Make homemade preserves that reveal a world of endless flavor combinations with the help of The Preservation Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2012). Author, restaurant owner and renowned chef Paul Virant with Kate Leahy provides expert preserving techniques and sophisticated recipes for everything from salads to cocktails. In this excerpt from part one, “In the Jar,” learn about making sauerkraut and not just from cabbage, but with other fermented vegetables as well.
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I’ve been making sauerkraut with cabbage for ages, but it wasn’t until six years ago that I started expanding into other kinds of sauerkraut, from batches made with savory Brussels sprouts to leafy, pungent ramps. Curing vegetables in salt isn’t so far from curing meat. With the help of my chef de cuisine, Nathan Sears, we’ve developed a robust charcuterie program at Vie.
Fortunately, Nathan’s cured meats pair seamlessly with most of our mostarda, aigre-doux, and pickles. Down the road, I’d like to expand into fermented fruit jams. For these jams, you mix fruit with salt, let it ferment, and then cook it into a jam with sugar. Yet we’re still in the early days of those experiments.
What sugar is to fruit preserves, salt is to sauerkraut, cured meats, and preserved citrus rind. In fruit preserves, sugar attracts water molecules, dehydrating microorganisms. In curing, a similar effect takes place. Salt draws out moisture, making produce or meat inhospitable to spoilers. But it works slowly. While not hard to make, the preserves in this chapter require time — in some cases, a lot of it.
Fermentation is the other side of the story. While pickles need vinegar to stave off microbial activity, sauerkraut forms its own acidity. The trick hinges on the concentration of salt. You need enough to dehydrate and prevent the growth of undesirable bacteria, but not so much that you discourage the formation of leuconostoc mesenteroides, the bacteria that promotes the production of lactic acid. Generally, this amounts to a brine with a salinity level of 3 percent.
Making sauerkraut is straightforward. Mix shredded cabbage with salt and let it release water. Eventually, the cabbage starts to ferment, throwing off beneficial lactic acid. This not only gives sauerkraut its characteristic tang, but it also lowers the pH of the mixture. This is why a vat of sauerkraut will keep in the refrigerator for months without going rancid despite its funky smell. It is also why jars of sauerkraut can be processed in a water bath. Cabbage, a low-acid food on its own, becomes acidified through fermentation.
I’ve moved beyond cabbage to process a handful of other vegetables. When fermenting produce beyond cabbage, though, I have needed to make modifications. Ramps, for instance, never leach out enough water to form an adequate amount of brine on their own, so I mix water with salt to pour over the ramps. Even so, the fermented vegetables are similar enough, more variations on the classic than completely new recipes. Once you’ve mastered one, you can do them all.
With the exception of the pressed eggplant, the recipes in this chapter don’t require specialized equipment. For sauerkraut, find a large container, preferably one that is taller than it is wide. It can be ceramic, enamel, or food-grade plastic. Once you have selected a container, rig a weight to fit inside the top. A weight will keep the produce — whether it’s shredded cabbage, grated rutabagas, or lemon wedges — submerged in the brine. This is essential not only for successful fermentation but also to ensure the food stays free of contaminants.
To make a weight, I place a plate or a lid that covers most of the surface area on top of the salted or brined produce. I pour extra brine into a sealable plastic storage bag. (Using brine in the bag instead of plain water is a precaution against a leaky bag. If the bag of water seeped into the batch, the lower saline level could throw off the fermentation, opening the door to contaminants.) When placed on top, the bag effectively weighs down the plate or lid, keeping the vegetables submerged. Instead of plastic bags, Tony Porreca, our recipe tester, fills a half-gallon plastic tub with brine and covers it with a lid. If his sauerkraut dries out for any reason, he pours in some of the brine straight from the container. Once the weight is in place, take a look at how much of the top is exposed to air. If a lot of brine is exposed to the air, remove the weight, press a piece of plastic wrap on top of the surface, and put the weight back on. This will protect the brine from undesirable mold growth.
When you have a batch of sauerkraut fermenting, monitor changes in room temperature and watch the vegetables as they ferment. Periodically skim off bubbles and scum from the surface. During fermentation, you’re likely to encounter funky smells, but those pungent aromas often overshadow more delicate, nuanced flavors. The brine might become cloudy, which is normal. If white mold appears around the edges, scrape it away and let the sauerkraut continue to ferment. If the brine becomes overtaken by mold, however, it is time to start over.
Before using sauerkraut or cured citrus rinds, you’ll need to remove some of the salt by rinsing well under cool running water.
If you make sauerkraut at home often, consider investing in a German ceramic crock designed for making sauerkraut. These crocks come with a weight that fits snugly inside the container, providing consistent pressure to keep the vegetables submerged in brine as they ferment. Because we make much larger batches at the restaurant than most crocks can contain, I don’t use one.
They can also be quite expensive. But a good one can give you more consistency at home — unless the pets take a liking to it: Some ceramic crocks require you to pour water between the weight and the lip of the container to seal it. One day Kate’s friend found his cat sipping the brine from the crock lid. He now covers it with netting when he has a batch of sauerkraut in the works.
Pickling Spice Mix
It is handy to have a basic, all-purpose spice mix on hand when making a lot of pickles or sauerkraut. I occasionally use this mix with sauerkraut and use it with some — but not all — pickles. (If you use the same spices for all of your pickles, they start to taste the same.) While sauerkraut doesn’t need spices, adding them can be a nice way to change up the flavor now and again. I like caraway seeds — especially in sauerkraut. If you are not a fan, leave them out.
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Mix all the ingredients together and store in a cool, dry area. Before using, toast the spices in a dry sauté pan until aromatic. When using the spice mix in sauerkraut, add them when you add the salt. Makes about 1/2 cup.
Reprinted with permission from The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux by Paul Virant with Kate Leahy, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from our store: The Preservation Kitchen.