There is a farm at my children’s school, and every Thursday afternoon they host a farm stand where parents and students can buy fresh veggies, goat milk products, and homemade goodies. A few weeks ago, I stopped by the stand and encountered some truly amazing produce–a head of cabbage so giant I thought I was back in Alaska. I passed on buying it, not knowing what I’d actually do with the beast, but I went home and thought about it all night, came up with a plan, and the next day headed back to the farm to see if there were more. The farmer generously took me out to the field and found me this beauty. I brought this leafy 15-pounder home and started shredding.
It turns out making sauerkraut is a relatively simple process: it requires cabbage, salt, and a good vessel for storage. I bought a large crock for making vinegar a few years ago so I decided to use this. I would recommend using something nonreactive and not plastic, so crockery or glass are good options. According to Alton Brown, my go-to resource for all cooking projects that seem a bit more like chemistry, for every 5lbs of cabbage, use 3Tbsp pickling salt (I used kosher salt and doubled the amount). He also uses 1 Tbsp of juniper berries and 2 tsp caraway, but that is optional. After shredding and mixing the cabbage with salt, pack it firmly into your sanitized fermentation vessel of choice. Place a plate on top of the cabbage, then lay a quart-sized glass jar full of water over the plate (sanitize these too).
After a couple days, a liquid brine should form to cover the top of the cabbage, if not, add enough water to cover the cabbage. Check it every couple of days and skim the scum off the top if necessary. The sauerkraut should be ready in 10 days to 4 weeks-just take a bit out and taste it! When it is finished, pack it into sanitized quart jars and cover with brine (the spigot at the bottom of my vinegar crock was handy for this). It should keep in the refrigerator for a few months.
In addition to being a good source of Vitamin C, B6, and iron, there are two primary health benefits to eating sauerkraut: improved digestion and cancer prevention. The digestive benefits are twofold: there are many strains of probiotic bacteria (including lactobacillus) that work together to eat the sugars in the cabbage and produce this fermented food. Eating raw sauerkraut will help to repopulate the large intestine with beneficial bacteria, which can improve digestion, relieve inflammation, and increase the strength of the immune system overall. Green cabbage is also a good source of glutamine, which is an amino acid that is the preferred food for the lining of the digestive tract. This can also help to repair damaged cells and improve the integrity of the large intestine. One word of caution; the process of fermentation can create a trisaccharide that, when consumed by the bacteria that live in the digestive tract, can cause gas for some people. The addition of caraway and juniper (as advised by Alton Brown’s recipe) can help to dispel that gas and maximize the digestive benefit of the sauerkraut.
Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) is the primary chemical present in sauerkraut that has been associated with cancer prevention. I3C can be found in all members of the cabbage (brassica) family, but particularly high levels have been found in cabbage that has been fermented for 7-9 days. After this length of time, I3C levels continue to remain elevated but will taper off over time. I3C has been shown to reduce proliferation (growth) of several types of cancer, including colon, prostate, breast, and leukemia. I3C has been discussed particularly in reference to prevention of breast and cervical cancers because it helps to metabolize and remove estrogens from the system. These types of cancer are frequently (though not always) dependent upon estrogen as a growth promoter. However, I3C also can help to initiate natural cell death (called apoptosis) and protect the liver against cancer-causing chemicals which is why benefit has been found for non-estrogen dependent cancers as well.
Making sauerkraut is a little adventure that yields a delicious, health promoting, and cost-saving product with flavor unrivaled by the canned store-bought types. You can purchase raw sauerkraut at many health food stores, but the cost can be upwards of $20/quart. Making it at home requires only the cost of the cabbage–mine cost about $1.30/quart, plus the glory of figuring out what to do with a cabbage the size of my torso.
Enjoy and be well!