Sunday, October 19, 2008

Frontiers of fermentation

I've been fascinated for some time with the practice of fermenting foods for preservation and have spent some years perfecting the production of sauerkraut from cabbage. Last year my husband gave me a Christmas present of a fancy crock from Germany (Harsch) that adds some low-tech ease to the process. While I have learned to use a standard crock with a wooden cover for the kraut, a weight (quart jars filled with water), and covered with a tea towel, then a bath towel, this crock takes care of a number of those requirements. The essential requirements are that the vegetable needs to be pressed firmly to make "juice" (after being salted at 3 Tablespoons pickling salt to 5 lbs cabbage), pressed down with a weight and covered with brine, then protected from molds and yeasts and allowed to ferment to an anaerobic condition. For a pictorial account of this method, see Kim's account.

The fancy German crock has its own ceramic weights that substitute for finding a plate to fit or buying a wooden cover, and the rock or jars used to weight it down. They are two semicircles that drop in elegantly. Then a water seal consisting of a grove in the top of the crock plus the lid prevents any contaminants from getting in and helps promote the anaerobic progress of the fermentation.

I used the crock this year for my second batch of sauerkraut. Since I had already made a batch using my standard recipe, I became a little more experimental. Both the recipes that came with the crock and those in a book on preserving food (Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning,Chelsea Green Publishing Co.) had made me aware that some European traditions do a lot more with sauerkraut, adding different vegetables and some spices to the mix. Apparently one can make turnips into shreds for this process, and carrots are another popular addition, but there are many variations. I chose a very conservative combination of several recipes. I added one onion, shredded very fine, and 3 bay leaves, 3 sage leaves, 3 whole cloves, and 6 juniper berries to my 10 pounds of cabbage, layering as I went. After 4 weeks of fermentation, the kraut was flawless and my husband says it tastes "spicier". The taste of the added spices is barely detectable, very subtle, and probably would not be detected if cooked.

This year I abandoned the practice of canning my kraut and have preserved all of it in quart canning jars in the refrigerator. It is delicious but this method results in some bad moments when trying to find places for other things around all the kraut jars. The kraut is very good as is but also serves as a salad with a simple vinaigrette (3 T oil to 1 T vinegar, pepper, no salt) and a chopped scallion. Cooked with sausages and a few caraway seeds, it is just as tasty in a different way.

I grew two varieties of cabbage for use in kraut this year. The one I have grown for several years, "Stonehead" from Jung, began to crack in mid-August. Kim and I made it into kraut that was decanted mid-September. The other variety, "Tendersweet" from Johnny's Select Seeds, I used for the second batch in mid-September, decanted in mid-October. Tendersweet has odd flattened heads and very thin leaves. I thought it would be superior for kraut because it made very fine strands. However, the resulting product is not as crisp and clings together when served rather than standing out a bit. I probably won't use it again for that, but it is a superior eating cabbage.

Timing of kraut production has been related to head splitting, which ruins the cabbage for making kraut and invites bacterial soft rot. Tendersweet appears to be somewhat more resistant to early splitting. I've discovered that the splitting of the head is preparatory to blooming. Cabbage is a biennial but apparently our climate has enough cold shocks to induce flowering. Perhaps I should investigate to see what varieties the kraut packers in Wisconsin use. I recall that they had huge basketball-size heads and might be resistant to splitting.

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