One night this summer, after scanning the umpteenth Facebook Health News Alert on the extreme health benefits of fermented foods I broke down and decided to try making my own sauerkraut. It seemed so easy, and I was assured that the billions of bacteria I introduced to my gut would vastly repay any minor culinary effort required. Inspired, I just followed the easy  directions – crush a lot of cabbage, mix it with salty water, or brine, and place the mixture in a dark place for several weeks. Doing that took about twenty minutes, and then I settled back to read more about what I was doing.

Fermentation, in simple chemical terms, is the anaerobic breakdown of carbohydrates (sugar) by microorganisms or enzymes into carbon dioxide, lactic acid, acetic acid and ethyl alcohol. Fermentation has been used for thousands of years. Ancient cultures found it preserved the “shelf life” of their foods. In sauerkraut the fermentation leads to a rapid increase in lactobacilli bacteria which acidifies the environment making it unsuitable for the growth of undesirable bacteria. The carbon dioxide produced replaces the oxygen in the jar.

As I read more, I began to learn what those undesirable bacteria might be. I was told to just scrape off white fuzz, or pink scum” that was yeast, and that everything would be fine. Mold might also appear, and according to some authors that was also “probably” fine. That really didn’t sound “fine” to me. I remembered microbiology lectures on botulism poisoning and home canning. And I got scared to eat anything I was letting sit bubbling in a closet for two weeks.

But I still wanted fermented food. After all Dr. Mercola has claimed that fermented foods contain 100 times more probiotics than a supplement, and Dr. Natasha McBride, the psychiatrist who popularized the GAPS diet for neuropsychiatric conditions (paleo plus probiotics) feels that sauerkraut contains more than 20X the amount of bioavailable C in fresh cabbage (Evidently James Cook the explorer prevented scurvy on his ships by having barrels of sauerkraut available) In addition the good acidic bacteria that sauerkraut provides helps kill of the more pathogenic bacteria, parasites, fungi and bacteria.

Luckily I found a kit from a company called the Perfect Pickler. It consists of a lid, airtight gasket and stopcock. Essentially it provides a way for the CO2 to escape without allowing the introduction of oxygen. In addition the company provides an easy to understand DVD that will get you started , and great recipes. Alex and I have now been making sauerkraut every weekend for the last several months. Our favorite recipes are apple-ginger-carrot kraut, and caraway garlic. We like the taste so much that we have ordered more Perfect Picklers and make 2 quarts a weekend. We assume we are getting all the promised health benefits, but mostly we love the taste!  Oh and the first batch I made, without all this knowledge of science. It turned out fine without any scum or mold. However adding the science adds assurance of mind, and is highly recommended for anyone starting to experiment with fermentation.

Selhub, Eva M, Alan C Logan, and Alison C Bested. 2014. “Fermented Foods, Microbiota, and Mental Health: Ancient Practice Meets Nutritional Psychiatry.” Journal of Physiological Anthropology 33 (1): 2. doi:10.1186/1880-6805-33-2.