Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cabbage for Sauerkraut

Not only do I like to eat cabbages, I like to look at them. I've always thought that there is nothing prettier in the garden than cabbages glowing against the earth. What a pleasure to find that others share this affection. On a page devoted to cabbage cultivation, the author states "There is no more regal a vegetable than a well-grown cabbage, three feet across, its giant silvery green or dusty purple leaves shining with health." Amen to that, brother.

When I began growing cabbage in my garden for the purpose of making sauerkraut, I was quite ignorant of cabbage varieties. I knew the difference between red and green cabbage, and that savoy and Chinese cabbage were different types, but otherwise green cabbage was cabbage. This was partly because green cabbage bought in the store is fairly nondescript and probably one of just a few varieties. For a while I grew "Stonehead", a nice compact cabbage that I now understand is an early cabbage. Then two years ago, a spectacularly bad decision: I planted "Gonzales". Rereading the catalog from Johnny's Selected Seeds, I have no idea why I selected that one. It is an early cabbage meant to be harvested young and small. When I held the plants into the early fall for the purpose of making sauerkraut, I lost a third of them to splitting.

I now understand that the reason cabbage splits in our climate is that it has had enough cool weather followed by hot weather to make it flower. In other words, splitting is the cabbage equivalent of bolting. The head splits and a flower stalk grows out of it. Since both Stonehead and Gonzales were early cabbages, they started to split in mid-August. Once the head splits, it is prone to bacterial rot and isn't very nice anyway.

Both of these cabbages also produced rather small heads, between 1-2.5 pounds with biggest exterior leaves removed. They were somewhat difficult to shred, since they didn't fit the large holder on the krauthobel very well. There was a lot of wastage after I cleaned off the exterior dirty and green leaves and cored them.

When I visited cabbage fields in Wisconsin where cabbage for kraut was grown, I was amazed at the large heads, the size of a beach ball. The interior was very firm and white. Finally I did some research and now understand that this was probably a variety of late cabbage especially good to use for kraut. The most popular among home kraut makers seems to be an old variety called Late Flat Dutch. It is so old-fashioned that most modern seed catalogs don't carry it, but I found it in R.H. Shumway. "Heads average 10-12 inches across, often weighing 15 to 20 pounds." Now, consider that a 3-gallon crock only holds about 15 pounds of shredded cabbage. These are clearly cabbages for the serious. Next year I'll grow these and also some other late cabbages. Early cabbages are supposed to be mature in 60 days. I was holding them past their prime. Late cabbages are about 110 days to harvest, so I'll plant early for a fall sauerkraut production run. These late dense heads are also the favored cabbages for winter storage. And I think they'll be fun to look at. (Edited for clarity)

Kaitlin cabbage (picture cropped from Johnny's catalog)
UPDATE (2013):  This post is one of my most-viewed, so I feel compelled to update it to be more useful.
In subsequent years I planted Johnny's Selected Seeds variety Kaitlin (F1).  This was a superior cabbage for sauerkraut and is bred for that purpose. (Note that the designation (F1) means that it is a hybrid and not suitable for seedsaving.) Here are some of the features that make it a good cabbage for sauerkraut:
Late.  As I explained in my original post, cabbages that are mostly grown as summer (early) cabbages for eating tend to split in late summer or early fall.  I was able to harvest Kaitlin in late September for excellent quality and yield. 
Light.  The interior is almost completely white, which makes for a very clean-looking kraut.  I also did not observe any internal tipburn, which is a flaw in some cabbages that leaves nasty little brown shreds in the kraut.
Heavy.  The heads were substantial.  I do not have a record of weights, but I recall that they were all in excess of 3 pounds and closer to 5 pounds.

 If you want to grow cabbage just for sauerkraut, this is a good one.  It is fine as a winter storage cabbage too. 


Rob said...

The old "Flat Dutch" varieties haven't been grown for decades. The commercial growers in Wisconsin (and other places) use modern hybrid varieties. They want big heads for high yield, but also good storability, since they need to supply the cole slaw market (mostly) and kraut market (secondarily) for months.

All best,
Rob Johnston
Johnny's Selected Seeds

Buttercup said...

Thanks, Rob - I'm planning to try your Kaitlin as well. And I didn't mention Tendersweet in this post - a flathead variety, right? It held well and was wonderful for cabbage rolls and fresh eating but actually too tender for sauerkraut, lacking much texture once fermented.

I found the Flat Dutch mentioned in a number of web pages where people were relating their experiences with making kraut. I don't know what varieties the Wisconsin growers used when I visited their fields back in the 1970s.