I've escaped to the family farm for a bit this summer, just in time for making sauerkraut. It's an annual summertime tradition carried on by my parents as it was by my grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, Anton, before them. Each generation made “kraut” on this very same farm; this recipe and method have remained intact with a few simple ingredients and manual tools...
Tools include eight-to-ten-gallon stoneware crocks, the wooden “stomper” my grandfather made, the “kraut cutter” (a large wood and steel mandoline), and heavy stones. The only three ingredients are cabbage, dill, and salt.
Preparations start early each spring with planting cabbage in the garden. By late June, a row of large heads is ready for use. The dill is also grown in the garden and used for everything from sauerkraut to pickles.
On one generally sweltering afternoon each July, the three-week sauerkraut-making process begins:
- The crocks are taken out of storage and cleaned.
- Cabbage and dill are picked from the garden and stored on a wooden rack.
- The cabbage is rinsed, cored, and quartered.
- Each quarter head of cabbage is sliced thin into a crock.
- Every three heads, a layer of three or four dill sprigs is laid into the crock.
- Two teaspoons of salt are spread over the cabbage and dill.
- Then the “stomper” is used to mash the ingredients. This is important for producing brine from the cabbage – be sure to stomp vigorously!
- These steps are repeated, layering the cabbage, dill, and salt then stomping until the crock is filled. It generally takes about twelve large heads of cabbage to fill a ten-gallon crock.
Once a crock is filled, cheesecloth is laid over the mixture, a plate placed on top, and a heavy stone placed on the plate. The weight of the stone keeps the vegetable's brine at the top of the crock, sealing the container throughout the fermenting process and preventing spoilage. The crock is then covered with a tea towel and placed in a cool, dry place. This marks the end of a busy first day and the beginning of the three-week fermentation process. Once a week, the cloths are removed and any spoilage is skimmed off the top.
After three weeks, the cloth, stone and plate are taken out of the crock, the dill is removed, and the sauerkraut is ready to serve. Since my family makes enough to give away and to eat throughout the year, the finished sauerkraut is packed firmly into pint- and quart-sized jars and preserved by sealing in a hot water bath.
This culinary tradition is older than any one member of the family, but it binds us together - past, present, and future. The activity serves as a reminder of a simpler time and of the longevity of memory, inheritance, and oral history passed down from parent to child.