Given my ethnic roots, my relationship with cabbage is so strong, I should have been incredibly focused. After all, Russians and cabbage are linked at the hip. We stuff it, we saute it a number of ways, we make soup out it.
Cabbage doesn’t exactly inspire odes or ballads—it’s a pretty pedestrian, albeit delicious vegetable.
I’ve been thinking about fermentation more these days as less and less fresh produce is making its way to the greenmarket. The Kimchi Cookbook comes out out in about a month and a half – so natural lactic fermentation has been on my mind quite a bit.
The concept isn’t necessarily a sexy one unless you’re a chemistry nerd like me. When acidity of the food rises, due to lactic acid fermenting organisms, many other pathogenic microorganisms are destroyed in the process. Which means that if you lived in an agrarian society with limited to no means of refrigeration, fermentation was an incredible tool at your disposal to make sure that you get some vegetables and flavor during the months of no harvest.
Some of you asked me what makes sauerkraut Russian, based on a picture I posted and mislabeled. I added the term Russian because that’s what I grew up with, but I can’t find anything in particular that makes it specifically Russian.
But the gist is simple—shredded cabbage (and carrots) are tossed together with some salt and sugar, and are allowed to ferment for a few days. That’s it. No fancy gadgets. No complicated processes. Just delicious, crunchy, fermented cabbage to eat by itself, or as a side.
The yields and jars indicated below are guidelines. Sometimes the cabbage will give off a lot more juice and shrink considerably, other times, it shrinks somewhat but not much. I don’t recommend using Savoy or Napa cabbages for this – while the fermentation will be the same, the texture and crunch will be very different from regular, green cabbage. In Russia, that’s what we were working with, and if you go to any Russian deli, you will see the Russian sauerkraut made only with regular cabbage. Often, Russians will add a handful of cranberries or a grated apple to their sauerkraut in the beginning—in my own family the cranberries (or in Russia we used lingonberries) were popular. I prefer the minimalist version myself—which is what I provide below. Of course, feel free to modify this according to your taste.
Sauerkraut is present at every Russian gathering and sit-down dinner, along with other delicious zakuski (bites/snacks). The closest thing I can compare it to is banchan in Korean cuisine: where you have a series of small plates like kimchi to accompany the main meal. Sometimes, my grandmother dresses up her sauerkraut with a spoonful of unrefined sunflower oil, but most often we serve it as is in a nice bowl with a large spoon. And in the dead of winter, if we have a glut of aged sauerkraut, we make this cabbage soup, swapping out half of the fresh cabbage with homemade sauerkraut. The end result is a deep, flavorful, brothy soup unlike any other.
Makes 2 quarts (about 2 liters)
1 head green cabbage (about 4 1/2 pounds), shredded (about 14 cups), with 1 large cabbage leaf reserved
4 large carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
3 tablespoons (25 grams) kosher salt
1 teaspoon (4 grams) granulated sugar
1. In a large bowl, combine the cabbage with the carrots. Add the salt and sugar and toss to combine thoroughly, almost massaging the salt and sugar into the vegetables. Make sure the seasonings are evenly distributed. Let stand 1 hour.
2. Transfer the vegetables and the accumulated juices to 2-gallon jar with a wide mouth or a nonreactive container. Cover the vegetables with the reserved cabbage leaf. You may need to trim the leaf and discard the thicker, less flexible part. Place a small saucer on top of the leaf and place a can of beans (or a can filled with water; something with a weight). The cabbage should be completely submerged in the liquid. If it is not, add just enough water so that it is.