Thursday, February 28, 2008

Secrets of Sauerkraut

After about five years of experimenting with making sauerkraut, I've finally figured out how to do it reliably. I'm going to share the secrets. Some I got from a version of the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning that is no longer available online. Some was from Ohio State Extension. Some is hard-earned experience from making mistakes or having a lucky inspiration.

First, grow your cabbage. Sauerkraut is best made from freshly harvested cabbage. USDA says "between 24 and 48 hours after harvest". I suspect this requirement is because the lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) population that is native to the leaf surfaces begins to die off in stored cabbage. I pick and partly clean the cabbage the day before processing, cutting off roots, discarding dirty outer leaves, and rinsing off any remaining dirt. Soaking would probably be a bad idea. Then I just leave the heads out on a clean work counter overnight.

The timing of harvest and the variety of cabbage are important. My early trials were poor because I kept thinking of sauerkraut as a fall harvest task and trying to do it in late September. This is wrong for two reasons. One is that a certain temperature is needed for fermentation. The other is that cabbage tends to split as it gets mature and if there are cool nights with good soil moisture. Last year I chose an early-maturing variety, "Gonzales", a real mistake; I lost 1/3 of my crop to split heads even though I harvested over Labor Day weekend. Gonzales is meant to make "miniheads" for fresh eating during the summer - I must not have had my reading glasses on when I chose it. Other years I have grown "Stonehead", with some splitting but perhaps not so early. This year I'm going to try a mix of Stonehead and "Tendersweet", a flatter head that is said to be resistant to splitting. For the last two years, I have harvested and made the kraut around Labor Day, with good results. Temperatures are warm but not too warm during fermentation.

For processing, the heads are cut into quarters, outer green leaves and cores removed, and then shredded. Unless you have amazing technique, shredding with a knife blade is too uneven as well as tiring, and a food processor makes shreds that are too coarse. In past years I used a mandoline, inefficient and time-consuming but with good results. Finally I broke down and bought a real kraut shredder, or as they are called, a krauthobel. I have concluded that all these come from the same factory in Slovenia. It is like a huge mandoline made of wood with multiple blades and a square box that rides over them. No pressure is required on the cabbage to make the cuts.

I trust stoneware crocks best for fermentation and pickling. Some people use plastic buckets but the references I consulted warn against using anything but food-grade plastic. The crocks are prettier anyhow. Old ones are fine if they are not cracked, but new ones are a good investment. A 3-gallon crock will make 15 lbs of sauerkraut, and a 5-gallon crock will make 25 lbs. Then a plate that just fits inside the crock is needed to press down the cabbage and help keep out molds.

The salt used should be pickling salt, or kosher salt would probably work. Pickling salt is of a high purity without iodine. In old recipes you will find different amounts of salt used, but I try to keep to a strict ratio of 3 tablespoons to 5 lbs of shredded cabbage. I shred cabbage and weigh it in a large bowl until I have 5 pounds, then mix it with the salt and put it into the crock, with pushing down to express juice. I finally bought a hand-crafted sauerkraut stomper from Lehman's ; it looks like a table leg but really works.

After the crock is filled to a few inches from the top, put a plate (best fit) over the cabbage and press down. Brine should come up over the plate. If it doesn't, the cabbage can be topped off with boiled and cooled brine ( 1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt per quart of water). Weight the plate with a couple of clean quart jars filled with water. By now the crock should be resting where it is going to stay for 4-6 weeks, in a place with low traffic and relatively constant temperatures. Drape a clean tea towel over the jars and crock, then a heavy bath towel over that. Disturb as little as possible, but check after several days and then weekly to see if any molds or yeast scum need to be removed. Some foam formation at first is expected, since the bacteria are producing carbon dioxide. According to Ohio, when temperatures are between 55-65, fermentation will take place in 5-6 weeks. At 70-75, it is 3-4 weeks. Much cooler and it won't ferment. I had to throw out my entire batch one year because it never fermented, and other years when it was too cool, the brine turned a dark brown over an exceedingly long fermentation time. Ohio says that above 80 the cabbage may spoil. According to my max/min thermometer last year, temperatures through September were 64-76 and the kraut was perfectly fermented in 5 weeks. Small amounts can be taken out with a clean fork and tasted to see whether it is "done".

My friend Dan, who helped last year and carried away some of the cabbage to ferment on his own, refrigerated all of his and is still happily eating it out of his refrigerator. He believes that the lactobacilli are healthful. I canned most of mine in glass jars (hot water bath method) and this is perfectly satisfactory for most cooked dishes. However, with Dan's encouragement, I kept several quarts in my refrigerator and this made a lovely fresh kraut slaw with just a little vinaigrette.
UPDATE:  A better description of the process as done in my kitchen, complete with stepwise pictures, can be found on The Farmer's Marketer post Homemade: Sauerkraut.  Highly recommended.


Most people in this country call it sauerkraut, but I thought that Voltaire would better recognize choucroute. Either way it is cabbage preserved by lactic acid fermentation. I've always loved it and I'm also fascinated with the fermentation process. Lactobacillus bacteria occur naturally on plant surfaces, especially cabbage. The cabbage is salted (to make the tissues weep and inhibit other microorganisms) and incubated for four to six weeks. The bacilli pull oxygen out of the liquid (they are facultatively anaerobic) and lower the pH by breaking down available sugars into lactic acid. This preserves the cabbage from molds and rotting and putrifying bacteria. A similar process is the secret of yogurt and other fermented milk products. Lactofermentation is a very old means of keeping vegetables out of season and whole cuisines are built around it. It probably prevented scurvy in most of Middle Europe for hundreds of years.

Last year we enjoyed an authentic course of choucroute à l'alsacienne prepared by our friend Francis, who is a chef. We contributed the sauerkraut and Francis added several cuts of pork (sausages, loin, among others), juniper berries, wine, and other mysterious things. I think some duck fat may have been implicated. This was served simply with boiled potatoes, followed by a green salad and then a cheese course. Wonderful.

Other people may simply think of sauerkraut as what you put on Reuben sandwiches or eat with sausages. I like that too, but my favorite meal for two is two pork chops placed on top of sauerkraut in a baking dish, some white wine poured over both, then the chops are anointed with a mixture of ketchup and Worchestershire. Bake uncovered at 275 for 2 1/2 hours. The chops are completely tender and falling apart, fat has disappeared into the kraut, and with that and a baked potato you have dinner.

Sauerkraut is good on pizza, too. Not too much, and it simply makes it moister and more flavorful. We learned this last year that it can be eaten as a salad, especially if it is fresh. Simply rinse and add a mayonnaise dressing or a simple vinaigrette (I like to add a chopped scallion too) and serve like a slaw. I've heard of it mixed with creamed noodles and here in Michigan there are rumors of something called sauerkraut balls. (I think they are fried fritters with sauerkraut in the batter.) Of course sauerkraut pirogies are the best.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Celery root

I’ve never been tempted to grow celery in my vegetable garden. It is so readily available and relatively inexpensive, and I’ve never heard anyone brag about the just-picked flavor of their garden celery.

But last fall I bought some celeriac (celery root) from Tantré Farms and had a revelation. It can be grown here, and it makes a really good companion to other late root crops. I made a julienne of the celeriac and some turnips, also from Tantré, with a simple vinaigrette and a little dried basil. It was enthusiastically received here. I suspect that it is also good in any recipe that uses roasted root vegetables. The roots kept a long time in the vegetable crisper, and I believe that their flavor is more subtle than ordinary celery (the leaf petioles).

So – I bought seeds of the variety “President” from Cook’s Garden. The picture looked like the one from Tantré. Some celeriac is round and knobby; this was cylindrical and knobby. The seed packet said to start 8-12 weeks before last frost, which meant right away. So now I’m checking my seed tray on the heater every day.

For some years I have grown another close celery relative, lovage. This perennial herb is about 5 feet tall when it blooms. Blooms are like all those of the Umbelliferae (the carrot family) —they are like Queen Anne’s Lace but not as pretty. I use lovage sometimes when I’m out of most other leafy herbs— it is not too bad as a substitute for parsley but actually the leaves have a strong celery taste. Because of my experience with the lovage, I know I’m likely to have problems with Cercospora leaf spot on the celeriac too. Fortunately this disease is favored by hot weather so begins somewhat later in the season.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Yes, I know it's not a buttercup (Family Ranunculaceae). If you don't get the joke, I'm not going to help you.

Roasted Red Peppers

Last November ended as a snowy and icy mess, but first we had two weeks of fine warm weather, with frost scares at night. My two varieties of bell pepper, Crispy and Karma, continued to grow long after I had already removed most of the still-green peppers to give away to friends. They were even making new little peppers. I kept the partly red peppers on the plants and used a makeshift barrier of old row cover and burlap around the pepper patch to ward off frost.

The result was truly an embarrassment of riches. I even had to give red peppers away. But this was only after many, many batches of roasted red peppers were resting in my freezer. Next year maybe I'll try to use some of those special recipes I collected, like the Serbian red pepper and eggplant preparation. I only managed to roast, peel, and freeze the peppers under press of everything else.

Actually, though they are called "roasted", I think most people do as I do and broil them. I arrange cleaned seeded pieces as flatly as possible on a cookie sheet, and put them up under the broiler element until the outer skin turns black. Too long, and the flesh dries out. The really thick-walled peppers (Karma is very good) are best because the flesh stays moist and full even when the skin is fully blackened. Then the blackened skin is removed and crumbs brushed off. When the peppers sit in a pile on a plate during processing, a liquid collects that is saved to add to recipes, and also keeps the peppers moist while refrigerated. For freezing, I simply weighed out quarter-pound and half-pound portions and placed them into plastic containers or freezer bags. They are so delicious. I'm amazed at their quality after thawing. Especially because we had that little mishap with the freezer door being left open and then having to refreeze most of the peppers.

I've been finding lots of ways to use them. Of course, they are an essential element in my personal spaghetti sauce recipe and go right onto pizza. The larger portions are for making a roasted red pepper sauce with tomato, basil, onions, and garlic (the last two ingredients are sauteéd in olive oil, then all blended together). I chop the peppers and incorporate them into meatloaf. They also go into any kind of egg dish, can be added to gratins and scalloped potatoes, and today I just chopped some and threw them into a casserole of chili mac. Um!

Addresses and destinations

When I set up Voltaire's Garden I tried to use the address, but found that title was taken. Hence the French version. Today it occurred to me to see what that other blog was about. It turned out to be something called "My Secret Garden", apparently a completely private diary written only for the writer. It seems to have been abandoned.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And now to the garden

Probably Voltaire's best-known quote is from Candide where he concludes "we must cultivate our garden". You remember, Candide is an innocent who begins in a castle, where he studies under Professor Pangloss ("the best of all possible worlds") and falls in love with the beautiful Cunegonde, daughter of the baron. Through a series of misfortunes, he travels the world with Pangloss, (who becomes syphilitic and deformed), and recovers Cunegonde (who was raped and stabbed by invaders, enslaved, prostituted, and ultimately loses her beauty) ; meanwhile Candide is tortured, partially flayed, and almost eaten. Eventually he becomes rich (but loses most of it) and he, Pangloss and Cunegonde, together with a couple of companions, end up on a small farm in Turkey. Pangloss once again philosophizes that all has been for the best. Candide says "That's well said, but we must cultivate our garden". It should be noted that Cunegonde has in the meantime become an excellent pastry cook.

There has been much analysis of what Voltaire actually meant to say by the retreat to the garden. Some may be repeated here in subsequent posts. But for me it has meaning on both the real and metaphysical levels; gardening as a focus on the here and now, the garden as an escape from the cruelty of the world, but also the garden as a symbol of renewal and a metaphor of life. And it produces food, too.

So this blog will also celebrate a retreat to the garden, figuratively and literally. Here will be a record of my garden, musings about the universe — and food.