Cabbage has come a long way from its origins as a little beach-weed called sea kale – over centuries, our species has bred it into an amazing variety of different vegetables. We’ve bred it for its head of leaves – green cabbage, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kale, bok choy, mustard, rocket, mizuna and others. We’ve bred it for its flowers – broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco. We’ve bred it for its buds -- Brussels sprouts – and we’ve bred it for its roots, kohlrabi.
In all its forms, it remains one of the best crops for the Irish climate, as for similar climates like the Pacific Northwest, but it grows in a wide variety of climates. It’s a famous staple here in many of its forms, the basic vegetable of many dishes. Amazingly, though, few people we know here make sauerkraut or kimchi, methods used in other parts of the world to preserve cabbage, make it easier to digest and to give it flavour. You can make sauerkraut very easily at home, and it will be much tastier and more nutritious than the canned variety.
The biggest trick is to find 1.) a cylindrical container, not made of metal or plastic, and 2.) a lid slightly smaller than the top of the container, so that it slides down the interior with little air in-between. The cabbage has to be pressed down in salt water away from oxygen, you see, but not sealed off completely. We have a ceramic pot and lid; you could hold it down with a plate slightly smaller than the pot and hold the sauerkraut down with a stone. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar and use a glass or ceramic candle-holder as a stopper. Use your imagination, but of course wash and sterilise everything well beforehand.
First cut a cabbage into quarters and chop it finely with a knife or through a mandolin. Mix up a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage, put it in the container, and pound it down for a few minutes with something heavy like a rolling pin. Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about three tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of cabbage – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full.
Then fill the container with water – from the cold tap, but heated on the stove until lukewarm – until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment at room temperature – about 20 degrees Centigrade is ideal, so try near the heater or stove.
The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and one of the great things about this recipe is that you don’t have to wait until it’s “done.” It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to top it up with more salt water if you need to – about a tablespoon per litre of water – as you have to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.
Your sauerkraut might develop a slight scum on top as it ferments. Just skim it off and clean the plate when you take some out -- it’s just the result of contact with the air, and not very dangerous. Also, don’t worry if the kraut has a faint yeasty smell – it’s fermenting, after all. If it starts to go pink on top or smell genuinely bad, something has probably gone wrong.
My mother-in-law says that only green cabbage was ever used for sauerkraut in Germany, although she’s not sure why – perhaps the pinkness that indicates harmful bacteria was more difficult to see on red cabbage. We read of people online who use red cabbage, however, and we plan to try it soon – if you have, let us know how it goes.
After about a month, take out the sauerkraut and eat it straight, put it in the refrigerator or cook it, as you like. You can also add other vegetables into the mix, like onions, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot, or spices – juniper berries and bay leaf are the classics, but you can also experiment with ginger, chilli peppers or other things.
This is a great way to preserve cabbage through the winter without refrigeration, also, and to give vitamin C during the months when it’s most needed and least available.