This post has photos! Yay! but you need to scroll down to see 'em.
When you were raised frugally, and when your home is your center, then growing a garden for food for your family is basic, a given. Buying local food is a trend now, but buying from roadside stands, pick your own farms, and farmers markets was always better than "store bought".
Michigan is a great spot for putting food by, we have such a variety and bounty of agricultural products grown here. And through the years I've canned, dehydrated, pickled, jammed, frozen ... you name it. But there are still things to learn, and that(learning)'s what keeps life interesting.
This year, as I've mentioned, I've been learning about fermented foods - a culinary art as old as mankind, probably, or at least as old as civilization. Think of many of the most wonderful foods: bread, wine, cheese, cured olives, pickled vegetables, yogurt, beer ... so many of the foods we think of as extra tasty are made with fermentation of some kind. It is both a way of keeping food past its fresh date, but fermentation many times adds another element to the original food that gives it an added health benefit.
You can read about fermentation in some of the books I've mentioned in previous posts, by Googling and so forth, so I'll leave details to experts. I'll just add here that I'm convinced fermented food are 'a good thing'. And move on to telling my little story about sauerkraut.
I've never really bothered to grow cabbage before, it's one of those plentifully available fall storage vegetables and I have a small yard. We did grow cabbage's cousins broccoli and Brussels sprouts until the groundhogs moved into our neighborhood. Blankety blank ground hogs. If you are too busy or too lazy to put up a strong fence against the varmints, then you are just 'planting a row' for the ground hogs.
Anyway, last summer our organic CSA farmer Pat Whetham gave away her extra cabbage seedlings after she planted what she needed and in a good permaculture fashion, I planted mine in my front yard in a spot that opened up when we had a diseased Colorado Blue Spruce cut down. So, instead of the half share of cabbage - plenty enough for two - that we got from our CSA, I had three extra heads of cabbage to deal with. Large heads, they grew like Topsy!
I had been reading some of the great food and gardening blogs out on the Internets, and with cabbage comes inspiration. I'd make sauerkraut.
I don't know why I never did it before. Maybe the stories I'd heard about the atrocious smell. Maybe I thought I would have to make a whole crock or barrel full. Maybe I thought it would have to be pressure canned or something fiddly that I didn't want to bother with. I don't really know why. Maybe everything has its own time and sauerkraut's time had arrived for me.
I can only say, I started small and it was easy.
My first recipe was from a little Extension bulletin, although that recipe was for 50 pounds of cabbage. My 5 pound cabbage made one quart jar of sauerkraut. I made several during the fall, the last of which we are now finishing up.
Finely chopping cabbage is easy and fast. My recipe called for chopping and weighing it. (Handily, my son had given me a postal scale he didn't need any more.) For every 5 pounds of cabbage, stir in 3 Tablespoons of salt. I used Kosher salt the first time.
Allow the salted cabbage to stand a while, to wilt a bit and get the juices working. Then mix and squeeze it for a while with your hands. This step is crucial to getting the action going. After some squeezing and mixing, the volume really decreases!
Pack the cabbage into a sterilized straight sided container - some use jars, some use crocks, some use food grade plastic buckets. It might be a way to make use of some of those old glass punch bowls you always see at the thrift store!
I used an old glass cookie jar I had handy. Push the cabbage down so the liquid squeezes up to the surface. You need the cabbage submerged in the juice. I used a plate and a weight consisting of a jar of vinegar I had handy. Some use clean rocks, in later batches I used a double plastic bag of water which conforms to fit the top of the kraut.
After a while, covered with cheesecloth and kept in a cool place, and yes, after the initial smelly fermentation part, you can pack it in a canning jar and store it in the fridge, ready to eat! If you made fifty pounds you'd have to hot pack it with a boiling water bath.
There it is in the kitchen with my herb vinegars, piima, and sourdough starter. I've always got some project going.
Here it is, ready to pack. Mmmm. Time for some bratwurst! ... or pork shoulder!
Finally, packed for the fridge.
Now after I made that initial recipe and found out how easy and good it was, it was time to try some variations: caraway seeds, the double bag of water trick, and I found a whey lacto-fermentation method in Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions cookbook. That's when I switched to sea salt and whey. The process is the same only use about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 cup whey to the same amount of cabbage. You can see Fallon's recipe uses whey which has health benefits, and much less salt. Which is important for those of us who are beginning to need to limit our salt intake.