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The recipe for homemade sauerkraut is a one-liner, a simple ratio to commit to memory: five pounds cabbage, three tablespoons salt.
Mix those two -- swiftly or sloppily, in a plastic bucket or a ceramic crock, with hope or with skepticism -- and you've effectively launched your own homemade sauerkraut. From that point nature takes over, converting a humble head of cabbage into a golden tangle of threads -- tart and addictive, adamant and alive.
If you're new to homemade kraut, expect the first taste to bring on a tingling rush, the tangy thrill that fermentation enthusiasts crave. Bright and racy where the commercial versions tend to taste overcooked and bottom-of-the-barrel, anybody who carries even a smidgen of passion for the pickled end of the universe will greet their own homemade kraut as if it were heaven-sent.
Nutritionists tout the health benefits of its live cultures, but I make sauerkraut strictly to satisfy my insatiable sourtooth. Like everyone else in my family, I have an appetite for acidity that cannot be met by vinegar alone.
Launched with my grandmother's bubbling brined pickles, and fed by kimchi and kombucha in adulthood, my palate needs to feel the occasional fizz of fermentation to feel complete.
Perfect for the season
Thankfully, naturally fermented kraut spells great fall cooking. I throw handfuls of it into coleslaw, stuff tufts into the pockets of homemade Reubens slicked with spicy mayonnaise and, when faced with a surplus, I will pour a quart of sauerkraut into a pan, bury all kinds of meats in it and set it to mellow out and exchange juices in the oven all day long. After four or five hours, the pan of tamed kraut and soft, tangy meat both impresses and nourishes a crowd.
Yet my relationship to the living crock hasn't been all fun and games. During the past six or seven years there have been successes, but also some malodorous missteps.
I'm remembering the year I tugged a 5-gallon Red Wing crock of overly sour sauerkraut outside, heaved it onto the top of the fence and tipped it slowly forward until I heard the resounding flap of what looked like wet noodles hitting the ground. Standing in the cloud of its peculiar, misbegotten stench, I felt all 20 pounds of its disappointment.
This year I vowed not to go down in flames (or fumes) again.
The key is simple
In the attempt to make this unpredictable process a little more predictable, I keep coming back to a single variable: temperature.
According to Eric Childs of Kombucha Brooklyn, a guy who ferments kombucha in ceramic casks for a living and sauerkraut and pickles just for fun, temperature is key. The low end of the range for fermentation is 69 degrees, and the high is 85 degrees -- but for taste alone he prefers to ferment in the low- to mid-70s. "The lower the temperature, the slower the ferment and the mellower the flavor."
Fermentation enthusiasts on the East Coast have a preference for "cool temperatures," meaning in the 70s. But in the fall in Minnesota, finding a room temperature in the mid-70s might require adding warmth or avoiding a hot stove.
My neighbor Katie was having this problem, a case of a stalled fermentation in a crock sitting in her uninsulated sun porch -- until she called Brenda Bozovsky, a preserving dynamo and a "sauerkraut doctor," if you will, to my neighboring kraut-crafters. Brenda recommended that she move her crock to a warmer environment. Sure enough, consistent temperatures in the 70s jump-started the kraut -- in fact, its vigorous effervescence freaked Katie out. She called again, tempted to drag it back into the cool porch, but Brenda said, "No! Don't worry about it and don't be peeking at it!"
To Brenda, a certain measure of inattention insures great kraut. Of her 70-pound batch, she says, "I cover the shredded cabbage with a plate, a jar on top of the plate, a tea towel, a heavy towel and then I tie it with a rope. It's like a Christmas present: You don't open it until you see the two-week mark on your calendar."
So it takes two weeks to ferment? More or less. All sources place doneness between two and eight weeks. It depends on temperature, and again, with something as inexact and subjective to personal preference as fermentation, it just depends.
Advice from the master
Sandor Katz, author of "Wild Fermentation," the preeminent book for making your own live-culture foods -- everything from kraut to miso to wine -- reminds his readers of the simplicity of the process: just salt, vegetables and time. "Fermenting sauerkraut, or anything, is an intrinsically safe process," he said. "There are no recorded cases of food poisoning."
Too much poking around in the kraut may introduce bacteria that will produce an unsightly cap of mold on the top layer of the sauerkraut -- but it's perfectly harmless. Just scrape it off and use the kraut below. Once it has fermented, its pH, or level of acidity, will be around 2.6, or well in the safe zone.
I'm still left with the question: How do you know when it's done fermenting? Is there some sort of general human consensus on what makes sauerkraut, essentially a controlled souring, taste desirable? I like to believe that our taste buds naturally seek deliciousness. Sandor agreed. "Most people can perceive the natural balance."
But to fermentation authorities, it's good at any stage of the game. In fact, Sandor found out during his book tour that he could harvest, and enjoy, week-old sauerkraut when he found himself running out of mature kraut. "I like it a lot when it's six weeks old, but I found that many people prefer a milder flavor."
His fail-safe approach still doesn't explain my stinky batch from long ago. By now I've guessed that I was too inattentive: Too much time in the barrel (10 weeks) coupled with an unfortunate perch next to a raging wood stove (90 degrees or more) equals two disastrous conditions I will avoid in the future.
Amy Thielen is a chef and writer who lives in Two Inlets, Minn.