Microcosm and Macrocosm: Homemade Juniper Sauerkraut!
The universe as we know it now is pattern recognition; zooming out and zooming in are essentially the same actions from a design point of view. From Microcosm to Macrocosm we see the same sights. It’s spine-tingling to think of how our place on this earth is tiny, insignificant, basically irrelevant in the geologic time-span of aeons of life. And yet, your body is the entire known universe to something else. Your internal organs are solar systems, your cells are planets. The structures of the pollen grains you inhale, not even visible to the naked eye, resemble the spiny surface of a horned melon or a sea urchin shell, or even the pock-marked surface of asteroid-bashed planets. And beyond that, who knows? Maybe the entire cosmos as we know it is contained inside one lone pollen grain being slowly inhaled into the nose of a massive being, ready to sneeze us out.
“We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” - Neil DeGrasse Tyson
There is such a deep, rich beauty in considering our place in the scale of the universe; we are both minuscule and all-encompassing, insignificant and incredibly important. We exist in a plane of dualities and contradictions and oh, what a wonder-filled place that is to be. As our knowledge of our existence grows, the wonder with which I view the universe expands rapidly as well.
Equally awe-inspiring is the thought that we’ve been tapping into ancient knowledge far longer than we’ve understood how it worked. My Eastern European foremothers used to keep a pot of borscht (beet soup) on the back of the stove during long winters until a layer of mold formed over it. This soup was ladled out to cure colds and infections; now, we know that they were likely cultivating penicillin, the first known antibiotic. Likewise, human civilizations all over the world have been fermenting vegetables for centuries. Through the process of fermentation, carbohydrates such as starch or sugar are converted into an alcohol or an acid with the help of an organism like yeast or bacteria. Through our partnerships with these organisms, we’ve gotten wine, beer, yogurt, pickles, and, of course, saurkraut.
You too can harness the ancient wisdom and alchemical magic of fermentation! It may seem intimidating to the un-initiated, but sauerkraut is a wonderful place to start. Making it is surprisingly simple, and the store-bought canned stuff doesn’t hold a candle to the crisp texture and full-bodied flavor of homemade ‘kraut (not to mention the added bonus of introducing good bacteria to your digestive system!) Creating your own fermented products is not cooking, per se, but rather is creating an environment for microorganisms to do their thing. You want to create a situation where the “good guys” can grow and prosper, and the “bad guys” are kept at bay. Cabbage is the perfect vegetable to start with, as their leaves are home to the perfect mix of microorganisms to create a healthy and happy culture. Salt adds flavor and draws out liquid from the cabbage to form a brine that keeps the right microorganisms happy and the wrong ones out.
This recipe is particularly fool-proof, since both juniper berries and caraway seeds are natural mold inhibitors and will help keep your fermentation on track (as well as adding a delicious flavor.) There’s a reason so many sauerkraut traditions are flavored with bitter herbs; long before our ancestors knew anything about the minuscule workings of mold growth and bacterial action, they knew that adding certain plants to a fermenting crock helped the process go more smoothly. These, in turn, flavored many of our heritage culinary combinations - think of the rye, sauerkraut, and caraway combination of the classic Reuben sandwich, for example.
To make your own sauerkraut, you’ll need just a few things: a large clean glass or ceramic crock, a fermenting weight (or a ziplock full of water, which is what I use), clean organic cabbage, and salt. Optional additions include apples, other vegetables like grated carrots, and spices or flavorings like juniper, caraway, curry, hot peppers, etc.
Here’s the recipe:
A 3:1 ratio of thinly sliced cabbage to grated apple, weighed. (You can also just use plain cabbage. I like the color of red cabbage best. Do not use more than 25% apple in your mixture or your fermentation won’t be as reliable. Try substituting grated carrots for the apple if you’d like a more savory mix!)
For each pound of the above mixture, you’ll need:
1 heaping Tbs. of kosher salt
1/2 tsp. juniper berries
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
- Place your thinly-sliced cabbage and grated apples into a large, clean bowl (glass or ceramic.) Add the salt and spices in the appropriate amounts to the mixture and, with clean hands, start mixing the cabbage and salt. You’ll need to squeeze pretty firmly and press hard to release all of the juices from the cabbage. It will take a while. You want the mixture to be dripping wet and for the liquid to cover the cabbage by at least half an inch.
- Once your mixture is nice and wet, pack it into a clean fermentation crock. A large glass jar works great, or a tall ceramic vessel is also a good option. Place a weight of some sort on the top to keep the cabbage pieces below the surface of the brine. You can buy fermentation weights for this purpose, but a well-sealed gallon ziptop plastic bag works equally well. Make sure as much as possible of the cabbage is submerged as any pieces sticking out of the top are prone to spoilage, which both looks and tastes bad.
- Cover the whole crock with a towel or loose-fitting lid to keep dust and bugs out. Set the crock somewhere it won’t be disturbed very much at room temperature. As you ferment your sauerkraut, keep in mind that temperature greatly effects the rate at which fermentation occurs. The ideal temperature is about 65F, a pretty normal room temperature. At this temperature, your ferment should take about a week or a couple of days longer. If you store your crock somewhere cooler, be prepared for it to take longer. Likewise, if you keep it in a warm environment fermentation can happen quite rapidly.
- Every day, check on your ferment and skim off any cabbage bits that have floated to the surface. If you see any mold growth on the surface, just skim that off too. Sometimes there will be a bit of foam; that’s nothing to worry about, just skim it off as well. Press the weight down to release any carbon dioxide bubbles that will have formed during the fermentation process. (Note: the gasses released at this step don’t smell very good, but that’s normal and doesn’t mean your kraut is spoiled!) You should also taste the ‘kraut every day; the good news is that it is entirely edible at every stage of the process, you’re just waiting until it is fermented to your liking. It should taste sour but the cabbage should still have a bit of texture. If you like really crunchy cabbage, ferment only until it tastes sour and lactic. If you like softer saurkraut, you can go a bit longer… up to 10 days at a normal room temperature (or until it’s stopped making carbon dioxide bubbles.) When it’s finished fermenting, just remove the weight and seal the jar, then store in the fridge for up to 5 months.
- Your sauerkraut is now ready to enjoy! I love it as shown in these pictures, over the top of cheesy avocado toast with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds. It makes for a balanced and delicious lunch with a stunning preparation. It’s also fantastic served on sandwiches or hot dogs, added to soups or stews for a bit of flavor, or even folded into omelettes. My all-time favorite breakfast is eggs over easy topped with homemade sauerkraut and sriracha pepper sauce. One cabbage will make a fair amount of ‘kraut, and it makes a wonderful gift for family and friends when packaged in little glass jars. Enjoy the magic of fermentation and introducing a bunch of new life into the universe that is your body!
P.S. The perfect show to watch while you eat your sauerkraut lunch is “Cosmos: A spacetime odyssey” with Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s mind-blowingly inspiring and full of incredible natural beauty.
P.P.S. As always, if you enjoy my writings and mission to share everyday magic with others, please consider contributing to my patreon page. There you’ll be able to make a monthly contribution of your choosing (even $1 helps!) with a wide array of fantastic rewards to choose from, including artwork giveaways and monthly wildcrafted chocolates.