There are three plastic garbage cans half-filled with rotting cabbage in my garage right now.
And that’s just as it should be.
It happens about this time every year. Family and friends gather in my yard to shred, salt and stomp cabbage — three simple steps to homemade sauerkraut. (And I probably should say the cabbage is fermenting, but rotting makes for a much better lede, as we say in the newspaper biz.)
After six to eight weeks, we gather again to bag the sloppy, juicy, sour shreds and stock our freezers for the winter.
My house is Kraut Central because I don’t have an attached garage. Early family experiments involving a cracked crock and fragrant leakage in my cousins’ attached garage moved the mission to my place, where we’ve gathered for the last dozen years or more.
After nearly 20 years, we’ve nearly got this annual endeavor down to a science — if anything involving plastic buckets and polka music can qualify as a science.
Shredding and stomping
My family’s German heritage is only slightly older than the cabbage cutters we use. The oldest cutter (think giant wooden mandoline slicer) was used on the farm where my mom grew up near Bird Island, Minn., in the early 1900s. Cousins from both sides of the family gather for the ritual (mostly from the Berdan side, as my dad was one of 10 kids and there’s, well, more cousins).
We’ve picked up other antique cabbage cutters along the way. I think we were up to four this year. Teams of two shred the cabbages into plastic bins.
The stomping is done with homemade wooden blocks on poles — not with our feet, so you can get that revolting image out of your head right now. We stomp into sturdy plastic tubs after cracking some antique crocks in our enthusiasm. (Polka music provides the workbeat and a soundtrack to let the neighbors know it’s that time of year.)
It’s a BYOC (Bring Your Own Cabbages) affair. Want a lot of bags of kraut (we get 3-4 quart bags from each head)? Bring a lot of cabbage. In the early days, I would hit farmers market early morning of cutting day and load up 30+ leafy green heads. On a particularly hot day when I had to shop early, I hauled all of the cabbage to a tarp in my basement and decided this was not such a good idea. This year, 58 heads of cabbage made up the raw material.
On a cabbage-buying trip to the downtown St. Paul Farmers Market several years ago, shoppers saw our carts full of cabbage and asked if we were making kimchi. They were obviously looking at the cabbage and not our very Northern European bodies.
The amount of shredded bliss we get from each head of cabbage depends on the size and density of the green globes. This seemed to be a good year for dense cabbages, hence the three cans. Usually it’s just two.
While we’re stomping the cabbage and salt until it’s nice and squishy and the stomping blocks make a sort of sucking sound, Cousin Michelle always reminds us the ratio of salt (we use coarse kosher salt) to shredded cabbage is 3 tablespoons of salt for each five pounds of cabbage. We always guess at the cabbage, though, and it’s way more fun to taste-test during the process. Nothing better than a fingerful of salty, squishy shreds washed down with a slug of cold beer.
The trash cans (used only for this purpose every year) are lined with double-bagged heavy duty trash bags. After the crushed cabbage is poured in, we get as much air out of the bags as we can, seal them tightly and then put another double-bagged set of trash bags on top and fill them with water so that they flow out and seal off the bags below and put weight on the mixture.
When our ancestors were making kraut, the salted cabbage went into a crock with a wooden board held down by a rock. When you went to the “root cellar” for kraut, you’d have to skim off a bit of scum. Our bagged system is much more sanitary and releases less “fragrance.”With the sauerkraut set, we fire up the grill and make brats, topping them with last year’s kraut and served with Cousin JoAnn’s awesome German potato salad. And desserts and other family potluck necessities, like my sister’s “Calico Bean Bake.”
This year’s shred-and-stomp needed COVID-19 precautions, of course. Shredders worked in family teams and wore face masks for close-up work. We did everything outside.
Pandemic precautions actually brought an improvement to the process this year. Cabbage contributions are usually cleaned and chopped for the shredders in my tiny kitchen by a crew that’s pretty much butt-to-butt in the narrow space. This year, my sister suggested everyone bring their cabbages already cleaned. Um, yeah. Why haven’t we been doing that all along? (Bonus: I’m not mopping cabbage off the floor and cupboards in the kitchen afterward.)
Bagging the bounty
Six to eight weeks later, the cabbage has become sauerkraut. The polka music soundtrack is cranked up, the water bags come off of the top and we scoop the kraut into freezer bags, sealing them tightly and making sure to clean and dry each bag. Another lesson learned: Wet bags and leaky bags can harden into a nasty, icy block in the freezer.
We put about 2 cups of kraut into each quart-size bag. Cousin Patsy would always insist on Hefty zip close freezer bags. She’s not with us any more, but we adhere to her rule.
A heaping bowl of the fresh (um, I use that word with full awareness some may consider it not truthful) sauerkraut is spread on the top of a pork loin that’s been roasting in the oven all morning. A big dinner with bread dumplings, mashed potatoes and apple dessert is the reward.
There’s always excess kraut juice and someone usually has a friend looking for the probiotic properties of the juice. But before we fill any outsider jugs, we save a pitcherful for our annual shot of kraut juice.
Yup. With a “ziggy-zaggy-ziggy-zaggy hoi, hoi hoi” and a “Prosit,” everyone downs a shot of kraut juice. We call it our German flu shot. When Cousin Lisa was introduced to the tradition a few years ago, she asked if there was any vodka to help wash it down. I had gin, so we concocted a sort of dirty martini. Last year, we chased it with cold potato vodka.
COVID precautions will change our post-bagging feast this year. Everyone is bringing containers and taking the pork and kraut to go. Some of the crew with health concerns will do curbside pickup.
In the end, though, it’s not about the sauerkraut. It’s about family. We’ve created a tradition that celebrates our heritage. It’s about stories and laughs, watching the newest members of the clan chew up a mouthful of cabbage or grimace after a dose of the sour and salty juice, listening to memories about the antics of Dad or Uncle Roly or Auntie Ag and others who aren’t with us any more. And grabbing a polka partner for a turn about the front yard.
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