I have been learning so much on my real food journey, and I am continuing to learn and often being surprised along the way. I changed to a Paleo diet at the end of March, moving to a grain-free, real-food diet to help resolve some ongoing digestive issues and terrible eczema.
One of the surprises I encountered was they are not two separate health issues but their roots are the same! Your digestive system is interconnected with the rest of your body so intricately that any imbalance can throw off other parts of your body and cause other problems. I’ve mentioned some of mine in previous posts; including the aforementioned eczema and tummy troubles I’ve also dealt with a lot of dental issues, bad acne and other skin issues, insomnia, depression, and anxiety issues to name a few. A lot of the research I have personally done points to the same underlying issues and since I have been cleaning up my diet and way of life I am noticing a difference – slowly and subtly in some ways, but there! It takes time for the body to heal and I have found several great tools to help me along the way.
Enter fermented foods into our diet! Fermentation was once widely used before refrigeration as a means of preserving foods. The production of lactic acid in the fermentation process helps preserve the food but also produces good, gut-healing bacteria and probiotics.
One of our favorites is sauerkraut. I come from German heritage and we ate a lot of sauerkraut growing up. I actually liked it but never dreamed of making it myself once I was on my own. I found a recipe for it last year and realized how easy it is and have been making it ever since. There are some good store-bought brands out there. If I’m either in a pinch or wasn’t organized enough to start a new batch before the previous ran out we like Bubbies and Sonoma Brewery brands; they are both raw and contain the probiotics you want. Stay away from the canned stuff; you should find it in the refrigerated section.
It is so easy to make yourself and there are several ways to do it. I’ve tried several and found a way that worked for us. I’ve done it so many times I don’t even use a recipe anymore or measure. And it always works. I’d made untold batches before I finally realized I needed to share (part of that was after Easter when every single guest we had at some point in the day pointed at the jars in the back corner of my counter and curiously asked, ‘What is that?’ or ‘What are you doing?’) I had thought about it already and my next batch I took pictures each day to show how it changes; it’s fascinating really.
One cabbage, organic if possible and very fresh to ensure the maximum amount of nutrients
A large bowl for mixing
A cutting board and large knife or food processor
Non-Iodized or Unrefined Sea Salt, 1 to 2 tablespoons
1-3 quart-sized mason jars with tight-fitting lids (how many you need will depend on the size of your cabbage)
A bit of patience
Chop the cabbage finely. You can use a food processor for this if you want to. I read somewhere someone chops half of it and puts the other half in the food processor to have a mix of very fine and not so fine shreds. I simply use my big knife and a little bit of muscle. It gets the job done.
Put it in a large bowl and add the salt. After several batches I have figured out I like to add a little salt then toss it. Add a little more salt and toss it again; it’s easier to distribute it this way.
Next you’re going to knead or mix it for three minutes. You want to mix it really well and squeeze it. Turn it and squeeze. This starts to draw out the moisture in the cabbage. Then cover and set aside and forget it about for six to eight hours. The batch here I was taking pictures of I had a cabbage so big it took two bowls!
I started doing this first thing in the morning and letting it sit all day, packing it in the jars before bed, but it’s also nice to do this at night and let it sit all night, packing them in the jars in the morning.
You want to use good-sized jars with wide mouths and tight-fitting lids, preferably quart-sized, but I didn’t buy myself any mason jars until just recently, using whatever jars I have on hand (I drive my husband nuts hoarding jars from peanut butter, pickles, etc.)
Knead the cabbage one more time to break it down even more, another three minutes. Then pack it tightly into your jars and cover with the brine you’ve created. Leave about 1-inch to the top of the jar. If you run out of juice, which has happened to me, you can make more, by simply mixing additional salt with some water. Once you have a finished batch save a little of your leftover juice and add to the new jars – it will jump-start the breakdown and hasten the process next time, plus give your next batch an extra probiotic boost.
Close your jars tightly and place on a plate or tray. They do occasionally release juice, despite being closed tightly. It’s normal and part of the process. Let it in a corner of your kitchen and leave it about five to seven days before you start checking it. You’ll see it start to break down relatively quickly and I find it fascinating. We’ve even heard it bubbling before!
The next step is a matter of personal taste. It depends on how tart you like it. This batch was finished at a busy time and sat for a few more days than I usually let it. Hubby and Blessing loved it but it was a little strong for me. If you open the jar and taste it and think it has a little more percolating to do just close it back up and give it another day or two then check it again. I was always worried at first of not doing it right and having more bad bacteria than good but I have read that if something doesn’t go right you’ll know and it will likely smell so bad nothing could tempt you to eat it. A little mold at the top of jar sometimes happens and it doesn’t mean it’s gone bad; just scoop it off with a spoon and be sure you keep the brine above the cabbage.
I’ve lost count how many batches we’ve made (there is almost always a batch brewing in our kitchen) and never had any problems and you’ll develop a nose for it. I can usually tell by the smell before tasting it whether it’s ready or not. It is a slightly sour smell but not unpleasant. If you’re feeling leery about it buy yourself a batch first and see what it should look, smell, and taste like.
This is not an exact science and very forgiving. You can also add whatever you want to it, any variety of herbs or other vegetables. My next batch I want to try making Cortido, which is the Latin American version of sauerkraut with pineapple vinegar, carrots, onion, and oregano.
If you’re looking to start adding fermented foods to your diet this is a great place to start. I still buy some of our fermented foods, like Kombucha, but I’m looking forward to trying to make our own. We also love Bubbies brand pickles, but I now make our own ketchup and mayo, which I then lacto-ferment. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to add a boost of gut-healthy probiotics to pretty much any meal! One thing I also want to try to make is Kimchi, which I can’t find nightshade free anymore, so I simply need to make my own.
See? It’s easy! And one thing I have learned (which I’m not always great about doing) is when you finish one batch and put it in the fridge start another one! That way you will always have another batch ready. These will keep for months in the fridge, if not longer. Some say they aren’t fully ready for about six months or so; they’ve never lasted that long in our house for us to find out! If you have the room, you can do as many batches as you want at a time. You find cabbage on sale or have a plethora from your garden and time to prepare it and the room for it to sit, great! Store it on the top shelf of your fridge.
If you’re looking for some inspiration there are a ton of books out there and websites. My current favorite is the fermented fruits and vegetables chapter in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (I just bought some daikon yesterday to prepare her pickled version). Sandor Katz also has some great resources.