Former Constant Spring manager Jessica Whicker used to get teased by her coworkers for being a “germaphobe” while on the job. Now, the woman who used to avoid (bad) bacteria uses (good) bacteria in her passion of fermenting foods.
Growing from her desire to eat healthier and avoid additives and preservatives, Whicker began fermenting about five years ago. For those interested in fermenting, she advises starting out by making sauerkraut, as it is relatively simple and easy.
“Cabbage into sauerkraut is the best way to start for beginners,” she said. “The beauty about sauerkraut ― there are not a lot of hard rules. It’s really flexible.”
Ideally, said Whicker, local organic cabbage should be used. But the local aspect may be even more important than the organic, because wild yeast and bacteria differ by region.
If the cabbage is organic and local, Whicker advises not washing it. “This washes off good bacteria.” Instead, peel off the outer layers for composting or later consumption.
The next step is to cut the cabbage in half and core it. To chop the cabbage, one can do it by hand with a knife or mandolin, or use a food processor. But it’s important to cut the cabbage into consistently sized pieces. “If cut too thin, it falls apart,” Whicker said. “But if cut too thick, it does not work as well.”
Once the cabbage is chopped, it is time to add salt. Whicker stresses the salt must not contain any iodine, which inhibits bacterial growth. “We want the right bacteria to do its thing. You don’t want additives, you don’t want iodine, you just want salt.”
The salt must also be free of any anti-caking agents. Whicker uses Morton Canning & Pickling Salt. The rule of thumb, she said, is to use two to three tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of cabbage (generally, two medium-sized heads of cabbage, three small heads or one really large head). In a crock or jar, add cabbage and sprinkle salt. Repeat. Repeat.
“Toss to make sure salt is onto every piece of cabbage so it can do its job,” Whicker said.
Interestingly, the brine is made from the cabbage juice itself. Through the process of osmosis, salt leaches out water and juice from the cabbage. If lots of juice occurs, there is no need to add brine.
Jars are fine (no smaller than one quart for the bacteria to do its work), but if using a crock, Whicker stressed the importance of using one with an unleaded glaze. Otherwise, lead will seep into the kraut. “If in doubt, don’t use.”
Once the salt-covered cabbage is in the jar or crock, use a closed fist or round potato masher to compress it so that all the cabbage is covered with liquid.
When these steps are complete, Whicker fills a plastic bag with water and places it on top of the cabbage. Then, she puts a towel on top of the jar and keeps it in place with a rubber band. This keeps mold-causing oxygen away while still allowing gasses room to escape.
Then, store in a cool, dark and dry place for 24 hours and check it. Press down again ― if not covered with liquid, add brine (salt water: one tablespoon of salt per one cup water). The cabbage must be covered with half an inch of liquid. “Don’t use city water for brine or fermenting,” Whicker said. “Use well water, spring water or distilled water.”
After another 24 hours, check on it again, add brine as needed and reseal it. Then, check every two to three days. Tamp down if necessary to release gas. “Taste every time you check,” said Whicker. “Taste for how tangy (sour) you like it.” The longer it ferments, the more tangy and sour the kraut will be.
“When it comes to the point that you almost like the taste, put the kraut in the refrigerator,” Whicker said. “It will still process some in there.”
Once stored in the refrigerator, it will last a very long time. Completed sauerkraut must be refrigerated.
Either purple or green cabbage may be used, although each has a slightly different taste. If the two are mixed, it will result in pink sauerkraut (which is fine).