When I was a little boy, we lived next to my grandparents. It was the Second World War, so everyone had a Victory Garden. We were no exceptions, and we even had a chicken coop where I collected eggs each morning. My grandparents, though, were serious about feeding themselves. In addition to a big garden, they had a small barn and a pond complete with ducks and a hissing goose. Both grandparents had grown up on farms in the Dakotas, so they were used to putting up quarts and quarts of tomatoes, pickles, string beans, peas, cherries, and peaches beginning in the early spring and continuing until the first frost in the autumn.
My grandmother, though, had even more preserving to do when the rest of the harvest was over. She came from a large German family who had immigrated to North Dakota from Russia in the 1880s. German farmers had lived in Russia since the days of Catherine the Great, but when the Russians made it uncomfortable for them, the emigrated by the thousands to the Great Plains – especially to North Dakota. There they continued their German ways, including the production of huge quantities of sauerkraut to see them through the long winter.
Grandma continued that tradition in her back yard, so in the early fall bushels of giant cabbage heads would magically appear between her garden and the garage door. That would then become the place for an organized production line. A big wooden kraut slicer would be hauled down from storage in the garage. Big 25 gallon crocks would be brought up from the basement to be scrubbed clean. Boxes of salt would be brought from the kitchen. A kitchen chair was moved out to sit in front of a huge bowl where the cabbages would be shredded into heaping mounds. Then the packing began: shredded cabbage was layered into the crocks, salt was sprinkled on top, and the process was repeated until the crocks were completely full. Then the crocks would be lined up along a cool wall in the garage, covered with cheesecloth and big plates. Bricks would be placed on the plates for weights, and the real process began.
Fermenting the cabbage went on for weeks, and it was my job to check the crocks daily, skim off any scum, and add water if they looked too dry. During those days the garage was not a good place to spend much time because the dense smell of fermenting cabbage hung in the air. Finally, my grandmother pronounced the process done. At that point all of the women fired up their canning equipment and filled dozens of quart jars with the fragrant kraut until the crocks had been emptied.
To my dismay, the supply of sauerkraut lasted all winter, and at least once a week we had the same meal for supper – sauerkraut, bland mashed potatoes, and a big sausage. As much as I dreaded that menu, it left a lasting impression and surprisingly fond memories.
For that reason, I decided to make some sauerkraut in the butler’s pantry in our home in Shreveport. All of the children were school age, and all of them regularly brought home their friends who wanted to know what was in the crock sitting on the counter. When the children announced that it was sauerkraut their dad was making, there came a long pause and shoulder shrugs. The episode also became the basis for a favorite family story – one in which Dad gets a lot of laughs.
I have never made sauerkraut again, so I was surprised when my Christmas gift from Susan was a beautiful had-crafted sauerkraut crock made by Harsch Steinzeug in Germany along with instructions for how to make sauerkraut. My crock is the five-liter size. You can get them up to 50 liter, but unless you have a big German family and eat sauerkraut every day, the 5-liter size seems perfect for home use.
Once again, I am making sauerkraut. I have adapted the recipe that came with the crock into the one that follows.
2 medium heads, red cabbage
2 medium red onions
10 grams coarse kosher salt for each kg of sliced cabbage + 15 grams for brine
- Remove the outer leaves of the cabbages, quarter, and remove the core.
- Shred the quartered cabbage as thinly as possible. You may use an authentic wooden slaw cutter, a French-style mandoline, a plastic mandoline, or a very sharp chef’s knife. Each implement has distinct advantages and disadvantages. The wooden cutter is the most authentic, but the blade must be sharp, and it requires a lot of muscle. The French-style mandoline works very well and is adjustable, but with all of its parts it needs a lot of cleanup afterward. The plastic mandoline is inexpensive and usually not adjustable, but the slices are fine, and the blade is very sharp. Cleanup is easy. The knife must be very sharp, and it is hard to get the cabbage shreds as thin as you would like. I prefer the plastic mandoline.
- Shred the red onion and combine with the cabbage.
- Weigh the shredded cabbage and onion. Weigh separately 10 grams of salt for each kg of cabbage and onion.
- Arrange a layer of shredded cabbage and onions in the bottom of the crock. Sprinkle with salt. Continue the process, alternating cabbage and onions with salt until you have filled the crock no more than four-fifths full. This is important. Otherwise you will not be able to fit the weight stones into the pot.
- Press down so that liquid is released and rises an inch or so above the weight stones. If it does not, pour in brine prepared by boiling then cooling 15 grams of salt in 1 liter of water.
- Cover the crock with the lid, Seal the lid by pouring water in the groove to that it is above the notches in the sides of the lid, and set in a cool place.
- In 2 or 3 days you should hear bubbling as the kraut begins to ferment. This will continue for a week or so. Do not open the crock, but continue to make sure to keep the water seal refreshed.
- After three weeks or so, open the crock, remove the weight stones, and dish out your first sauerkraut. Replace the weight stones and reseal to use again at another time.
Around my grandmother’s table, we had sauerkraut, sausage, and mashed potatoes at least once a week. With my first batch of kraut, I tried to reproduce that meal, substituting German-fried potatoes for the mashers. The crispy red sauerkraut was much better than that of my memories, the freshly made bratwurst from the butcher was flavorful, and the meal turned out to be a big success with everyone.