By Lauren M. Kraemer, MPH, Extension Family & Community Health, Oregon State University/Wasco County Extension and Nancy Kershaw, Extension Family & Community Health/4-H Youth Development Faculty, Oregon State University/Tillamook County Extension
Fermentation is one of the easiest methods of preserving food and boasts the most health benefits, least energy consumption, and most variety and room for creativity (read: experimentation) over any other type of food preservation method. With a little bit of pure sodium chloride (salt) and your own hands, you can get delicious vegetable mixtures that are preserved for weeks or even months with no canners, dehydrators, freezers, or fancy kitchen equipment.
Food preservation is a science, not an art and bending the rules could result in deadly consequences. The one we worry most about is botulism and interestingly, cases only began showing up in historical records after canning was invented in the 1790’s. By creating a sealed, anaerobic (air free) environment, we create the perfect conditions for botulism to grow.
Fermentation on the other hand, creates an ideal environment for lactic acid bacteria which lower the pH of things like cabbage and kimchi so that bad bacteria like botulism less likely to grow. Fermentation does not require an anaerobic environment; jars need to breath, and burp, and bubble in order to release the carbon dioxide being produced as good bacteria grow. All of this makes fermented foods safer than fresh foods, which may have the risk of carrying disease causing microorganisms like E.coli, listeria, salmonella, mold etc. or canned foods which can harbor botulism and staphylococcus.
In the book, “The Art of Fermentation,” by Sandor Ellix Katz, he lends decades of experience as a fermenter, giving you the confidence to try your first batch of kraut or kimchi. Katz comments on the double entendre that is “culture” in the realm of fermentation. This word brings to mind agar plates and swabs of bacteria as he discusses the cultures of organisms that are created through fermentation. He writes that a healthy human gut has over 7 trillion bacteria and as we have come to eat highly processed, commercially produced foods, we end up losing a lot of that good bacteria because it is no longer introduced into our bodies through various fermented foods. The second idea of culture is of the broader family, national, or food culture. Koreans have kimchi, Germans have sauerkraut, Italians have wine, and the French have cheese. All of these cultural fermented foods play into the pleasure of eating and sharing a meal. Fermentation brings flavors out of foods that you would never experience in them fresh, let alone canned or frozen. You can experience the palate pleasing textures, tastes, and aromas of fermented foods.
OSU Food Preservation Resources
• Food Safety and Preservation Hotline 800-354-7319
Mid-July through mid-October, Monday-Friday, 9 am-4 pm
• Oregon State University Extension Service food preservation publications.
• Master Food Preserver Volunteer Training Coming Fall 2017.
Patterned after the popular Master Gardener program, the training includes 40 hours of training and 40 hours of volunteer time. Contact the Tillamook County Extension Office for more information: 503-842-3433.
Recipe Source: Oregon State University Extension
Number of servings: 5 lbs
5 pounds shredded cabbage
3 tablespoons canning or pickling salt
Note: Select mature heads of cabbage that are disease-free. The best kraut is made from the mid to late season crop. If harvesting, wait 1-2 days after harvest to make the sauerkraut. Remove outer leaves and cores and shred cabbage into long and thin slices, about the thickness of a quarter. For 5 pounds of shredded cabbage you will need between 6-7 pounds, about 3-4 medium heads.
Large plastic or stainless steel mixing bowl
Food-grade fermenting containers (Do not use copper, iron or galvanized-metal containers or garbage bags and trash liners.)
Note: One-gallon glass or plastic jars work well for 5 pounds of cabbage. 5 pounds of cabbage will fill about 3-quart jars or one large gallon container with room for a brine bag or weight.
• Place shredded cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle salt evenly over cabbage.
• With clean hands, thoroughly mix the salt into the cabbage. As the salt dissolves, the cabbage will begin to wilt and become juicy.
• Pack the cabbage firmly into the food-grade fermenting container, pressing evenly with your fist.
• As you pack it you will notice the brine coming from the cabbage. You will need enough brine to cover the cabbage. Leave at least 4-5 inches of headspace.
• Put a weight on the cabbage to keep the cabbage covered with brine while fermenting. Wipe the edges of the jar or crock before putting the weight on top. For glass jars, use a freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine made of 1½ tablespoons salt per 1 quart of water. For crocks, use a plate and weigh it down with a jar of water or a plastic bag filled with brine.
• Cover the fermenting container with a clean tea towel or cheesecloth to reduce mold growth. For glass containers, cover the jar with a brown paper bag to keep the light off of the kraut while it is fermenting. This helps retain nutrients and preserves the color of the kraut.
• Store at 70-75ºF while fermenting. At 70-75ºF sauerkraut will be fully fermented in about 3-4 weeks; at 60-65ºF fermentation may take 5-6 weeks. At temperatures lower than 60ºF sauerkraut may not ferment. Above 75ºF sauerkraut may become soft. The smaller the fermenting container the faster it will ferment.
• If you weigh the cabbage down with a brine-filled bag, do not disturb the crock until normal fermentation is completed. If you use a plate and jar, check the sauerkraut 2-3 times each week and remove scum if it forms.
• To see if kraut is ready is to smell and taste it. It should smell and taste like kraut not sour cabbage.
Notes: Recipes for how to use your kraut can be found at Oregon Sate University Extension: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/sites/default/files/documents/sp50611makingsauerkraut.pdf