Half-Crocked: Make Your Own Sauerkraut
A clever wife can sneak many things past an unsuspecting husband: an impulsive online shopping spree, a trunkful of
shoe boxes and, if handled correctly, even a kitten rescue can fly under the radar. But when it comes to fermenting a crock full of sauerkraut on the kitchen counter, one is bound to be found out.
After a few days, the smell of fermenting sauerkraut transported me back to my childhood, every whiff reminding me of my grandparents and the Eastern European dishes that I grew up eating. For my husband, however, the ever-growing intensity of the fermenting cabbage caused him alarm and revulsion. Finally one morning, as our paths crossed at the coffee pot, he said, “Have you noticed the smell? I think we may have a problem with the septic tank.”
Scientists have long been fascinated by what they term nasal nostalgia, a process where the olfactory bulb is triggered by a scent, causing us to recall a memory, pleasant or not. Scientists don’t quite understand how the olfactory
bulb works in memory recall, but they do know that the bulb is only three synapses from the hippocampus, the place where our brains store long-term memories. Fermenting cabbage was making my olfactory bulb recall all sorts of happy memories around the dinner table, but others had trouble associating the smell with something quite as pleasant.
Suffice it to say, fermenting anything is going to produce an assortment of unusual scents—from the pleasant, fruity smell of a sourdough starter and the sweet musty scent of wine grapes to the rotten, almost over-powering smell of fermenting cabbage. These smells are caused by the fermentation process, in which an ever-growing colony of bacteria happily feed off of the sugars and yeasts, then produce gasses.
It was Genghis Khan who first introduced sauerkraut to Eastern Europe. On his quest for power, even the Great Wall of China wasn’t a deterrent; he simply led his Mongol troops around it. While his soldiers plundered riches, they discovered crocks of fermented cabbage. They liked it so well that they packed it into their saddlebags and proceeded to plunder their way across Eastern Europe, where sauerkraut is now considered a staple side vegetable.
Historically, fermented foods were a source of sustenance and nutrition, especially during the long winter months when fresh food, or even a reliable food source, wasn’t available. Interestingly enough, fermented foods were also a significant dietary component of seafarers. It’s reported that the famous Capitan James Cook, who explored the South Pacific Islands, once ordered up over 25,000 pounds of sauerkraut—enough to outfit two of his ships for a long voyage.
Sauerkraut is one of the original superfoods. In homeopathic medicine, sauerkraut was used to treat stomach ulcers, digestive tract disorders and even canker sores. Recent studies have discovered a cancer-fighting property in sauerkraut—isothiocyanates—a property that’s not present in the cabbage but is a byproduct of the fermentation process.
There may even be a connection between a lower risk of breast cancer in the Eastern European countries where sauerkraut is eaten more often, compared to the United States where its consumption is far lower.
Sauerkraut is also high in vitamin C and probiotics—compounds well known for building up the immune system. It may not be a cure for the common cold, but it could help prevent it.
Making sauerkraut at home is easy, requires few tools and costs mere pennies. It requires nothing more than a crock—such as one that kitchen utensils are often kept in—plus cabbage and salt. The traditional method for fermenting cabbage requires far less salt than what the USDA recommends. Using more salt creates a more acidic environment that prevents the bacteria known for causing botulism from growing. However, true sauerkraut aficionados frown on using too much salt since it results in a product that must be rinsed prior to eating, and prevents the complex umami flavors from developing.