March 31, 2020

Fermenting Revolution: Why You Should Be Making Sauerkraut

What do you know about your gut microbiome — the little world that lives in each of our guts? If you answered, “Not much,” you’re not alone.

But according to research, our gut health determines a lot about how our bodies break down food, and our ability to absorb nutrients from what we eat. These microbes may play a critical role in determining our appetite, allergies, metabolism and even brain function. Study of the vast community of microorganisms inside humans have found that gut bacteria even produce key mood neurotransmitters in the form of increased serotonin, dopamine and GABA, and lack of good bacteria could play a role in hiking risk factors for developing a neurological disorders, including ADHD. In other words, if you are in a bad mood a lot of the time, your gut bacteria might be to blame.

Research into the effects of nurturing good gut bacteria is so well documented, it’s common practice after a dose of antibiotics for doctors to recommend eating fermented products such as yogurt in order to restore balance to the gut and prevent yeast infections.

But our high sugar, highly processed, fast-food culture may create a situation in which gut microbiomes are perpetually altered. Overconsumption of sugar, in all its forms, doesn’t help matters. Fortunately, a routine dose of fermented foods with live active cultures, such as yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha and kimchi can help correct microbial imbalances and may even fight cancer, obesity, brain deterioration and boost the immune system. Fermentation helps preserve food and in doing so creates beneficial digestive enzymes, B vitamins and various strains of probiotics.

One of my favorite ways to feed good gut bacteria is a food that many of us already know and love: sauerkraut. Although sauerkraut (“sour cabbage” in German) is widely thought to be a German invention, it was likely brought to Europe by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, who encountered shredded cabbage cured in rice wine in China. Dutch traders, whose long sea journeys relied on food that could last without refrigeration, also ate sauerkraut, as did Chinese laborers building the Great Wall. 

Sauerkraut is made by a process called lacto-fermentation; beneficial bacteria present on the surface of the cabbage (and all vegetables) called lactobacillus, when submerged in a saltwater brine, converts the sugars in the vegetable to lactic acid. This acts as a natural preservative and prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. Although commercially prepared sauerkraut is available in almost every grocery store in the West, I began making my own in Uganda after having a hard time finding any and realized how simple, crunchier and fresher the homemade version is.

A routine dose of fermented foods with live active cultures can help correct microbial imbalances.

It’s so easy to make and it’s immensely addictive. After you start to make your own, you’ll realize how well sauerkraut goes with foods ranging from steak, eggs, avocados, hummus, salads to, of course, kosher hot dogs. 

Making sauerkraut or any fermented veggie is simple but there are a few rules to follow to ensure fermented vegetables don’t become spoiled.

First, sterilize all the equipment, including mixing bowls, Mason jars, knives, lids, food processor and vegetables. Pour boiling water over everything and let it sit for a few minutes. Skipping this step increases the risk the lactic acid bacteria that ferments the food (good bacteria) will compete and lose to the multitude of other (not-so-good) bacteria that rots food. So sterilize and wash your hands with soap and rinse in vinegar.

Next, grate the vegetables. I had red and daikon radishes from the garden, and a head of purple cabbage and a carrot from the market. Sometimes I vary the ingredients but I always use cabbage. My go-to sauerkraut is made out of a big head of green cabbage. 

Sometimes, I used a food processor to slice my vegetables because it makes short work of chopping in our embassy kitchen when I’m making large quantities of pickled vegetables but, more often at home, I like to slice by hand with a sharp knife or grate on a standard cheese grater.

After the vegetables are cut, weigh a bowl of them on a scale to determine how much salt to add. A good rule of thumb is to add salt that is 2% of the vegetables weight. I don’t measure anymore because I’ve been making this for so long that I can guesstimate the salt but novices should measure so they don’t under or over salt (equally disastrous). 

I use a good quality sea salt or kosher salt for this and all other pickling because it has great flavor but feel free to use table salt. For about 9 cups (1 kg) of shredded vegetables, add 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/4 teaspoon (20 grams) of salt or 2% salt by weight. This is a standard pickling ratio of vegetables to salt.

After weighing, mix in the salt with a sterilized spatula or tongs and then walk away for 20 minutes. Why? Because it gives the salt time to start doing its magic in drawing out the liquids before the next step.

Wash your hands again (or don gloves) and then massage the vegetables aggressively, almost brutally, until they give up their juices. When I set a timer to this task, it takes five minutes to massage a medium head of cabbage (1 kg). Of course, you can add peppercorns, pickling spices, chile flakes or coriander seeds but I rarely add flavorings to sauerkraut because I like to eat it with eggs in the morning and I’m not always in the mood for assertive spices at that time of day.

After massaging the vegetables, stuff them into sterilized jars (sterilized lids also), making sure to push them into the jar leaving no air bubbles. Using a small sterilized spatula will enable you to push everything down into the liquid. Try to leave at least an inch of air at the top of the jar and make sure that every bit of cabbage is under liquid. Some people like to use ceramic weights to make sure the vegetables stay submerged but I like to use a thick cabbage leaf that I have reserved. I find that if I put it in the neck of the jar, it will stay submerged and keep all the vegetables under the liquid. 

Finally, set the kraut jars on the counter or in a dry cabinet for five to seven days with no direct light at about 60 to 80 F room temp and start tasting on day five. It might be a bit stinky in a sulfuric acid way. That’s good — that’s the byproduct of fermentation (think kimchi or pickles).

However, if it stinks in a rotting way then throw it out and remember how I warned you to sterilize. Bummer — bet you won’t do that again. Start eating your kraut when it is sour enough for you and tastes great. After you start to eat it, keep it in the fridge. It keeps for ages but it might not last long because you may become a kraut junkie — an enjoyable and effortless way to keep your very important gut bacteria in check.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.