After becoming vegan, I did a small research to discover vegan foods rich in probiotics. Hopefully, I realized that many of the foods that I like to eat are good sources of probiotics and the only thing I had to do was to consume them through my diet. So I stopped worrying and I just added more olives, pickles, tempeh, plant-based kefir and yogurt to my meals. Additionally, a healthy vegan food rich in probiotics, which can be easily and economically prepared at home is the sauerkraut. All you need to make it is a fresh cabbage, sea salt and a one or two glass jars. Let’s get started!
What’s the sauerkraut?
It is raw, shredded cabbage (suitable even in a raw vegan diet) that has been fermented under certain conditions, thus retaining all its nutrients. The fermentation also results in the development of healthy microorganisms in the cabbage, known as probiotics. During fermentation cabbage acquires a yellowish color, an intense but, in the same time, pleasant odor reminiscent of freshly cut vegetables bathed in the ocean and a tangy, appetizing flavor, with a variable intensity, which is analogous to the length of the fermentation. The texture normally remains crispy.
The biology behind sauerkraut…
For those who believe that each and every microbe is bad, this may not sound tempting, but the sauerkraut, like any other fermentation product we consume, is made thanks to the millions invisible microorganisms that are present normally or are transferred in the medium that we want to ferment. Specifically the sauerkraut is produced by the process of lactic fermentation. During this process, the bacteria that perform the lactic fermentation, consume the sugars in the cabbage, producing subsequently lactic acid, the chemical molecule that gives the cabbage its characteristic sour taste. Luckily, the good bacteria exist naturally on the cabbage leaves so you don’t have to order spores or anything. For this reason, the cabbage should not be washed, in order to keep our tiny friends by our side! The only thing we have to do is to remove the first 2-3 outer leaves to keep out dust as well as undesired microbes that may be present on the outer surface.
What a cabbage!
In the market we will find cabbages in different types and sizes. I usually choose a white, firm, medium size cabbage. The weight of such a cabbage ranges from 1300-1600 grams. To check if it’s fresh I look at the base of the stem, where it has been cut. Freshly cut cabbage will have almost white stalk. Since cabbage should not be washed, I usually choose organic for this preparation.
One of the decisive factors for the success of our recipe is salt, both qualitatively and quantitatively. If possible, choose natural sea salt without additives. The more natural conditions we create for our invisible friends the better they will work!
Salt is essential as it pulls water out of the cabbage, so as to create a natural brine in which the cabbage is packed in and the fermentation process takes place. Moreover the salt acts as a preservative in the sense that, if inserted in the correct ratio, it inhibits the growth of undesired microorganisms while allowing the proliferation of those bacteria (mainly of the genus Lactobacillus) needed to do the fermentation. Here the key is the correct ratio. If more salt is added, the beneficial microorganisms will not be able to proliferate and they will not complete the fermentation while if less salt is added we run the risk of having unwanted microorganisms in our preparation.
According to the bibliography and my experiments I have found that by using 2% salt I succeed guaranteed results. But what does 2% salt means? That for every 100 grams of cabbage we need 2 grams of salt. Therefore, for a 1500 grams cabbage we need 30 grams of salt. If you do not have scale, keep in mind that 1 heaped teaspoon of salt is equivalent to about 5 grams and 1 heaped tablespoon is equivalent to 15 grams. So 2 tablespoons must be enough for a medium cabbage weighing 1500 grams.
The right conditions
Our tiny assistants do not have much different temperament than us. So for example when it is too cold they prefer to sleep rather than work while excessive heat and sunlight can make their behavior unpredictable. Actually they love to live and work at room temperature, ie around 23 oC, without being exposed to direct sunlight.
The best time of the year to make sauerkraut, with the desired characteristics (in Greece), begins in autumn and it lasts until early spring, when temperatures remain mild. In our country, the high temperatures that prevail from May to October will accelerate overly the fermentation which makes the control of the process difficult. For this reason I prefer to make sauerkraut from November to March.
Apart from temperature, the competition between microorganisms is something we should consider as, when a microbe is grown in a medium, it tends to prevent the development of another. This can be good actually as, by encouraging the proliferation of the desired microorganisms, then it is very difficult for others, unwanted microorganisms to invade. On the other hand, you need to pay special attention at the beginning of the process, to ensure that only the good bacteria found in cabbage will be present throughout the fermentation.
To ensure this, you have to wash your hands thoroughly as well as the equipment you are going to use and wipe with a clean, cotton towel before start. Moreover you have to wash and sterilize the pot or jar in which the fermentation process is going to take place.
- 1 medium size fresh cabbage
- sea salt
- 1 large bowl
- 1 large or several small glass jars or containers
1. Remove the first 2-3 outer leaves from the cabbage and cut into four pieces. With a sharp knife remove the internal stalk and chop the cabbage finely to achieve a better result.
2. Weigh the cabbage and add 2 grams of salt for each 100 grams of cabbage. Remember that 1 tsp weighs about 5 grams. and 1 tbsp 15 grams. My cabbage was about 1500 g (after removing the outer leaves and the stalk) and so I added 30g of salt.
3. In a large bowl mix the cabbage with the salt and start to rub and knead it with your hands so as to break the cellular walls and to release the juices present in the inside. It is a good gym as I figured that it takes about 15 minutes of intense muscular activity to soften the cabbage enough and pull out its juices.
4. Transfer the cabbage in glass, sterilized jars and press with your hands as much as you can. Be careful not to entirely fill the jars, but leave a margin of 3-4 cm if you have a large jar or 2-3 cm if you have smaller jars.
5. Cover the cabbage with the liquid left in the bowl. The cabbage must be fully covered with the brine. If the liquid from your cabbage is not enough, dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in a cup of water (240 ml) and add it in the jar until the cabbage is fully immersed. And of course leave a margin of at least 3-4 cm from the mouth of your jar (otherwise the brine will overflow during fermentation and mess everything around there).
6. Cover the jars with sterilized lids and leave on a shelve, at 20-25 oC.
7. After four days (not earlier because the first days you want anaerobic conditions) open the jar and taste. If you want your sauerkraut like the store-bought, you should leave it for at least one week or more to ferment, depending on the temperature.
Because each of us is so beautifully unique, the best way to find out when your homemade sauerkraut is ready for you, is to taste it every day, starting from the day 4. When it becomes sour enough for you, put it in the refrigerator to slow down further fermentation. Personally I like it mildly sour and so I usually let it ferment for 8-10 days (depending on the temperature). When it’s ready I put it in the refrigerator where it can be stored for quite long.
Before you start keep in mind:
1. To wash, clean, sterilize everything, except from the cabbage.
2. To adjust salinity to 2% and the temperature 20 to 25 ° C.
3. To make sure that the cabbage is packed in the liquid brine.
4. To follow the instructions so that nothing can go wrong!