The Zero-Waste Chef

Sauerkraut

I have made jam in the past. It was delicious but a lot of work. I had to pick the plums from my tree (and pick up the hundreds that had fallen on the grass), wash them, cut them, peel them, chop them, cook them with lots of sugar and then finally can the jam (which involved sterilizing jars in a giant bath, filling the jars and then putting them back in the bath). It was fun but it was also a big event—not something I can do on a weeknight.

Sauerkraut, on the other hand—real sauerkraut that is fermented thanks to our microbe friends, and not just processed in a vat of vinegar—is so simple and so good for you. Preserving food through fermentation not only makes the food more digestible, it actually increases its nutritional value.

On top of all the health benefits sauerkraut offers, making it produces almost zero waste. That includes its production—no electricity required. So if Armageddon hits, and the grid collapses, I can still make kraut in my dark kitchen (if I can find cabbage…).

Ingredients

I added carrots and radishes to this batch. You can also toss in grated onions, chopped garlic, thinly sliced ginger or other vegetables.

In addition to simple ingredients, you need only simple equipment. Gather the following:

Optional equipment:

Directions

1. Quarter the cabbage and slice off the core (you can see that I’ve removed the core from the two bottom quarters in the above photo).

2. Chop the cabbage thinly.

3. Place a layer of cabbage in a bowl and sprinkle it with salt.

For 2 small heads of cabbage, 5 carrots and 5 radishes (I added more carrots and radishes after I chopped the initial veggies you see in the pic at the very top of the post), I used about a tablespoon of salt. It was a bit too much. Go easy on the salt, sprinkle it as you go and taste. I added more vegetables to dilute the salt.

4. Shred or chop some carrots and radishes if desired, add to the bowl and mix together.

5. Grad handfuls of the chopped, salted vegetables and squeeze them.

This helps break down the cell walls and release water. In the photo below, you can see the vegetables’ juices dripping down into the bowl.

6. Let the vegetables rest.

I worked on some sourdough crackers while my vegetables sat for a couple of hours. (You don’t have to wait that long though. An hour would probably suffice.) In the above pic, you can see all the liquid starting to pool in the bowl (love that color!). I often put a small plate over the vegetables and a weight on that to draw out more water.

7. Pack the vegetables and liquid into jars and shove the vegetables down to the bottom so they’re covered with liquid.

I actually needed only two jars. I’m amazed at how much you can cram into a jar!

You don’t need to burp jars with these rubber gaskets

8. Wait.

Put your jars in a cool place. Taste them after three days. If you like the flavor, you’re done. Transfer your jars to the refrigerator where they will keep for months, if not longer. I like to ferment my sauerkraut for least a month before eating it. You may want the flavors to develop for a longer period or you may prefer a milder kraut. Keep tasting your kraut weekly until you sense it’s ready.

If you use simple glass jars without a rubber gasket, for the first several days, open them daily to release pressure. Also, you must make sure that the vegetables are always submerged in liquid. I use a marble pestle or my clean hand and shove them down under the brine if they start to float up. I’ve done this daily with this batch this week. If the vegetables bob up to the top and emerge from the liquid, you’ll wind up with a brown layer of nasty-looking vegetables on top. Don’t worry if this happens! Just scrape those rotting vegetables away and throw them in the compost bucket. The vegetables underneath will be fine.

I think a large population of microbes lives in my kitchen. These jars started gurgling after only a day or two. In fact, I forgot to put a plate under them, and one oozed purplish liquid out onto my spartan white shelf. So, put something under your jars to catch anything that spills out.

For a fantastic how-to video on homemade sauerkraut, watch fermentation guru Sandor Katz make it here.

Alas, my kraut wasn’t completely waste-free. Twist ties with plastic labels held my farmer’s market radish and carrot bunches together. I’m not sure what to do about that. I guess next week, in addition to cabbage, I’ll add vegetables that have zero packaging, like onions and garlic.