In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
With winter upon us, I think it’s a good time to talk about sauerkraut–one of man’s most ingenious ways of enjoying the garden bounty during the months when fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable. In my mind, the miracle of sauerkraut is that the brine does not have to be inoculated with bacteria for the process to work; the best sauerkraut is made simply with shredded cabbage and salt that is magically inoculated with atmospheric bacteria.
According to Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, the ideal salinity for sauerkraut brine is 2.25 percent, with temperatures between 65-70ºF. These conditions produce the best environment for a bacterium called Leuconostioc mesenteroides to grow and produce lactic acid. When the acidity of the brine reaches about 1 percent, another bacterium, Lactobacillus plantarum, takes over to finish the job. The end result is tangy, crunchy bits of cabbage to top off a sandwich or round off a heavy meal.
A new book on sauerkraut, A Passion for Sauerkraut: The Humble Vegetable for Good Health by Sam Hofer, (Hofer Publishers, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, 2001) is full of interesting sauerkraut lore and fascinating recipes, including one for Sauerkraut Chocolate Cake!
In much of Eastern Europe, sauerkraut is made not only from shredded cabbage, but from the whole cabbage head! I have seen huge barrels of cabbage heads being brined into sauerkraut.
In early fall, when the temperatures are in the 65-70ºF degree range, sauerkraut-making might take place on a balcony, but when the weather turns colder, the operation is moved into a basement or cellar. When sauerkraut is on the menu, someone just fishes a head of pickled cabbage out of the barrel and chops it up. In many Eastern European countries, whole fermented cabbage leaves are stuffed with meat, rice and vegetables.
European sauerkraut has many cousins throughout the world. One of my favorites is Korean sauerkraut or kimchee. In the old days, Korean housewives fermented cabbage in the fall and early winter. The kimchee was stored in earthenware crocks buried in the ground just below the freezing level. In addition to cabbage and salt, hot peppers, garlic and ginger were added to the mix which was then covered and allowed to ferment for weeks. In Korea, kimchee is eaten with almost every meal, and before it was readily available in the United States, immigrants would bring it in from overseas. I heard one tale of an old Korean woman bringing kimcheethrough US customs and when a jar broke on the conveyor belt it caused quite a ruckus because no one knew what the pungent, stinky, object could possibly be.
Another one of my favorite kinds of sauerkraut is cortido, or curtido, which is popular throughout Latin America. The basic formula is shredded cabbage and carrot, augmented with hot peppers to taste, salt, and different spices like oregano and cumin. Each of my El Salvadorean friends makes it slightly differently–and differently each time they make it. Curtido is always served with, and sometimes piled on top of, greasy foods like cheese-filled tortillas called pupusas.
Chinese sauerkraut is called hum choy. It is prepared by covering Chinese cabbage leaves with salt and letting them wilt in the sun. The leaves are then placed in earthenware vessels and covered with rice water, the liquid obtained from washing rice grains for cooking. The jars are sealed in such a way as to remove all air bubbles and then placed in a cool part of the house. Fermentation lasts for about four days, during which the leaves become greenish yellow and soft.
Many sources say raw fermented foods are beneficial to the digestive system by increasing the healthy flora in the intestinal tract or creating the type of environment for them to flourish. Sauerkraut and its juice are traditional folk remedies for constipation. Fermentation actually increases nutrient values in the cabbage, especially vitamin C. Fermented foods are also said to facilitate the breakdown and assimilation of proteins. They have a soothing effect on the nervous system.
Before the days of refrigeration, sauerkraut served as the only source of vitamin C during the winter in northern climates. It was used on long ship voyages to prevent scurvy.
During the Civil War, some enlightened doctors fed sauerkraut to prisoners of war, reducing the death rate from smallpox from 90 percent to 5 percent–something we should take note of with the current concerns about the use of smallpox germs as part of biological warfare.
Best of all, sauerkraut makes a synergistic combination with heavy, greasy and cooked foods such as sausage and cooked meat, the kinds of foods that nourish us through the winter. And because it aids digestion, you can eat these foods without feeling tired afterwards just by adding sauerkraut to your plate as a condiment.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2001.