My nephew Benjamin paid a visit last month from his home in San Diego. After hugging Grandma and going for a swim, the immediate vacation priorities were taken care of, and Benjamin declared that it was time to make sauerkraut.
Some kids are into dinosaurs; this one is fascinated with fermentation, to the point that he did his seventh-grade science fair project on making sauerkraut: “How Does the Amount of Salt Affect Sauerkraut pH?” Conclusion: Hardly at all, which I’m sure means something within the science of sauerkraut but little to me as an eater.
What I did learn from Ben and his science fair report is a great deal about this food that I had previously thought of only in connection with hot dogs. For one thing, homemade sauerkraut is way better than the stuff you buy. For another, it was invented in China.
The Chinese technique of fermenting cabbage in rice wine was brought to Europe by the Mongols. In Germany a more natural fermentation process was developed and the name — German for “sour cabbage” — originated.
Like many fermented foods, sauerkraut is high in the probiotics that contribute to the balance of good bacteria in the digestive tract. It’s also high in vitamin C, which made it valuable in preventing scurvy on sea voyages. For modern-day landlubbers, it can help fight the flu and otherwise boost the immune system.
A recipe for sauerkraut is simply cabbage plus salt. Nature does the rest. First the Leuconostoc bacteria present in cabbage produces carbon dioxide and lactic acid, then dies out, to be replaced by bacteria that can live in an acidic solution, such as Lactobacillus (one of the good guys).
Whether you know your Leuconostoc from your Lactobacillus is unimportant. The point is that the environment created is hostile to nasty microbes that could cause spoilage. This means you can take your health-boosting sauerkraut on a long sea voyage.
As for Ben, he won a second-place award in the biochemistry division at the county science fair.
How to make sauerkraut
Shred or chop 1 pound of cabbage (remove the core first). Combine in a bowl with 2 teaspoons salt; mix well. The salt will quickly begin drawing water from the cabbage.
Pack the cabbage into a clean glass quart jar. Pour in any liquid that collected in the bowl. Press the cabbage down (the base of a wine glass is good for this, or use the back of a spoon). The cabbage needs to be below the liquid level, so add water if necessary. Allow an inch of headroom so your sauerkraut doesn’t bubble over as it ferments.
Cover jar loosely and let sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. Pockets of air will develop as the cabbage ferments and gives off gas, so once or twice a day, press the cabbage down to squeeze out the air.
It’s done when it tastes right to you, in 1 to 2 weeks.
Now, what to eat with your stash of sauerkraut: hot dogs, of course, and Reuben sandwiches. Serve it as a side dish with anything that could use a tangy edge. Or make it part of a dish, such as this stew based on the Polish hunter’s stew called bigos.
Beef and Sauerkraut Stew
1/4 pound bacon
1-1/2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
1 medium onion, diced
2 pounds sauerkraut, with juices
1 ounce dried mushrooms, any variety, soaked in warm water until soft
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup apple juice
Cook bacon in pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until cooked but not crisp. Add beef and stir until beef is browned on all sides. Remove beef and bacon from pot.
Add onion to bacon fat in pot. Cook until translucent. Add sauerkraut, mushrooms and their soaking water, pepper, mustard seeds and sugar. Add water to just cover mixture in pot. Reduce heat and simmer 10-15 minutes.
Return beef and bacon to pot; add apple juice. Cover and simmer 1 hour, or until beef is tender. Serves 6.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 300 calories, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 1,250 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 29 g protein
Write “By Request,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, Honolulu 96813; or email email@example.com. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.