thoroughly. Other than that, the fermentation process is simple.

No other ingredients need to be added other than the pickling salt, which contains no iodine. The salt draws moisture from the cabbage. No water or vinegar is usually required for the fermentation process.

If cabbage has dried some it’s sometimes necessary to add salted water to the mix, but this is rarely necessary. Usually the cabbage is reconstituted in the washing process.

I think what made her kraut so good was that it wasn’t processed. Some folks can their kraut after it has fermented, thinking it will last longer. It might, but the final product loses flavor and the texture isn’t as crisp.

Sauerkraut not only tastes good, it’s good for you. A cup has fewer than 30 calories. Product that has not been processed contains probiotics that promote healthy digestion. Beneficial bacteria can also help us if we must use certain antibiotics to treat infection. Probiotic bacteria in kraut re-establish in our digestive systems.

Kielbasa and kraut is a delicacy I often crave. Unfortunately, it’s just not the same when using store-bought kraut. This cabbage delicacy is also great on hot dogs or eastern barbecue. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.