Now as you may know, I am a bit obsessed with canning and preserving food. I grow many things in my garden, scavenge for some and buy others from farmers markets or stores, yet they all end up in a jar in my kitchen.
My history with sauerkraut goes back to my childhood growing up in Toronto, Canada and shopping at the St. Lawrence Farmers Market each Saturday morning. http://www.stlawrencemarket.com/ There was a vendor in the old building, down stairs way in the back, that carried meat slices, pickles and sauerkraut. We used to go visit him each week. He would light up with pride as we would oohhh and aahhh over his sauerkraut. We would get a bag of it and take it home to be quickly eaten by the family.
After I moved to Missouri, I tried store bought kraut and it always was way too strong with an obvious vinegar taste. It was not my style at all, and not the gentle, but yummy blend I grew up with. I tried Farmer Dan’s kraut last year and immediately was transported back to being that little girl gazing up in awe. So when I heard about Farmer Dan’s class I jumped at the chance to find out how to add lacto-fermentation to my line up.
So I drove down to Hartsburg, Missouri, on a sunny Sunday afternoon expecting to learn a few tricks. The drive was beautiful with the colors of fall in full swing. Once I got to Hartsburg, the first thing I found was the wonderful Hartsburg Entertainment Center, River-stage, and Grand Station. http://www.hartsburggrand.net/ The Grand was built in 1897 and had been painstakingly restored with love over the last few years. The restaurant opened in 2012 and the special event center opened in 2014. The Grand Station which was previously known as “The Big Muddy Tavern or Dotty’s Café” had also been restored to include a full commercial kitchen along with cozy gathering spaces. The grand even offers ballroom dancing lessons on Tuesday nights. Can’t think of a more romantic setting.
The thing that struck me about The Grand and Hartsburg in general, was how I felt magically transported into a world of the past; calm, joyful, and relaxation without the trappings for modern America including strip malls, fast food and pawn shops. Hartsburg, and the atmosphere of the Grand, made me think of a great get away and how I could possibly get a day or two removed from the hustle of my life to sit back and sip mint juleps on a porch. I digress of course.
Farmer Dan has been in organic farming for 25 years. He describes himself as being from the Herman area with German ancestry. He also considers himself a farmer still learning what it is all about. He said that 20 years ago he used to grow many more varieties of vegetables, where now he grows less variety and concentrates on making value added items like sauerkraut and pickles. He estimates that 30% of his business is focused on the value added items.
Farmer Dan makes his large batches of sauerkraut and pickles in the commercial kitchen at Lincoln University. In their facility he can make up to 800 lbs. in one day. He does say it is important to use the right type of cabbage, noting Maddox and Early Copenhagen as his spring cabbage and Kaitlin as his fall cabbage. He says he gets his seeds from www.johnnyseeds.com.
He believes that the body, like soil, need a balance of microorganisms. As in soil, the microorganisms help make nutrients available for the body to absorb. He described the gut as the second brain, connecting your health and what you intake. He describes your gut bacterial as a cultivated community of bacteria probiotics needed for the long term health of your digestive system. He suggests combining different probiotic foods, slowly, in small amounts, to improve the culture in your gut. He cautions not to go too fast as you don’t want to cause a war zone in your intestinal track.
He made it that we were working with live bacteria. This bacteria naturally existed all around us and did not need to be added to the sauerkraut. In order to keep your bacteria live, you couldn’t heat it over 115’f as that would start killing it off. He also said that the ideal temperature for fermenting is between 68 and 72’f and the finishing Ph balance of the sauerkraut will be around 3.8. He said you can freeze your fermenting food but you cannot boil it. The boiling kills the bacteria where the freezing only suspends it until the food is defrosted.
Once we got the basics behind this theories down, the hands on class began. He showed us how to cut up the cabbage using a sauerkraut mandolin that he dates back to his grandmother before him. It is a quick, intimidating devise and I would love to have one. He said that in the past farming families would grow 100 heads of cabbage per family member. They would add spices, apples, beets, turnips etc., and then ferment in 50 gallon crocks. They would ferment all winter, and slowly eat it as time when by. They would root cellars that stayed at 55′ slowing the fermentation. They would skim the crocks a couple times a week but continue to eat off it all winter. This worked to keep people fed, and also provided the much need bacteria to keep them healthy inside and out.
So we cut up the cabbage, were instructed to crush it with our hands helping to break down the cell structure and to sprinkle on 2.5 tbsp. of salt per 5 lbs. of cabbage. He suggested using sea salt or pickling salt but not to use salt with iodine or any caking agents. Quickly the cabbage started to give off liquid as osmosis pulls the liquid out and salt in.
We put the cabbage mixture into a jars and packed it in there really tight. We left about ½ inch head way, at the top of the jar, and put the lid on loosely. As the salt continued to pull water out (over 24 hours) gas was released and started to bubble out brine. We were advised to leave the lid loose and put a plate under the jar to catch any overflow, but we had to make sure the cabbage was under brine at all times.
Each person in the class made their kraut a little differently. Some added grated apples, fennel, beets and turnips while others added caraway or dill seed. We were told that you can add up to 15% other vegetables to the mix and maintain the integrity of the sauerkraut. He did indicate that for some reason when you add dill or caraway seed you get less mold growing on the surface of your kraut.
We were sent home with instructions to let the salt do its thing for a few days as the water expels from the kraut. Then we are to tighten the jar and every few days quickly let the pressure out and then tighten up the jar once more. This burping of the jars lets the gasses, built up by the bacterial relation, release from the jar. If the water goes below the level of the kraut we are to make a solution of 3tbps of salt per quart of water and re-fill the Jar. Usually this dehydration, and loss of water, will not happen in a closed jar but will occur when we move on to crocks. While most people think of sauerkraut as being made in crocks, Farmer Dan suggests you start with clear jars so you can learn how it works. Eventually, when you feel like you know what you are doing, you can move on to crocks.
We are to sample each week until we get to our own personal desired level or fermentation. When we get to the level we like, we are to stick the jar in the fridge and it will stop or greatly slow the bacterial action and keep our sauerkraut how we like it. Farmer Dan mentioned that the brine will be full of bacteria and will be a great source of great microbes, thus we should feel free to take a shot of brine as we like, but again not to overdo it.
I feel like I learned a lot and am now ready to take on the world of lacto-fermentation. Sauerkraut is just the tip of the iceberg and has been a great way to start learning about this new way to bring more local food into my family’s diet.