Rediscovering the Art of Sauerkraut-making
For some, sauerkraut is just another topper on bratwurst at a ballgame, or perhaps it’s a refreshing side enjoyed on a hot afternoon. But for others, sauerkraut is much more. For local Kansas City resident Karl Johnson, sauerkraut is more than a fermented food. Homemade sauerkraut is a craft, created with patience, love, and — you guessed it — probiotics. Not all krauts are created equally. The homemade varieties, like the recipe discussed here, did not earn a place in the spotlight for lack of ambition.
The key? According to Mother Nature Network, “The lactic acid process that naturally preserves sauerkraut is ripe with probiotic power.” The cool thing? Every homemade sauerkraut recipe offers a unique blend of beneficial bacteria. Some popular culprits you will find in many recipes include Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, and L. plantarum.
In a Q & A with Karl Johnson, local cook & gourmand, he divulges a wealth of information about the “how” and “why” of homemade sauerkraut-making.
Q. How long have you been making sauerkraut and what got you interested in this unique fermentation process?
A. I have been making sauerkraut for 5-6 years. I love to cook and fermentation is part of the history of cooking, so it was a natural progression. I have read articles for years on the health benefits of kraut, if homemade. The probiotics are allegedly good for you.
Q. This is a loaded question, but what does your sauerkraut-making process look like?
A. I use a Harsch pot for making sauerkraut. This is a German pot with a water seal lid. I usually make my kraut in early summer and late fall of each year.
Q. And what does your special recipe include?
A. I tend to buy my cabbage at the downtown KC market, you have to shop your cabbage! I like freshly cut heads and organically grown. I’ll usually buy 4-6 heads of cabbage and peel off the outer leaves (reserve a few good ones). Then I cut the cabbage in half and cut the core out. I hand cut my cabbage. Although, using a mandolin would make more even cuts.
Q. Then what?
A. The next step is putting the cut cabbage, from half a cabbage to a whole cabbage, depending on the size of each head, in a non-reactive bowl and adding a very small amount of kosher salt or sea salt, and then mixing in a few caraway seeds, a few juniper berries, and I like to add some thin onion slices and two or three thinly cut jalapeno rings (no seeds) to the mix. I’ll put the cabbage mixture in my pot and will then smash it down using a long-handled potato masher/ricer and/or my fists. The goal is to get the cabbage tapped down fairly far in your pot.
Q. Whoa, sounds like a labor of love?
A. This will take a while. You may need occasional breaks. I’ll repeat the process 3–5 times, until the pot is filled up to 5-6 inches from the top. On a good day, I’m told, the cabbage will break down and shed enough water to cover the top of the cabbage. The next step is to carefully place some large cabbage leaves over the top of your cabbage mix.
When it does not break down, which is most of the time, I will boil up water with a tablespoon of kosher salt, cool the water down to room temperature, and pour it over the cabbage mix and cabbage leaves. My pot has stones you put on top of the cabbage leaves, which you will also cover with your room-temperature water. I put the lid on my pot. This pot uses a water seal to let the kraut off gas as it ferments and keeps air out of the pot.
Q. When can you enjoy your sauerkraut?
A. After that, I let my kraut ferment for at least eight weeks and add water to the top of the pot to keep the seal intact. I’ll usually take the lid off, take the stones out, take the cabbage leaves out, and use tongs to transfer my kraut into mason jars. I may fill up 2-5 jars and get fresh cabbage leaves to cover whatever is left in the pot, and put the stones back in and the top back on with the water seal.
Q. What’s your favorite way to enjoy your homemade sauerkraut?
A. Store jars of kraut in the refrigerator and share with your friends!
Homemade sauerkraut is believed to be an excellent source of probiotics, but more than anything, it is a fun way to experiment with cooking and to share food with friends. We hope you enjoyed learning about Karl’s experience.
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