Easy Homemade Bread
If you enjoy the cost savings from making your own soy milk as I do then you're probably frequently confronted with the problem of what to do with the okara, or left-over soy pulp. I've found a use for it that makes the whole family happy. And it's healthful, too!
My recipe is based on the Jim Lahey method, which requires no kneading and utilizes an overnight ferment to add fullness to the flavor. I usually usually 50% whole grain and then add the okara from a batch of soy milk.
The process takes very little hands-on time but does require advance planning. The first step takes about five minutes (a little longer the first few times through) and the second step occurs some 15 to 18 hours later. I usually do the first step at night just before bed, and the second when I get home from work the next day.
I have been making variations of this bread for years now. I started out with the basic recipe as first published in the New York Times. This bread was easy to make and delicious. My family still loves this basic recipe, but I tend to avoid making it too often because it relies solely on unbleached white flour and I am trying to sneak healthier whole grains into the family diet.
To that end, I've been experimenting for years with different flour combinations. I've found that as long as I continue to use 50% white bread flour, I can pretty much get away with any other combination of whole grain flours that strikes my fancy.
Whole grain flours tend to go rancid if not used promptly. This is due to oils in the germ. The germ is stripped out of white flour so white flour does not have these oils. With whole grains, though, I find it is more economical to buy the grains whole online and then grind them myself as needed. For some reason, I tend to have better luck if I grind the flour a day or two ahead of use. I also find that freshly ground flour requires less water then store-bought and thus add the last bit of water judiciously as I mix the dough.
In my view, this type of bread-making has a number of advantages over more traditional methods. They include:
The recipe does have some downsides to it however. Its biggest weakness comes from its biggest strength; the long ferment means you will need to plan your bread-making at least a day in advance, and then once you've made the dough you'll need to remember to toss it into the oven the next day.
Another more insidious downside is that you may find yourself enslaved by the rhythms of making this bread. Once your family is used to eating this bread regularly it will be hard to get them to go back to commercial breads.
Okara is the soy pulp that is left over from making soy milk. Including it in this bread is entirely optional and I made this bread for years without it. Once I got myself a soy milk machine, though, I found myself with okara on my hands and needed a way to use it. Wikipedia tells me that "okara that is firmly packed consists of 3.5 to 4.0% protein, 76 to 80% moisture and 20 to 24% of solids. When moisture free, okara contains 8 to 15% fats, 12 to 14.5% crude fiber and 24% protein, and contains 17% of the protein from the source soybeans. It also contains calcium, iron, and riboflavin." This sounds too nutritious to throw away! I know a lot of people dehydrate their okara to make soy flour, but I skip this step and just plop the okara into my bowl of flour.
The first time I used okara in my bread it was just as a way to prevent waste. But the effect that okara has on this recipe is amazing! The original recipe has a tendency to dry out after just a couple of days. This is not surprising as it contains no milk, eggs, shortening, or other ingredients to preserve moisture in the bread. Somehow the okara fulfills this role, though, so your bread will be moist, tender, and delicious for days and days. Now that I've tried it I haven't gone back, and have often made a batch of soy milk just for the sake of having the okara for bread.
You don't need a lot of different materials but there are a couple of items that are indispensable.
You need a baking container bake your bread in. Unlike most bread recipes, this recipe calls for your bread to be enclosed in an oven-proof container while baking. You probably have something suitable lying around the house. Some suggestions are:
Figure 1. This cast iron dutch oven sat unused in the cupboard for years until I discovered that it was a perfect container for baking no-knead bread.
The container you use to bake your bread in will determine the shape of your bread, which in turn dictates the proofing container you need for the second rising. Or maybe the shape of your proofing container dictates the shape of your bread which dictates the shape of your baking container. Unless of course you want a specific shape for your bread in which case the final shape that you want your bread to have will dictate your choice of both baking container and proofing container. Or something like that...
Whichever vessel or technique you decide upon for the second rise, keep in mind that your unbaked loaf will have to fit into the baking container and that it will rise further in the oven (it may even double in height). And when you place the loaf into the baking container that container will be about 500°F, so you won't be wanting to play with it.
Figure 2. I use this brotform with the cast iron dutch oven. When using my oblong clay pot for baking bread, I proof in a similar brotform that is oblong in shape. Before I bought these brotforms, I just used the round dutch oven for baking and a plastic bowl for proofing. This is not a picky process.
LameIt's pronounced lah-MAY and you totally don't need one. Nevertheless if you have one then it will be useful for scoring the top of the bread. As you can see in figure 3, a lame is really just a razor blade attached to a handle. I use mine to score an "X" in the top of round loaves. For torpedo-shaped loaves I like to score a series of three or four parallel lines running perpendicular to the length of the loaf. If you don't have a lame, use a razor blade or a sharp knife. Whichever tool you use, you will need to make swift, sure stroke to properly score the loaf. You want to avoid sawing through the dough.
If you choose not to score your loaf at all then the bread will decide for itself where to develop cracks in the crust. These cracks are often called an "ear" and some find them quite attractive.
Figure 3. A lame (lah-MAY) is useful for scoring the top of your loaves.
As with any experiment in kitchen chemistry, having the right ingredients is crucial to success. Luckily, this recipe requires just a few basic ingredients. They include:
I usually use about 50% bread flour and 50% whole grain. If I'm out of bread flour I use all-purpose flour and that works fine; you just may notice slightly less spring in the loaf. Avoid using cake flour, pastry flour, and self-rising flour (known as self-raising flour in the UK). If you choose to omit the white flour you should do so slowly in increments, so that you don't end up with a loaf that is unacceptably dense and low. If you have a scale, you can use that. A cup of white flour should weigh about 142 grams, so two cups comes to 284. I like to use 300 grams of white flour plus 300 grams of whole grain flour. The extra is flour to account for the additional moisture introduced with the okara.
Whole grain flour
You can substitute all or some of the whole grain flour with white bread flour or white all-purpose flour. If you do decide to use whole grain flour, then I would encourage you to experiment. Go ahead and go crazy with it! Use different grains and use them both singly and in combination.
Some of my favorite whole grains are oats, which make a delicious bread that looks just like wheat bread, and rye which is a traditional flour in much of northern and central Europe. Of course, whole wheat is a reliable favorite. I also like whole Durham wheat, and spelt was a favorite of mine until I ran out. (I refuse to buy more until I've used up some of the other grains that I have stockpiled over here!) I usually buy whole grains and then grind them as needed, using the electric grinder shown in figure 4. If you buy ground whole grain flours, buy in small amounts so that they don't go rancid on you.
Since I usually grind for a specific purpose, I tend to use flour by weight and not by measurement. I usually weigh out and grind 300 grams of grain, and then I use the whole amount in my loaf. If I need to adjust due to too much moisture then I use white flour for the adjustment.
Figure 4. I use this grain mill to grind whole grains. I avoid using it for seeds or nuts because they would gum up the works. This mill is easy to use and can create a fine grind.
I use SAF instant yeast, but any instant yeast will do. Avoid the rapid rise varieties.
You should also note that the amount of yeast required is tiny, 1/2 teaspoon per loaf. I bought a pound of yeast several years ago, proud of how my savvy shopping skills saved my probably a dollar by buying in bulk. Well most of that yeast is still in my freezer, and at about 1/2 a teaspoon per week I expect to have it until it eventually dies. So far it still works though so I'm lucky. My advice to you though is to buy smaller amounts, unless you will be using it for other things.
If you have a starter handy then you don't need any yeast at all. You will have to experiment to figure out how much starter to use but you'll probably have fun with that anyway. If you've gone to all the trouble of keeping a starter alive all this time then you probably also already know how to use it. I've not used a starter for this recipe in years but there is plenty of information on the internet if you're so inclined.
The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of salt and that amount assumes you are using table salt or at least a salt variety with the same grind. If you want to use coarser salt then you will have to adjust. One teaspoon of table salt weighs six grams so if you want to use a different salt then my advice is to use a scale and weigh out 12 grams.
Your loaf of bread is about 50% water prior to baking so it's wise to use good water. I use Brita-filtered water. You can use any type you'd like but if you are using chlorinated water out of the tap you should consider letting it sit overnight before using it. You can also boil it to rid it of unwanted chlorine, but be sure to let it cool to room temperature before adding it to your dough. Otherwise, you could kill the yeast. Getting rid of the chlorine is not absolutely necessary but many prefer the taste of breads made with unchlorinated water.
This ingredient is completely unnecessary yet including it is the whole point of today's blog, so there you go. My okara is a by-product of making soy milk with my soy milk machine as shown in figure 5. I sometimes use black soy beans when making soy milk, on account of I have approximately a ton of them. The black soybeans make a gray colored milk (except in the UK, where the soya milk tends to be grey coloured instead). The okara is likewise gray but when used in dough the effect on the color of the bread is barely noticeable, by which I mean I can't notice it but maybe somebody else might.
You'll find that adding the soy pulp to your bread makes the loaf moist and tender, and allows it to stay fresh longer. If you make your own soy milk then by all means use okara. If you don't make your own soy milk and aren't interested in doing so then just use a little soy flour instead. Try swapping out a couple of tablespoons of white flour for soy flour and take it from there.
It's nice to have a light coating of sesame seeds on top of your bread. You can omit these, or use some other type of seed. You can also use coarsely ground semolina or bran.
I've found that the easiest way to get a nice coating of seeds on your loaf is to spray your proofing container (in my case a brotform) with cooking oil. Then toss a handful of seeds into the container and swirl the container around a few times. I usually have to knock some seeds loose and then tilt the brotform to allow the loosened seeds to adhere elsewhere in order to get a reasonable uniform coating. When you place your dough in the container to proof, it will naturally expand and push into the sides of the proofing container. Some of the seeds will then transfer from the container to the dough. You will inevitably waste a good amount of seeds; this is the price of beauty.
Figure 5. This inexpensive soy milk machine also produces okara as a by-product. Some blenders (such as the Vitamix) also can be used to make soy milk (and thus okara).
ProcedureThe procedure for making this bread is really quite simple. Just mix the dry ingredients well. Add the okara and, using a dough blender, potato masher, or your hands, blend the okara into the dry ingredients until the crumbs are of a consistent size. The actual size of your crumbs is less important than the consistency; there should be no lumps of soy.
Add the water and mix thoroughly. The dough should be somewhat shaggy and sticky.
Cover and set aside. Let it ferment for 15 to 18 hours.
Dump the dough onto a floured work surface. Compact it into a single ball and allow it to rest for about five or ten minutes. Add more flour if necessary to give dough enough firmness to work with.
Spray your proofing container with cooking spray and dump in a handful of sesame seeds (optional). I prefer the unhulled seeds for this application. Swirl container so that seeds adhere to the bottom and sides and so that they are more or less evenly distributed. If you don't have sesame seeds or don't want to use them, you can use wheat bran or some other type of bran or coarsely ground semolina. Or you can just omit it completely.
After the dough has rested, form into a ball. To do this, pat the dough into a round shape and push the bottom edges together to form a ball, using the bottom edges of each hand to push the dough together. As you push, your hands should come together as if cupped, with the dough in your palms. Press tightly so that the surface of the dough becomes taught. Continue to do this until you have a nice smooth ball. The underside of the ball will not be smooth but will have a seem. Place seem-side up into the proofing container.
Allow the dough to rise for one and one half hours.
Place your dutch oven or other oven-proof baking container into the oven and begin preheating the oven to 500°F (260°C). Allow the dough to rise for another 1/2 hour while the oven preheats.
Remove the baking container from the oven and close the oven door. Change the temperature setting on the oven to 450°F (232°C). Dump the dough into the container and score the top of the dough. I use a lame to score the do but a razor blade or sharp knife will also work. Place the lid on the container and place the container in the oven.
Bake for about 35 minutes. Remove the lid from the baking container and allow the bread to brown for another five or ten minutes.
Remove and dump bread out onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before attempting to cut.
And don't forget to turn off your oven.
Figure 6. Fresh out of the oven, this loaf is made from %50 whole grain Durham wheat (also known as semolina). It tastes great with olive oil or coconut oil or even butter (if that's all you have). The awesome spiral pattern on the top of the loaf is due to the brotform in figure 2.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Homemade sauerkraut is easy to make and delicious. With little in common with most commercial versions, homemade sauerkraut is bursting with tangy flavor, healthful nutrients, and friendly probiotics.
Today's post goes over the process of making sauerkraut. This is a detailed post with lots of background.
Don’t let the amount of information intimidate you; making sauerkraut is very
easy and does not require a lot of precision. It does require an investment in time,
however, but keep in mind that
one well-planned afternoon of sauerkraut-making will provide you with delicious
homemade sauerkraut for an entire season or longer.
Gathering the materials to make sauerkraut requires advance planning and is the most difficult part of the process but is well worth it. Fortunately you generally only have to do this once (not counting the occasional equipment upgrade).
You will need a container to hold your kraut while it ferments. It is best to use ceramic or glass as metal might react with the brine and plastic might leach carcinogens into the brine. (Stainless steel is an exception; it is safe to use in ferments and is often used in commercial operations.) I currently use a special fermentation crock; these are available online and come in various sizes with the smaller ones being quite affordable. The larger ones can be pricey, especially the German-made Harsch pots. A good pot will have a water seal so that gases can safely escape from the pot while air, along with its unwelcome bacteria and spores, will be kept out. Even though some mold and yeast spores will inevitably make it into the vessel while you are packing it with cabbage, the gases from the fermenting vegetables will force the air out of the vessel through the water seal, creating an oxygen-free system that is inhospitable to molds and yeasts.
Most crocks also come with weights designed to fit snugly inside the crock to push the vegetables down beneath the surface level of the brine. This is important since any vegetables floating on the surface will attract mold growth. The salt in the brine will prevent mold growth on submerged vegetables.
But for my first batches I just used an assortment of ½ gallon mason jars (see). These jars are readily available online and in stores (hardware stores and supermarkets seem to have them, as does WalMart), especially during canning season. The first time I made sauerkraut I used two heads of cabbage, a bunch of carrots, and three ½ gallon jars. I would recommend that you start with just one head of cabbage and one jar, with perhaps a smaller 1 quart jar in case you need extra room. Mason jars do not have the water seal or weights so you will need to account for that. I used small shot glasses that fit inside the jars and, when pressed upon by the lid, push the vegetables down below the surface of the liquid. I then left the lid slightly loose (a quarter turn or so counterclockwise from snug) to allow gas to escape. There are stories on the internet of jars exploding owing to jars being too tightly closed so don’t use this is an opportunity to exhibit your awesome strength! Special lids are available inexpensively online that will provide an airlock conceptually similar to the water seals on the fermentation crocks but designed to work with jars.
If you are using the type of jar that clamps shut (known as a Fido jar) then this is a great jar to use but you will have to burp it every day (by gently releasing the lock then closing it again) during the first week and every few days or so thereafter. If you overfill this type of jar then brine may be released when burping. (And by "released" I mean "sprayed all over".)
In addition to mason jars and Fido jars, special jars are available on line from Pickl-It that have airlocks built into the lids. These jars are more expensive then plain mason jars but vastly cheaper then the imported crocks with the water seals. Like the water-sealed crocks, the Pickl-It jars create an anaerobic environment for your ferments. Mold and yeasts cannot grow in these jars because oxygen is forced out during the first week of vigorous fermentation and never allowed back in. Like the water-sealed crocks, the Pickl-It jars' ecology is compromised as soon as you break the seal, but, unlike the heftier crocks, you can swap the airlock lid on the Pickl-It jars with a regular and just stash it in the refrigerator.
For your first attempt, and again whenever experimenting with a new recipe or technique, I would recommend a mason jar with a wide-mouth lid, unless you happen to have a crock of some sort laying about, or a Fido jar. Even so, you will want to have mason jars on hand (or some of the less expensive, lidless American-made crocks) for purposes of experimentation with new ferments. The water-sealed crocks are excellent for larger batches but not suitable for experimentation due to the massive quantities they are capable of producing.
The more expensive fermentation vessels add value to your ferments by removing risk from the process. Risks are introduced when the substrate (cabbage in this case) is exposed to oxygen, when the Ph is too high to prevent harmful bacteria from growing, or when salinity is too low to prevent harmful bacteria from growing. Note that the vessels tend to differ only in how they deal with the oxygen problem. Yeasts and molds cannot grow without oxygen; the salinity and Ph affect only the liquid so molds and yeasts are excluded from everything below the surface of the brine regardless of how much money you've spent on your fermentation vessel. For centuries, people used crocks without water seals and just manually removed molds as needed. Nobody ever died from this.
Additional risks that you should consider arise from exposing your acidic brine to plastic for an extended period of time. Many people worry that harmful chemicals can leach from plastic into the sauerkraut over time and so prefer to use glass or ceramics, which are nonreactive. For this same reason, many people avoid the use of brine-filled plastic bags as weights.
Stainless steal is also non-reactive, unlike other metals which react with the acidic brine, but home fermenters do not seem to favor stainless steal vessels. They are used widely in commercial operations, however, because it is easier and cheaper to achieve greater scale with stainless steal. In previous eras (and possibly still today in some places) wooden barrels were also used to ferment cabbage and other vegetables.
A final consideration in choosing a vessel is the size. As alluded to above, your initial ferments should not be overly ambitious. It's best to start with a single head of cabbage, in which case most of the expensive imported crocks are overkill. Besides, you might find that you don't like making sauerkraut or (gasp!) don't care for the flavor. After you've gained some experience you may decide you want to upgrade. (My decision came when I had my first taste of homemade red sauerkraut.) Sauerkraut needs to be eaten within a few weeks after reaching peak flavor unless it's stored in a cool location. This means that if your vessel is large, you will need a basement or root cellar that's 60°F (15.5°C) or less, or you will have to offload your matured sauerkraut into jars and place them in a refrigerator. I use two water sealed crocks; one is 15 liters and the other is 10 liters. I also have an assortment of mason jars that I use for smaller batches, which are usually experimental in nature.
Fermentation occurs when the vegetables are submerged in the brine. Unsubmerged vegetables will not ferment; however they may attract undesirable molds. These molds are not harmful but they have an unpleasant taste and are best avoided. Weights are traditionally used to keep the vegetables below the surface of the brining liquid. Most fermentation crocks come with weights. When using a mason jar, you will have to develop your own solution. I use a small shot glass (or two) and let the lid to the Mason jar add pressure to force the shot glasses down against the vegetables, keeping them submerged. Other people use clean rocks or even plastic bags filled with brining solution (so that if they leak they won’t spoil your sauerkraut). If using plastic bags filled with brine then you won't need a lid as the bags will also act as a seal.
After you chop your cabbage you will need to let it rest while it releases its juices. Some people put the chopped cabbage directly into the fermentation vessel but I prefer to allow the cabbage to rest in a large rectangular plastic container (see) for a couple of hours. I don’t worry about chemicals leaching into the sauerkraut so much here because it is used for a couple of hours versus the weeks or possibly months in the fermentation vessel. I trimmed the lid on my container so that it fits completely inside the container. This allows me to place weights on the cabbage as it rests to force out the juices. I set the cut lid atop the cabbage and then stack weights on top of that. (I use food cans as weights, the heavier the better.) This however is probably not necessary as you will be forcing the juices out soon enough. Other folks use food-grade plastic buckets or tubs. Use whatever you have or can scrounge.
My first batch of sauerkraut came out great using just a large knife to shred the cabbage. I’ve since purchased a sauerkraut slicer as shown inbut if that one were to break or wear out I will probably not replace it. It saves a bit of time but can be hazardous. I once sliced into a fingernail which means I was approximately a hair away from losing some finger. (The nail did not completely detach so it luckily was never part of my sauerkraut!) Use caution when using a cabbage shredder. As one wedge of cabbage gets low, use another wedge to apply pressure rather than risking your fingers. And use a knife to handle the last bits of cabbage.
The tamper is for tamping the vegetables tightly into the fermentation vessel. I use a small French rolling pin as that’s what I had and it works really well. Other people have used two-by-fours, broom handles, potato mashers, or even wooden baseball bats. In Europe, people use their feet (or their kids'). Use whatever is handy but try to avoid metal unless you are certain that it's stainless steal, and make sure it’s clean.
Figure 1. This is a Polish-made ceramic fermentation crock. The lid rests in a trench which should be kept full of water to create a seal. A notch in the lid allows gases to force their way through the water and out but the water in the trench prevents air from coming in the same way. This prevents spoilage and insect infestations during fermentation but does result in occasional audible gurgling and bubbling, especially during the first week of fermentation.
Figure 2. Red cabbage sauerkraut with carrots fermenting in mason jars. Note that each jar rests in a dish to catch overflowing brine. (This might not have been necessary if I hadn’t overfilled the jars!)
Figure 3. In this Mason jar, a shot glass is pushing down on the cabbage, creating a layer of liquid between the cabbage and the air surface. Notice that the shot glass is also exerting some upwards pressure on the jar lid. Unfortunately, the richly colored brine hides the shot glass from view. (This jar is too full; ideally there would be at least an inch of air in the closed jar to accommodate the expansion that occurs during fermentation.)
Figure 4. A container like the one above is useful for massaging or kneading your cabbage chopped cabbage to rest and release its juices. Food-grade plastic buckets and tubs also work well.
Figure 5. A French-style rolling pin makes a great tamper. It's also useful for chasing off unwanted guests.
Figure 6. This slicer is designed specifically for slicing cabbage for sauerkraut. It produces slightly thicker shreds than commercially available sauerkraut. Mandolins are similar and also work well.
Once you find the materials then it’s time to gather your ingredients. Most of the ingredients can be gathered ahead of time (or will already be in your pantry) but the vegetables should be as fresh as possible to ensure the highest levels of juice.
Most recipes call for regular green cabbage (also known as white cabbage due to the fact that the inner leaves are white) but I’ve had the best luck with red cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra), which makes delicious sauerkraut with a rich burgundy color, full of anti-oxidants as well as vitamins, probiotics, and enzymes. There are a number of other cabbage types and subtypes. European cabbages are all cultivars of Brassica oleracea. Interestingly, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts are also all cultivars of this single plant species. They are like the dogs the plant world; so different yet fundamentally the same DNA.
Asian cabbages tend to be members of a different but closely related species, Brassica rapa. Nappa cabbage, a type of Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa var. pekinensis), is famously juicy. Bok choy, another type of Chinese cabbage (Brassica rap var. chinensis) is crazy high in vitamin A and has about as much calcium as milk.
When selecting a cabbage for fermenting, keep these guidelines in mind:
The amount of cabbage you need depends primarily on the size of your vessel and also on the amount of sauerkraut you want to make. One head of cabbage is a good amount for your first attempt. If possible, use organic cabbage as other cabbage is sometimes sprayed with chemicals that inhibit spoilage (and thus fermentation).
Himalayan salt is the favorite on the internet while pickling salt is the more traditional salt variety used in making sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. I use Himalayan salt when I have it; otherwise I just use kosher salt or whatever other kind of salt I have on hand. Any salt will work, although you may have to adjust amounts slightly because kosher salt is bulkier (i.e. less concentrated) than finely-ground table salts. Iodized salt will cause the brine to become cloudy and so its use is usually discouraged, but if that's all you have available then it will still work. Despite sauerkraut’s reputation for being high in sodium (well earned in the case of commercial sauerkrauts) you only need about one tablespoon of salt per head of cabbage. The precise amount is up to you as the recipe is very flexible. I always taste the brine as I'm making my kraut to assess the level of salt; I like to be able to taste the salt but do not want to be overpowered by it. If you omit salt entirely then you run the risk that your entire batch will spoil. If you use too much then your sauerkraut will be unpleasantly salty. If you plan on storing your sauerkraut for an extended time before eating it (as was the practice traditionally) then you will need to increase the amount of salt, but never to more than 3 tablespoons per head. Some recipes omit the salt entirely but these ferments are more susceptible to failure.
Some people really do not care for caraway and if that describes you or yours then go ahead and omit it. You will need about as much caraway as salt. Do not substitute with more salt but you can substitute with other spices if you’d like.
Cabbage generally has enough juices that you don’t usually have to add your own brine, but I always have some ready just in case. Besides, the sauerkraut brine is healthful and delicious so it never hurts to make extra. I use one teaspoon of salt to one cup of water and I usually make about a quart (four cups) of brine. If you have filtered water (a simple filter like Brita is sufficient) or spring water then you can make this just as you need it but if you are using tap water then you need to boil the water, salt it, then let it come back down to normal temperature before using it. Both chlorine and hot water will kill the probiotics and halt fermentation so you want to avoid using both. You can make the brine well in advance and keep it in the fridge until needed. Just don’t drink by mistake because it isn’t tasty (yet).
Many ferments require a starter, and many sauerkraut recipes call for one. Don't be fooled; you do not need a starter to make sauerkraut. In fact, Dutch scientists have determined that use of a starter can have a detrimental affect on the flavor profile of the finished sauerkraut owing to the starter's interference with normal population dynamics.
Some recipes on the internet call for the use of whey as a starter. Whey probably is harmless as a starter but neither does it have a beneficial affect. I suspect that superstition and naivety have led to the belief that you should use whey as a starter for sauerkraut. Whey is a nutritional by-product of milk fermentation and, as such, contains completely different species then those in sauerkraut. It is unlikely that those species will even survive in the salty brine of a new ferment or that they will find cabbage to be a satisfying substitute for milk.
An exception to the "no-starter" rule is for people who, for health reasons, must avoid salt. In these cases, the best course of action may be to buy commercial vegetable lactose fermentation starter from a reliable vendor. In this manner, you can greatly reduce or even entirely eliminate salt, relying on the starter to kick-start your fermentation so that high acidity (low Ph) is achieved more rapidly before unfriendly "malbiotics" have a chance to take hold. Normally, the salinity of the brine provides you with a longer window but without the salt a starter can shorten the window and increase your odds of success without salt.
There is an almost infinite list of other ingredients you can include. I often include bok choy or sliced carrots. I usually also include a couple of grape leaves to ensure crunchiness. See the section on Variations for more ideas.
Figure 7. American-style fermentation pots do not usually come with lids, although wooden lids are often sold separately. Sometimes the lids actually fit inside the vessel, serving as a platform upon which to place the weights. Be careful when using wooden lids in this fashion, especially if the lid is new. Long term exposure to the brine can sometimes cause wood to expand and warp, and your sauerkraut could get trapped beneath a lid that is now firmly wedged in the pot.
Now we can make some sauerkraut!
Start by setting up a work area. You will be chopping a head of cabbage so be prepared for little pieces of cabbage to go flying. For me this means covering the island in the kitchen with clean towels and laying newspapers on the floor around the island to catch the bits that go airborne. (Failure to follow this procedure can lead to spousal freak-out. Besides, red cabbage can cause stains.)
Rinse cabbage (and other vegetables if applicable) well. Remove tough outer leaves of the cabbage and reserve. Remove the bottom quarter inch (six or seven centimeters) of the core’s stem and discard. Slice the cabbage in quarters and remove the core. Reserve the core for later.
Slice the cabbage into shreds. Sauerkraut does not need to be sliced and thinly as slaw and my personal preference is for slices about the thickness of two stacked quarters, or perhaps a bit thinner. Other recipes call for the slices to be as thin as a dime, which helps release more liquid but the thicker slices that I produce result in crunchier sauerkraut. There are some traditions that ferment whole cabbages in brine without any slicing at all and it works just fine, so don’t be too concerned if your slices aren’t precisely within the specification.
As you slice, layer the sliced cabbage in the rectangular plastic container. When you’ve sliced about a third of a head of cabbage, sprinkle the shredded leaves with about a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of caraway seeds, mixing it together with clean hands. Continue slicing the next third and layer it into the container, covering it with another teaspoon of salt and another teaspoon of caraway and mixing again. Continue doing this until all the cabbage has been shredded and layered with salt and caraway.
With clean hands, mix the shredded cabbage thoroughly. Then begin squeezing the cabbage by grabbing a fistful with both hands and squeezing as if you were wringing out a wet cloth. You don’t have to wring out every drop; just twist, squeeze for one second, and release. Pick up another handful and wring it again. Continue doing this for about ten minutes, being sure to give all the cabbage equal time. Continue mixing the cabbage and incorporating the salt and caraway. If you are including other vegetables such as carrots or bok choy then knead them in with the cabbage the same way.
After the cabbage has been worked sufficiently it will become slick with its own juices and it will feel somewhat relaxed or wilted. Leave rest in the container, optionally covering it with the trimmed lid and placing weights atop. Go and rest for two hours.
Once the two hours have passed you should see a noticeable change in the cabbage. The leaves will have wilted considerably and there should be copious amounts of juice in the container. If you push down on the leaves then puddles should form in the depression.
Start filling your fermentation vessel slowly, tamping the shredded cabbage firmly as you go. Add pieces of the reserved core as you go. These pieces will become delicious pickles whose enjoyment is the special prerogative of the person who made the sauerkraut! Make sure you get all of the juices in the fermentation vessel(s); these juices are critical to the fermentation and will eventually be the tastiest part of the kraut.
Do not fill the container to the top; between 1/3 and 1/5 of the top should be available for the weight and for expansion of the liquid during the fermentation process. Overfilling your jars will definitely result in overflowing brine which is a waste, as the brine is nutritious and delicious once the sauerkraut is ready. If you have a lot of left over cabbage then start a (smaller) vessel, such as a quart mason jar. Place one or two of the reserved outer leaves over the well-packed shredded cabbage. These leaves will help keep the small pieces of cabbage from floating to the top while also acting as a barrier between the sauerkraut and the liquid’s surface in case of mold. (Mold will only form at the surface or on the sides of the vessel above the liquid.) If possible, tuck the sides of the outer leaves in between the sides of the vessel and the shredded cabbage so as to prevent pieces of cabbage from escaping.
Take your weight and place it on top of the cabbage. Press firmly so that liquid completely covers the cabbage. If you are using a fermentation crock then the liquid should cover the weights. If you are using a different vessel then you will have to use your own judgment but keep in mind that the cabbage must be covered with liquid at all times during the fermentation process.
Using a clean damp towel or a moistened paper towel, wipe the interior of the fermentation vessel above the level of the liquid to remove all food particles stuck to the sides. This is important, as mold will grow on any vegetables left unsubmerged, even if they’re little itty bitty teeny weeny tiny itsy bitsy small pieces
Close your fermentation vessel, ensuring that the gases produced during fermentation can escape. Some recipes call for the vessel to remain open but covered with a cloth if the vessel does not have a water seal but I find that a loosely closed mason jar lid allows gas to escape. If your vessel has no lid then use a double or thicker layer of cheesecloth. Use string or a fat rubber band to secure the cloth over the vessel so that insects can’t sneak in.
Place the fermentation in a safe place at room temperature. It’s best to place something under the vessel in case some of the brine bubbles out. (It happens often, so it’s best to just be prepared.) If your vessel has a water seal, now is the time to fill to the brim with water to seal off the interior. For the next week, the initial fermentation will begin. This phase is the most active phase of the fermentation process. After one week, the brine will have become acidic enough for the next population of probiotic bacteria to begin their part of the process. At this point you can move the fermentation vessel into a slightly cooler area, such as a basement or wintertime garage. If you don’t have a location like this, then leave the fermentation vessel where it is. During the first week, expect to hear bubbling and gurgling noises as your vegetables ferment.
During fermentation, you should monitor the progress regularly. If using a vessel with a water seal or other airlock, monitoring simply involves checking the seal to make sure the water has not evaporated out of the seal. You may need to top off the seal with additional water from time to time. You should use tap water for the seal. Do not open the vessel until the sauerkraut is ready or you will compromise the ecology of your ferment and will have to regularly check the interior for mold and yeasts.
If using another type of vessel then you will also have to check for mold. Mold will only grow on the surface of the brine, or along the sides of the vessel above the water line if food particles are stuck to the sides. You should carefully remove mold whenever you see it developing as it can impart an unpleasant taste to your sauerkraut if left to grow unchecked.
If you are using a vessel with a wire clamp over the lid then you will have to burp it periodically, especially during the first week when it will need to be burped once a day or more. Failure to do so in a timely manner will cause the jar to act like a shaken can of carbonated cola once you eventually do try to burp it. This can cause quite a mess and lead to spousal freak-out.
After two to three weeks of fermentation you can begin tasting the sauerkraut. If you started a second smaller vessel then open that first. If you used a large fermentation crock and several heads of cabbage then you will need to offload some into a mason jar and refrigerate the jar. When you’ve finished the jar then refill it from the fermentation crock, but try to avoid opening the fermentation crock too often as each time you break the seal you risk compromising the ecology of the fermentation vessel. Each time you open the vessel (except for the first) you will need to skim off molds and yeasts from the surface of the brine before decanting the sauerkraut.
If you are using a crock with a water seal, you can wait several months before breaking the seal as long as you are diligent about keeping the seal full of water. I personally prefer to transfer my sauerkraut from the water-sealed crock to mason jars after initially breaking the water seal. This is because once the seal is broken, then oxygen will get into the vessel and mold and or yeasts will grow on the surface of the brine as well along the unsubmerged sides of the vessel.
If using mason jars with an airlock, you can just swap the airlock lid for a regular lid and transfer the jar as-is to the refrigerator once you've has a taste and decide the sauerkraut is finished fermenting. If you are using a mason jar or some other type of jar with a regular lid then you can just transfer the whole jar to the refrigerator once fermentation has completed to your satisfaction. I usually remove the shot glasses, whole cabbage leaves, et cetera at this time so that the refrigerated jars are ready to eat.
Sometimes something will go wrong with your sauerkraut and you will feel tempted to toss it. There are very few times when this is really necessary so please don’t panic.
Mold growth. Sometimes mold will grow on top of the sauerkraut, especially if the cabbage has not been weighed down properly or if liquid was lost and the kraut is no longer completely submerged. If this happens, carefully remove the mold from the top. If you covered your cabbage with whole outer leaves then often only these leaves are affected; you can wash them well and reassemble. Add brine using the 1 teaspoon per cup ratio if necessary to augment the amount of brine in the fermentation vessel.
Insects. I have heard tales that sometimes flies will actually lay eggs in your fermenting cabbage. This cannot happen if you use a sealed fermentation vessel but some sauerkraut traditions call for covering the fermentation pot with a cloth which can sometimes slip aside enough to allow flies in. If this happens, remove the top inch or so of sauerkraut and discard. The larvae don’t go any deeper than this and the deeper sauerkraut will be fine.
No fermentation occurs. This can happen if your water was chlorinated, too hot, or if you somehow introduced some other antimicrobial compound into your sauerkraut. (Occasionally the cabbage itself will be sprayed with something that inhibits fermentation, which is why organic cabbage is preferred.) This problem is very rare, though, if you take precautions to avoid chlorine in your water (small amounts of chlorine, such as that from the water used to rinse your vegetables, are harmless).
It stinks! The fermentation process produces gases including methane gas so some aroma is unavoidable. The odor during the first week is not indicative of the final flavor. After the first week, the second wave of bacteria begin their work and the kraut begins to develop its sour flavor. During this time the kraut may smell distressingly gastric in nature from a distance but if you hold the open vessel to your nose you should detect a pleasantly tangy aroma. There is a scientific explanation for this; the “long distance smell” is caused by the methane gases trapped inside the vessel; when you open the vessel these gases are released. They smell distressingly like flatulence. However, the sauerkraut does not contain these gases nor does it have this smell. It has a fresh, tangy smell that is sharp but clean and pleasant.
If at any point however the sauerkraut smells like dead animals or dead fish then this could be a warning sign. Carefully check the brine surface and clear away any unwanted growth. If the submerged contents likewise smell unpleasant then throw away the batch. This has never happened to me but I have read about it on the internet. Its cause is usually attributed to too little salt.
The sauerkraut disappears from the fermentation vessel. This is most likely to happen if you live with other people, who will sometimes eat all of your sauerkraut behind your back. Make more next time; get the rest of the household to help with the chopping and tamping. (If they refuse to help but continue to eat all your kraut then you’ll have no choice but to move.)
It's too mushy. The most common cause is unwanted yeasts. This can be controlled by keeping your sauerkraut in a cooler location, or by refrigerating it after 2 or 3 weeks of fermentation. You can also try adding grape leaves or some other source of tannins to your kraut. (Oak leaves are said to preserve crunchiness when making lacto-fermented pickled cucumbers.) Finally, if you cannot control the room temperature then you can try increasing the salt, which will create an environment with too much salinity for most yeasts. However your kraut will also taste saltier so step up the salt gradually.
It's slimy. This is an unfortunate problem because it may also signal a ruined batch. The consensus on the internet seems to be that waiting a while will usually solve this issue. If you've waited several weeks after first noticing the sliminess and it hasn't cleared up then you should remove the top layers and discard. If the cabbage underneath smells tangy and is not slimy then just reseal. If the sliminess penetrates to the depths then you will have to discard the batch.
It is rare to have to discard a batch of sauerkraut; I have never had to do it. However, if you do discard a batch of sauerkraut, the best method of disposal is to drain the liquids into the sink and then discard the solids in a plastic bag. Alternatively, you can bury the solids in the yard or, if the amount is not overwhelming, use your garbage disposal. You should never compost sauerkraut as the salinity, acidity, and flora all act to interfere with the ecology and population dynamics of your compost (which is itself a type of fermentation process that relies on completely different dynamics).
The variations are endless and this section will barely scratch the surface. However, the simple version presented here is delicious as is so you don’t need to experiment further if you don’t’ want to. If you are adventurous, though, here are some suggestions:
Figure 8. Sweet potato roasted on a bed of sour collard greens then brushed with coconut oil and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Serving Suggestions The best way to eat homemade sauerkraut is raw. You may be used to rinsing your sauerkraut before using it; this is a useful step when eating commercial sauerkraut because it reduces the amount of sodium and some of the unpleasant commercial brine. The homemade brine is delicious and healthful, however, and should not be rinsed away.
Homemade sauerkraut can be heated just as commercial sauerkraut is heated and if you prepare it that way then the taste will be more like the commercial version. You will also kill off most of the beneficial probiotic bacteria and destroy the healthful enzymes, so you should not make a habit of cooking your sauerkraut. A compromise method is to steam the cabbage just until hot. This preserves most of the probiotics and enzymes.
Homemade sauerkraut is delicious served as is, right from the fermentation vessel. The brine can also be served as a tonic. It is a delicious beverage but unfortunately it is difficult to make it in quantities sufficient for drinking regularly. A shot of it though goes a long way towards calming an upset stomach and can help bolster your immunities if you feel a cold coming on. Sauerkraut juice is an old but effective folk remedy for ulcers and other digestive ailments.
Another favorite way of mine to serve raw homemade red cabbage is to drizzle it with sesame oil and mirin (a Japanese condiment made from sweet rice wine) and then sprinkle with sesame seeds and chia seeds. This healthful little salad is packed with essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and of course probiotics and enzymes. (See Figure 9.) Only a small amount of sesame oil is needed as it has a very powerful flavor.
Figure 9. Red sauerkraut drizzled with sesame oil and mirin and sprinkled with sesame seeds, served with a cup of coconut kefir.