For those of you who got interested in the Primal/Paleo lifestyle because of digestive issues, incorporating lacto-fermented vegetables into your diet is an absolute must. And even if gut issues weren’t the motivating factor in your dietary change, you should still be eating them because a healthy gut is the cornerstone to a healthy body. This might come as a surprise to some, since mainstream nutritionists gloss over the importance of gut health and the importance of eating fermented foods altogether. So what exactly is lacto-fermentation, and why is it so important?
Lactobacilli are a type of bacteria that live on the surface of pretty much all living things, but are particularly prevalent in things that grow in the earth. They digest carbs and produce lactic acid as a byproduct. The lactic acid in turn creates an acidic environment that is inhospitable for putrefying bacteria and keeps your veggies preserved.
This preservative effect is what got humans interested in lacto-fermentation in the first place. It was a way of storing vegetables long term in the era before refrigeration. The invention of refrigeration made fermentation mostly obsolete from a preservative perspective. Of course, people had grown to love the taste of pickles and sauerkraut so the dishes themselves didn’t disappear. But lacto-fermentation is a somewhat unpredictable, organic craft. Food producers found they could easily mimic the acidic taste of pickles and sauerkraut by relying on vinegar rather than lacto-fermentation, and since it is easier and produces a more consistent product, that’s exactly what they did. The end result is that it is virtually impossible to find true fermented veggies on the shelves of most American supermarkets, with Bubbies being pretty much the only nationally distributed fermented brand.
That’s a shame, because as it turns out, lactobacilli don’t just have a beneficial effect on the preservation of food- they also have a beneficial effect on the composition of bacteria in our gut. There is an entire world of bacteria living inside our guts, and the composition of that bacteria is critical to our health. Having a healthy composition of gut flora is vital to proper gastrointestinal function, and it plays an important role in metabolism and immune function as well.
The easiest way to make homemade sauerkraut is by using Fido jars. Forget all the horror stories you have read about skimming mold out of a mason jar or crock, and rest assured that although they work great (I have one myself), you don’t need to buy an expensive Harsch Crock either. Just run out to TJ Maxx, get yourself a $4 Fido jar, and you are ready to enter the exciting world of fermented food.
The basic science behind vegetable ferments is simple. You need to create an environment that promotes the growth of lactobacilli and inhibits the growth of putrefying bacteria. Once the lactobacilli get cranking, they will plunge the pH of your brine down to the point where they will take care of the putrefying bacteria themselves, but prior to that, it is the salt that is going to inhibit the growth of the bad guys. That’s why salt ratio is so critical. Too little and the bad guys will grow. Too much and you will inhibit the growth of the lactobacilli too.
I love Sandor Katz, and own both of his excellent books on fermentation, but sometimes his groovy, live and let live mentality can go a bit too far. And his openness to salting a fermentation to “taste” is definitely one of those instances for me. I’m not saying it can’t be done. My argument is why take the risk? When you are fermenting sauerkraut you are talking about a dish that takes at minimum 2 weeks to finish. That’s a serious time investment and there is nothing more frustrating than opening a ferment up weeks later and finding out you screwed it up and you have to dump it and start all over again. Believe me, I’ve been there and I know. So I always weigh and measure.
The general guideline for salt ratio is usually 3 tablespoons per 5lbs of vegetables. That’s 1.8 teaspoons per pound. You can go slightly lower than that if you like, down to maybe 1.5 teaspoons, but I wouldn’t recommend more. Try to distribute the salt as evenly as possible
The other thing you need to worry about when making kraut is mold. Lactobacilli are microaerophilic. That means they need a tiny bit of oxygen to get going but are otherwise pretty much anaerobic. Mold on the other hand, loves oxygen. When you use something like a mason jar to make sauerkraut, it is imperative that you keep the kraut pushed down under the brine at all times and even then you are probably going to have to skim mold off the surface where it comes in contact with the air. Vessels such as a Fido Jar or Harsch crock avoid this problem by quickly creating an anaerobic environment. Mold doesn’t have the time to grow before the CO2 produced from the ferment pushes all the oxygen out of the vessel. With a Harsh Crock, the pressure build up isn’t as fast or strong, so you still do need to use weighing stones to keep the cabbage under the brine at all times. With a Fido jar the stones aren’t even necessary.
My final general piece of advice regarding sauerkraut is the actual slicing. You can use a chef’s knife to slice the cabbage if you want, but I’ve found that meticulously consistent slicing produces a better tasting product and unless you are really good with your knife skills, you need a tool to do that. If you are one of the lucky few that have a cabbage slicer, by all means use that. My Grandma has one and they work amazing. Hers is wooden and ancient and probably didn’t even cost that much at the time, but nowadays cabbage slicers are rarer and more expensive. Too expensive for me, so I simply use my mandoline set at the 1/8 inch setting instead. Not nearly as quick and easy as a dedicated cabbage slicer, but it gets the job done. Just make sure to use a steel glove when slicing with a mandoline! Again, trust me- I know. If you are a sauerkraut fanatic with means, on the other hand, you might consider investing in the world’s greatest cabbage slicer.
Below is my basic fido fermented sauerkraut recipe. I used 2 large heads of cabbage which yielded just under 4 pounds of cabbage and fit well in a 2L fido jar. But as the size and weight of cabbage heads vary, an exact fit is not guaranteed. If you have too much veggie for your vessel, either put the excess in to a smaller fido jar (you could get a nice size mix of 4-5 different fidos at TJ Maxx or Ross for less than $20) or just use it as a cole slaw or fry it up with some bacon as a variation of my red cabbage and bacon recipe.