By Joseph Robertia
Summer is over. The fast and furious gardening season has waned. All but a few crops have been pulled and picked. Anyone looking to put up vegetables or fruits for the winter has likely already done their jarring, freezing and jelly-making.
While all of this is fine for things like berries, carrots and potatoes, there is another preparation to be aware of when it comes to one of the area’s most prodigious growers — cabbage. This easy-to-grow crop isn’t as easy to store as root vegetables, fruits or berries. For gardeners scratching their heads over what to do with too many heads of cabbage this time of year, consider the time-tested tradition of fermentation, to produce sauerkraut.
“This year I only did a gallon, but I make some every year, some years more, some less,” said Keith Nushart, of Soldotna.
He and his wife maintain an active garden during the summer, cultivating broccoli, peas, carrots, potatoes and cauliflower and other crops. But the bowling ball-sized cabbage gets special treatment, being processed to make side dishes to be enjoyed months later while watching football.
“Frying all the moisture out and then having over bratwursts is a (Green Bay) Packers’ favorite,” he said. “I also really like it made in the slow cooker with some moose ribs, too.”
Nushart said his approach to making sauerkraut is a family tradition.
“I learned from watching my grandfather, who used to make it back on his dairy farm in Wisconsin. He went through the Great Depression so he really believed in raising your own food and preserving it. He’d put some away every year in his root cellar,” Nushart said.
Nushart’s process begins with a suitable fermentation container. Metal and nonfood-grade plastic containers are avoided due to the acids from the fermentation process possibly extracting metals or chemicals.
Instead, he uses a large ceramic crock. Although, according to “Sauerkraut,” a booklet available from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna, glass and food-grade plastic containers may also be used.
After discarding the outer leaves and rinsing the cabbage, Nushart cuts the head into quarters, removes the core and thinly slices the chunks.
“The slices need to be ultra thin,” he said. The Cooperative Extension booklet specifically recommends slicing to the thickness of 25-cent coin or thinner.
Shred the slices, then mix the cabbage with noniodized salt in the fermentation container. Anywhere from pint-glass jars up to 512-gallon containers can be used, depending on the volume of sauerkraut desired.
“To me, the size of the container doesn’t matter as much as the procedure. It is always the same,” Nushart said.
He explained it as being similar to putting together lasagna — layers and repetition.
“I put a little noniodized salt on the bottom, then a layer of cabbage about 1 inch thick, and then you tamp it down,” he said.
The Cooperative Extension booklet’s recommendations are largely the same, though it gives a specific ratio of salt to cabbage —three-quarters cup of salt to 25 pounds of cabbage. It also recommends letting the cabbage sit for five to 10 minutes before tamping to allow the cabbage to wilt a bit and natural juices to be drawn out. Fermentation occurs from naturally occurring bacteria on and in the cabbage.
“My grandpa had a homemade tamper, but I use a rolling pin with the handle taken off,” Nushart said. “I use the tamper to bust all the cabbage fibers, let the moisture out of the cabbage and let the salt into it. Once it’s really well tamped, you start the whole process over again — salt, an inch of cabbage, tamping.”
Nushart does this until the fermentation container is nearly full. His one-gallon crock (which he got from Trustworthy Hardware, although Cad-Re and other local businesses sell them, as well) will hold two heads of processed cabbage, amounting to about a half gallon of sauerkraut when it’s done fermenting.
The Cooperative Extension booklet recommends leaving about 4 to 5 inches of space between the cabbage and the top of the container. This is so the 1 to 2 inches of liquid drawn out by the salt will cover the shredded product. The cabbage cannot be left uncovered, since fermentation will only take place in the absence of oxygen.
“My grandpa had a wooden lid with four holes on it and a brick on that to weigh it down. I put a plate on mine and then a filled jar on that for weight,” Nushart said, but a water-tight, brine-filled (1 ½ tablespoons salt to one quart water) plastic zip-top bag can also be used to weigh down the cabbage.
Once covered, the waiting begins. According to the Cooperative Extension, cabbage will become sauerkraut in about three to four weeks if kept in temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, or in five to six weeks at temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees. This short a fermentation period sounds like blasphemy to Nushart, though.
“I like to go long because I don’t like to get into it and find a bite in the middle that’s not cured,” he said. “I’ll do mine in the arctic entry, where it’s cool but above freezing. I’ll let mine go at least three to four months, and Grandpa used to go at least six months.”
Because properly cured sauerkraut is so acidic, Nushart said that once it is cured, it’s cured, and he will just take some out of the crock whenever he wants some. Uncooked sauerkraut is high in vitamins C, B and K, as well as having probiotics that improve digestive tract health. Sauerkraut can be hot-bathed to be stored, as well, which is what Nushart’s grandfather used to do.
Spoilage can still occur during the fermentation process, though. Undesirable color, off odors, a soft texture or an unpleasant flavor may all be signs of spoilage, according to the Cooperative Extension. The booklet recommends that, as with all home food-preservation techniques, if there is any doubt about the safety of the finished product, throw it out.