kraut making

Dec 2013, eastern Ohio, climate zone 6a

I have never made sauerkraut before but have seen my mom
make it. Apparently, for many people in years long past,
fermented vegetables were an important part of the diet
during winter. Before refrigeration and long-distance food
transport, few vegetables were available after cold
temperatures ended the growing season.

The descriptions of kraut making that I read or viewed each
stressed the importance of adding a tablespoon or two salt to
each quart of kraut. The salt is said to discourage the growth
of harmful micro organism. I do not know if that is true, but I
suspect the salt is really more for overcoming the natural
bitterness in cabbage. Another advantage in using so much salt
is that salt draws the liquid out of the vegetable, making the
vegetable softer. It is easier to mash the softened vegetable.
Mashing serves to break up the vegetable exposing more of the
vegetable to lactobacillus. The lactic acid bateria produce an
acidic environment that discourage the growth of food spoiling
organisms.

I don't like the flavor of so much salt so I modified the common
method of making sauerkraut to use less salt. I use 1 teaspoon
per quart. The salt is to give good flavor. With my recipe,
you could leave out the salt altogether. Probiotics is commonly
a reason for making and eating sauerkraut. According to
that theory, bacteria in the kraut contribute to a healthy
balance of good bacteria to pathogenic bacteria in the human gut.
My best guess is that a healthy balance in the gut has more to do
with eating lots of fruits and vegetables than it does with
eating fermented food. My reason for making kraut is partly
because I like to eat it and mostly because it is a low cost and
reasonably reliable way of storing garden vegetables in an
enjoyable to eat form.

This year (2012/2013) there was not enough cabbage in my garden
to make kraut but plenty of cauliflower leaf and some extra
florets. So, I cut the cauliflower leafs crosswise every 3/8 inch
or so, packed them into various crocks, plastic pails(kitty liter
buckets), and glass jars. A wooden ball bat was used to stomp
and press the coarse slaw to get as much into each container as
possible. The mashing als exposes the tissue of the vegetable to
the action of lactobacteria.

Occasionally mentioned in kraut making instruction is that the
slaw should be mashed untilenough juice is released to completely
cover the slaw. The liquid keeps air away. Lactobacillus is
anaerobic. Bacteria and mold that cause spoilage need air and
oxygen. If you are not concerned with probiotics and just want to
preserve the food, you can add vinegar to the kraut storage
container. The vinegar acts as a preservative.

Several batches of kraut that I made this year developed mold
where ever the slaw was above the surface of the liquid, some
batches had no such mold. It is usually recommended that a plate
or some other such object be placed over the slaw to keep the
slaw below the liquid. A stone can be placed on the plate to
keep gas released during fermentation from lifting the plate.

I tried using several concentrations of vinegar water to see
which would work best. Six jars of pickles made with straight
vinegar are keeping very well - no natural fermentation visible.
Those pickles are too sour to eat but can be soaked in plain
water in the frige for a few days to remove much of the sourness.
I did not use any spices or sugar. If you want spice and flavord
pickles, using full strength vinegar would not be the way to go
because the soaking would remove the flavorings. Using 1 part
vinegar to 2 parts water allows some natural fermentation to take
place and produces the amout of sourness that I like for cucumber
pickles.

I did not use vinegar when making this year's kraut. Two of the
batches of kraut had a very strong sewer-like odor. I suspect
that using one third vinegar would have prevented that. I almost
decided to dump those two batches but finally hunkered down and
ate 1 ounce servings a couple of times without any apparent harm.
Then I went to 2 ounces servings for several servings. Still no
ill effects. So I made a one quart batch turned into a mash
consistency in a food processor with about 3 tablespoons of canola
oil to dampen the bitterness a bit. Ate that quart at 2 ounces
per meal for the next 6 days. Never noticed any harmful effects.
I have since eaten both batches that had the worst sewer-like
smell. That amounted to something like a gallon and a half of
kraut and I largely got used to the flavor and odor.

The majority of the cauliflower greens kraut and floret kraut has
less, but still noticeable sewer-like odor. I plan to eat that
over the next few months.

Next year I'll try growing more cabbage and use most of it for
slaw. I'll try some using full strength vinegar, some with 1
third vinegar and some with no vinegar. However those turn out,
it should be interesting and I suppose the low-calorie, high
fiber, high nutrient kraut will have a good contribution to my
health and well-being.

Update 20140306
The 2012/2013 season was my first year for making kraut. The
kraut was less than appetizing, but edible. Several batches
became very soft, slimy, and strongly sewer odored. Those were
discarded. Many of the other batches smelled sewer-like but
still firm textured. I couldn't bring myself to discard the
bad-odored kraut and just ate it anyway.

This year's kraut was better but still not good. My 2013/2014
kraut also developed a sewer-like odor. Two causes seem likely
or at least possible. I use much less salt than is usually
recommended. I just don't like the taste of 2 to 3 tablespoons
salt per quart. I use 1 teaspoon per quart. The other possible
cause is temperature. Most of this seasons kraut was made before
cold weather set in. The last batch of kraut was made on
December 23 after the weather had settled in to below freezing
and the unheated basement where I kept the kraut was
likely in the 50 degree F. vicinity. That last batch was the
best of the bunch. No sewer-like odor and a nice vinegary
fragrance.

I suspect the other batches would have been much better if
vinegar had been added to increase acidity and thus discourage
the growth of the responsible organisms. The best strategy may be
to add a particular amount of vinegar per quart of volume of the
container being used. That way you know the contents of the
container will have a particular acidity level. Simplely adding
to the container a liquid with a particular concentration is not
reliable. The added liquid is diluted by the vegetable in the
container. If the vegetable is packed in tight, not much vinegar
is added to the container. The acidity may not be high enought to
prevent putrification.

That's what happened, I suppose, to most of my 2013/2014 kraut.
I did manage to save it though. I poured out the liquid from each
jar, dumped the kraut into boiling water, boiled 4 minutes,
drained, rinsed, packed the kraut back into the jar, and added
1/2 cup of 5 percent acid vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon
sugar, and enough water to fill each jar to within an inch and a
half of the top.

I've been eating the resulting kraut for the last couple of
months. It still has a slight sewer odor. But it still can be
enjoyed if eaten at the beginning of a meal when hunger helps
greatly to overcome the slight unpleasantness of the odor.

A couple of other factors should be considered. Most of the
kraut for the 2013/2014 was made from kale and collard leafs.
I thought it would reduce bitterness if the greens were blanched
in boiling water for 4 minutes prior to making into kraut. That
softened the leafs and made the kraut pack into the jars with
very little space between leaf pieces. When the bine was added,
each jar required only a small amount to fill the jar. So, little
acid was actually added to each jar when the kraut was originally
made. I did add starter to the added liquid so micro organism
would be present to initiate fermentation. But the low acid may
have allowed the wrong organisms to proliferate causing spoilage.

I made several gallons of kraut for 2013/2014 from cabbage which
was not blanched. The leaf pieces were much firmer and did not
pack tightly into the jars. As a consequence, it took more liquid
to fill each jar, so more acid was added to each jar. The cabbage
kraut turned out nicely with good vinegary fragrance and crunchy
texture. I used 1 teaspoon salt per quart and vinegar diluted 1 part
vinegar to 4 parts water to give a 1 percent acid solution. About
1/4 cup of starter was added to each gallon of bine. The starter is
liquid saved from a batch of last year's kraut.

Next year I will add 1/2 cup 5 percent acid vinegar to each quart.
I'll boil any kale, collard, brussel sprout, or cauliflower leaf
that I use to reduce bitterness. 4 minutes of boiling should be
enough. To each quuart I'll add a quarter cup or so liquid from a
previous batch of fermented kraut, to provide lactic acid bacteria.
1 teaspoon salt will be added for flavor. I'll press down the slaw
so none will be exposed to air. I'll place a disc-shaped piece of
plastic cut from a food container on top of the slaw, add a spacer
also cut from a food container such as a plastic water bottle and
cap the jar with a plastic lid (purchased from Amazon) to hold down
the spacer and the disc. That will keep the kraut below the liquid.

Adding starter may be unnecessary, even for boiled vegetables, if
vinegar is added to yield 1 percent acid. That acidity level might
be enough to stop all or almost all fermentation and spoilage. Still,
it might be a good idea especially for boiled vegetables to add the
starter just in case some bacteria growth takes place. My guess is
that the vinegar would limit bacterial growth to just benign bacteria.
But the added starter might be prudent just to insure that any
bacterial growth is the more beneficial ones.

Next year I expect to have some low-salt, good tasting, preserved
cabbage, other brassicas, carrots, onion, and a few other vegetables
preserved in jars without canning, without freezing, and mostly
without cooking. I gain some self-sufficiency, save some money,
lower my environmental impact, and have a healthier diet. At least
it seems so and it seems worth the effort.

Alan Detwiler