Opening day is less than two months away. And though not as popular at Wrigley, the kraut dog and kraut brat are mainstays of ballparks like Coors Field, Shea Stadium and Miller Park. With the origins of baseball supposedly rooted in 14th century France, can it be mere coincidence that sauerkraut or choucroute is a mainstay of Alsatian cuisine?
But, France is far from the only place that enjoys kraut. You’ll find it on tables across Europe, Russia and northern China. Though eaten as a relish in U.S. ball parks, sauerkraut can be made into a salad dressed with a little oil and onion. Often, it is slow cooked for several hours with sausages and/or pork. Some Poles thin it with broth and add bits of meat and vegetables to make a soup called kapusta, which literally means sauerkraut.
If you don’t like sauerkraut it’s probably because you’ve never had fresh sauerkraut or never had it properly prepared. The difference between canned sauerkraut and fresh is like the difference between canned pickles and refrigerator pickles — night and day. And, unless you run marathons, you probably should drain the salty, sour brine when using sauerkraut in a recipe.
If you start now, you can have your own homemade kraut dog or brat by the time it’s actually warm enough to enjoy sitting in the bleachers. Like most ancient foods, sauerkraut does not involve rocket science. It is simply cabbage fermented with lactic acid-producing bacteria, some of the same ones that are in yogurt. Little wonder that if your doctor puts you on antibiotics, you can get the same benefits from taking a couple of tablespoons of sauerkraut as you can yogurt when it comes to keeping your flora in check. Microbiology buffs know that before modern agar plates, scientists used to grow bacteria in cabbage broth.
Which brings me to the next misconception about sauerkraut: Making it need not involve a large, stinky open crock. This is actually a way to risk losing the whole batch as it becomes inoculated with undesirable bacteria from the air. The easiest and least smelly way to make sauerkraut is to ferment it in a couple of lidded quart canning jars. Two and a half pounds of cabbage makes about 2 quarts of sauerkraut.
Wash cabbage and core. Slice into thin shreds about 1/8th to 3/16th-inch thick. Toss cabbage with Kosher salt in a ratio of 2.5 lbs of cabbage to 1.5 oz of salt. (Do not use iodized salt. Sea salt will have a different volume and may produce different results.) Pack cabbage-salt mixture into a large nonreactive container. I use a large heavy glass cylinder vase, but a steep-sided, stainless steel bowl will work, too.
Weight the salted cabbage with a glass of water on top of a small plate, or use a Ziploc bag filled with water. Cover the container with a clean dish towel and leave it at room temperature overnight to start the fermentation.
The next morning, remove the weight. Divide the cabbage and accumulated liquid into sterile quart glass jars. Fill to within ½- inch of the top, making sure that liquid covers the cabbage completely. Use a clean chopstick to remove air pockets. If you need additional brine, make it using three T Kosher salt to one quart of water. Wipe the rims of the jars before screwing on the lids. Screw them on as tightly as possible because they are going to be under a lot of pressure in very short order.
Store your kraut in a cool, but not cold, place out of direct sunlight. Consider placing it in a plastic tray to catch any leaks. If a lid should buckle, remove it. If necessary, mix up some additional brine, refill, and reseal. Sauerkraut is ready in about two months when it turns golden and the bubbling stops.
If it isn’t warm by the time your sauerkraut is ready, Kapusta is an excellent plan B. Saute one or two pieces of bacon in a heavy dutch oven. Add one finely chopped onion and two shredded carrots, along with half a head of fresh cabbage sliced ¼-inch thick. Cook until cabbage softens, about five minutes. Add one quart drained sauerkraut. Add one pork shoulder steak well trimmed and diced, or a one and a half c of chopped ham. (If using ham, you may want to rinse the sauerkraut to remove some salt.) Add any bones from the meat and six cups water or stock. Simmer covered on low until any remaining meat falls off of bones, about one to two hours. Add two diced carrots and two diced potatoes in the last half hour of cooking if desired. Serve with potato or rye bread.