I stumbled upon Sandor Ellix Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health bookstore last November, and because I’m feeling greater kinship with all things wild these days as well as the D-I-Y culture of Whole Earth Catalog*, I snagged two copies. One as a house gift for friends we were visiting when we left our yoga retreat, and one for us.
My spouse adores fermented foods. We are never without plain yogurt and sour pickles in our larder (Bubbies or Batampte), and often I’ll catch him drinking the last bit of brine from a soon-to-be empty jar. I used to tease him that he was embalming himself from the inside out, but his energy and stamina at age 80 are, as they say, proof of the pudding. Our Florida grandsons have picked up on Papa’s pickle habit and that makes me feel better about their otherwise almost vegetable-free diets.
One of my new women friends — a sister spoken word performer in Women Aloud — is an avid maker of pickles and every time we meet to share monologues and work on our next show, she brings everyone a jar of her latest batch. So, something wild is in the air, right in our own homes, and I believe ready to be domesticated for our own good. In case you haven’t been following your Dr. Oz updates, probiotics (available in all fermented foods, yes, even wine) are hot. Anyway, with Sandor Katz’s wonderful book in hand, we decided to launch ourselves into sauerkraut production. If you like a laid-back prose style, e.g. “I never measure the salt, I just shake some on after I chop up each quarter cabbage,” he is your man. Here’s our annotated recipe from Wild Fermentation:
First, you steal two cabbages…bada-bing.
Actually, homemade sauerkraut really begins with a quest for a good, old-fashioned stoneware crock like this one my spouse found at the local Good Will Thrift Boutique, first time lucky. Finely shredded cabbage — thanks to the new Cutco knife (if you have a college-bound grandson, the brand needs no explanation) — kosher salt and about an hour of your time. You pack the crock with shredded cabbage in layers, green and red if you like, sprinkling about a tablespoon of salt on each layer. Press down firmly with a potato masher or your fists. After all the cabbage is used up, insert an inverted clean plate into the opening. It should be sized to leave just enough space around the circumference so you can see some cabbage. We used a butter plate about 6 inches diameter. On top of the inverted plate, place a clean glass or ceramic bowl, then pile on whatever clean weights you can find: several large cans of tomatoes is what we used. Cover the whole thing with a clean kitchen towel to keep dust out and walk away. Needless to say, everything that touches the kraut-in-progress should be clean, but sterilization is unnecessary. Unless you keep your home on the cool side, the ambient temperature should be sufficient to cause the weighted cabbage to exude some natural brine which rises to the level of the plate. If not, slowly add about a cup of salt water until it does. Lift the cloth and give it a sniff every day until you see some liquid rising and it gives off a slight sour fragrance. If it gets dry, repeat the addition of some salt water. In about a week, you will likely be able to scoop out enough of young sauerkraut to enjoy with your pan-grilled dogs or Reuben. Always wash the plate before you replace it into the crock and clean off any weights that may come in contact with the cabbage. We kept watch over our developing kraut as one might a sleeping child or beloved pet. A little more than a week along, some scum came to the surface of the brine, normal, said the directions, so we didn’t panic. We removed it carefully, scraping with a flexible spatula works. At this point, you can repack and let the fermentation process continue for a more sour taste.
We decided our kraut was just the way we like it: slightly crunchy like cole slaw and with a delicious but not overpowering tang. So we decanted it into several clean jars and refrigerated it. Some for us, some for friends. You could, according to Katz, let your sauerkraut continue to ferment for as long as you wish, assuming you are willing to repeat the steps. You simply take what you want to use for a meal any time during, repack the crock (as above) and let it do its thing. Eventually, the sauerkraut will compress down into something closer to the product you can find in the supermarket deli section. After it is to full strength, it can keep for a long time, which is probably why frugal societies that ‘put up’ foods in a way that preserved their nutrients for later consumption, were so keen on these fermenting techniques. The Korean staple, Kimchi, is close cousin to this European concoction, and other Asian cuisines include fermented fish products in many favorite recipes. Our homemade sauerkraut went on this dog, with a generous helping of Grey’s Poupon mustard and Nancy’s jalapeño pickles. Are you salivating yet?
If you enjoy preparing food, let me warn you that these adventures in the art of fermentation could be habit-forming. As we completed this morning’s project and stored our crock for next time, I had a strong intuition that our kitchen was probably humming with live culture. What better time to capture what was in the air with a batch of sourdough starter? I fell in love with sourdough thanks to my mother who acquired a hand-me-down batch from a friend in Alberta Province, and kept it going for over 20 years. She fed it weekly, and baked biscuits, rolls and bread of unparalleled flavor and texture for family, friends and neighbors. Once, she even smuggled a cup of starter through customs in her cosmetics bag. There is also something that appeals to me deeply about being part of an ancient tradition, the idea that one needs to feed ‘Mother’ every time you take some for a recipe. A permaculture vibe: regenerative, rather than merely sustainable. I haven’t had much success with earlier attempts at sourdough starter, but that’s before my kitchen went wild.
Here is a link to a free pdf copy of Sandor Ellix Katz’s book: Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation although I encourage you to look for it at your usual book sources, help keep a roof over his head, and his fermentation workshops full. He is also the author of This Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and his http://www.wildfermentation.com/, also looks amazing.
*about Stewart Brand, editor of Whole Earth Catalog, not so much. See George Monbiot’s critique