What can I say, I was raised on canned sauerkraut and bagged corned beef. Raised would imply they were a regular part of our diet, and while sauerkraut seemed to stink up the house every couple of weeks, corned beef was “saved” for special occasions — like when it was on sale after St. Patrick’s Day.
We would have corned beef and potatoes — with sauerkraut serving as a surrogate for the boiled cabbage — to connect with our Irish heritage (of which we have none). We kids would push it around the plate, be thankful our British ancestors came from England and Scotland, and wait for another year to pass before enjoying another bland stinky meal.
Every once in a while, for a sophisticated and exotic touch, Mom would break out the griddle and toast up Reuben Sandwiches with Russian Dressing, Swiss cheese, corned beef, and sauerkraut on rye bread (probably the leftover loaf from the previous Reuben feast). Now that was something we really liked. The combination of toasted bread, corned beef covered in melted Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut that mysteriously sweetened when combined with the Russian dressing was something we did not get to enjoy very often.
During my post-doctoral and early-working years in the Northeast, my appreciation of the Reuben grew with each variation of sauce or dressing served with it. More importantly, I noticed a difference in the corned beef and sauerkraut. My palate, molded by years of canned and bagged, was not sophisticated enough to appreciate the fresh and flavorful taste of homemade sauerkraut and corned beef. (What do you mean this sauerkraut did not come from a can and cook all day on the stove?) While it did not reach the height of an epiphany, it was something I would remember.
When we returned to Houston a few years later, Dad was approaching retirement. He had decided in his free time to “learn” how to cook. Perhaps more accurately, he decided to learn how to cook in order to “help” or “teach” Mom to cook better. Yeah, you know where this is going. Initially, Mom was very resistant to the kitchen competition.
Until one day, Dad perfected his sauce and “Huddy’s Reuben” was born. Mom quickly assumed the role of food critic and gave him the keys to the kitchen. The Reuben soon became their favorite for serving guests at a casual meal. They still used the same canned sauerkraut, though cooked for a shorter period, and the corned beef was purchased at the deli counter, but it was his sauce made the sandwich.
A couple of years ago, I canned my first batch of sauerkraut and gave him a couple of pints to test in his recipe. That first batch of homemade canned kraut was a little mushy for his tastes, and it received a lukewarm reception. At that point, I was determined to improve my kraut making ways and after a serendipitous trip to a local dairy and beef ranch, decided to double down and also try to make my own corned beef.
Sauerkraut is dead easy. It is the fermentation of a vegetable (in this case, cabbage) in a salt brine. The salt concentration is important because it causes the release of water from the cabbage, creating a brine that allows the growth of beneficial microbes while inhibiting the growth of bad microbes and also adds flavor.
Good technique produces good kraut. Clean your fermenting vessel (usually a jar or crock) and use some sort of an airlock. You can use an airlock specifically designed for your vessel or use a loose lid to allow gas to escape.
Once ready, refrigerate the kraut for long term storage. Refrigeration keeps it crisper and “fresher” tasting. Better still, eat it and don’t worry about storage.
Author and blogger Kirsten Shockey demonstrated at the Mother Earth News Fair in February 2016 how easy it is to make sauerkraut. She said you can use almost any vegetable, although kale doesn’t work very well, and that it requires about 1.5% salt for proper microbial growth and control. That translates to roughly 2 teaspoons per pound of cabbage, or a lot of folks use 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of chopped cabbage.
• 4-5 pounds cabbage, outer leaves and core removed, wash remaining and chop or shred as you like (save the unblemished outer leaves for later)
• 6 cloves garlic, smashed and skin removed
• 2.5-3 Tbsp salt, 2.5-3 Tbsp
Note: When I harvested our cabbage, we collected about 10 lbs, but I was unable to make kraut at the time, so it sat in the refrigerator for a week. By the time I returned to it, it had lost about 30% of its weight. Once cleaned and cored, I ended up with about 4 pounds of shredded cabbage.
1. Chop or shred the cabbage to the size you like. The larger the pieces, the longer it will take to ferment but the more texture it will have. Transfer to a large bowl.
2. Add the garlic.
3. Add the salt and mix well.
4. Lightly mash the cabbage with a potato masher or cabbage tamper or better still, use your clean hands to massage the salt and cabbage mixture until the cabbage starts releasing water then let it sit for 20-30 minutes to allow it to release more water and start to break down.
5. Add the cabbage to your fermenting “vessel” a little at a time, tamping it down after each addition. You want to get as much air out as possible while releasing water creating more brine.
6. Once all the cabbage has been transferred, cover it with the unblemished outer leaves you saved earlier and pour the remaining brine from the bowl in the “vessel”. The cabbage must be completely submerged in brine. If the cabbage did not produce enough brine, you can make some using 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water.
7. Use a plate or some other non-metallic weight placed on the kraut to keep it submerged in the brine. A Ziploc bag filled with brine works great.
8. Cover the crock using the airlock if you have one.
9. If you do not have an airlock, cover the top with 3 layers of cheesecloth and secure it with a rubber band.
10. Taste it with a clean utensil. It is ready when you say it is ready. The longer it goes, the more tart it becomes but it can also get mushy.
11. When ready, transfer from the crock to clean jars and refrigerate. If you fermented in a jar, put on the lid and refrigerate. It can be canned using a water bath canner and processing for 10 minutes, but the kraut will be much softer and all of the healthy probiotics would have been killed off. So, I just refrigerate it in jars without processing.
12. Refrigerate and enjoy it when you like, such as on something like a Reuben sandwich.
This recipe is modified from the book Charcuterie by Ruhlman and Polcyn1.
Prior to reading Charcuterie, I had no idea how corned beef was made or even the cut of beef used. I suppose the ol’ corned beef suspended in some mysterious fluid in a plastic bag should have been a clue, but I wasn’t paying that much attention.
Making corned beef is a simple two-step process, but it takes time and forethought. In the first step, you brine the brisket in a wet brine — oh yeah, I never knew it was brisket, I just looked at it as mystery meat — then you cook it. The idea of brining a beloved brisket for days then simmering it for hours seemed a bit sacrilegious to me, but I was willing to give it a try.
• 4-5 pounds brisket, using the first cut also known as the flat as it is the leaner, smaller “top” part of the brisket
For the brine:
• 1 gallon of water
• 2 cups kosher salt
• ½ cup sugar
• 1 ounce pink curing salt (5 teaspoons)
• 3 cloves minced garlic
• 2 Tbsp pickling spice
• 2 more Tbsp pickling spice to be used during the cooking in a few days
Directions:1. Combine all of the brine ingredients in a large pot and heat until sugar and salt dissolve. Simmer and stir to dissolve salt. There is no need to boil since you will want to cool it down before adding the meat. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved, remove from the heat and let it cool to room temperature then transfer to a smaller container. Chill the brine in the fridge for at least 3 hours, or overnight.
2. Refrigerate for 10 days turning it daily. The recipe recommends 5 days, but mine went 10.
3. Place the brisket in a pot just large enough to hold it and add water to cover. Add 2 tablespoons of pickling spice and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until it is fork tender. Add water as needed to keep the meat covered. The recipe recommends 3 hours, but mine went 6.
4. At the end of the day, when it was finally ready, I removed it from the pot and placed it on a cutting board. It was not particularly pretty and reminded me very much of the corned beef of my youth. I trimmed some of the fat hoping a silk purse was lying beneath it, but even after that, it was still looking pretty grim. I was worried the 5 extra days in the brine would make it too salty, so I decided to try it to make sure it was edible. I sliced it across the grain through the gray exterior into an intensely red interior. Well, so far it looked pretty good. I almost dreaded tasting it, fearing I spent the last six hours cooking a salt lick, but it was time to give it a try.
Here’s where the execution failed. I gave it a taste, and it was fantastic. As my wife strolled through the kitchen, I shoved a fork full in her face and she annoyingly ate it until…boom…the flavor exploded in her mouth. She smiled from ear to ear, rolled her eyes and grunted in that special way.
We found the corned beef to be irresistible. I immediately started slicing some more as she toasted some freshly made sourdough bread and retrieved the Dijon mustard from the fridge. No time for rye bread or Swiss cheese. We would save some corned beef for later and the full Reuben experience, and we would save some to give to my Dad to try in a couple of days.
For now, we stacked the corned beef on the lightly mustarded bread (which is the way my wife grew up having corned beef). It would have made any deli owner cry. It was beautiful and tasted unbelievable. I had never had corned beef like that. We showed restraint, and set aside the other half for Dad and Reubens at a later date.
We had to pick up my sister-in law at the airport in an hour and take her to dinner, but we received a call from her that she was going to be delayed a couple of hours which really messed up our dinner plans, but….we did have the rest of the corned beef in the fridge, and… we did have plenty of fresh bread and.…a freshly opened bottle of Dijon mustard. We just looked at each other and grinned.
Sorry, Dad, I’ll save some for you and some Reubens the next time around — promise!
1 Ruhlman, M., and Polcyn, B. (2005). Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.
Photos by Jennifer Hudson
Ed Hudson is a biochemist for NASA in Houston. His free time is filled with gardening and an ongoing list of Food Preservation Projects with his lovely wife, Jennifer. You can read more MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts from Ed here and contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is always looking for comments, new ideas and suggestions.,
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