Homemade Sauerkraut: Quick and Easy Probiotics for Digestive Health and Wellness

We’re all seeing the ads for probiotics on teevee and in print: pills and pumped-up-yogurts, often full of artificial colors, preservatives and the like.

While I think there is certainly a place for probiotics in a pill form, and often recommend them to folks on specific food plans (I don’t like the word “diet”), I think there is magic in homemade fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kim chi, fermented root vegetables such as carrots or daikon, and there is a complexity of good bacteria to be found there, that you just can’t get in a pill.

The big bang of health for your digestion and overall well being comes from the lactic acid, and nature, in all her wisdome, loaded root veggies with that remarkable health promoting bacterial ally. And as always, I am a budget-minded gal: if you do the math comparing the cost of an organic cabbage and a bag of good quality sea salt with a bottle of pills, the verdict is clear: homemade is the clear winner.

So… why do I want to eat fermented foods?

Humans have been fermenting foods since time immemorial. Our grandparents and theirs made kraut, kefir, pickles and the like for a variety of reasons. I doubt they were thinking about replenishing the bacteria in their guts and thus, improving their digestion and increasing the accessibility of nutrients from all the foods you eat, but that was the happy outcome. They likely fermented foods to extend the life of their harvests, to make those gorgeous summer veggies last through the harsh winters. They also likely knew that a pile of kraut on top of some fried eggs or a rich steak to be ridiculously delicious.

Sandor Katz, the great granddaddy of the modern fermentation movement in the US tells us:

"Chlorine is put in water to kill the bacteria and it continues to kill some bacteria after we drink the water. Antibiotic drugs – there are a lot of individuals whose lives have been saved because of them, and I may be one of them — but it seems that it is widely agreed that antibiotics are also wildly over prescribed. And even more so than the human population, livestock is continually being pumped up with antibiotics because it makes animals grow faster. There’s a residue of all antibiotic manufacturing and usage that accumulates in the water, so all of us are ingesting [antibiotics] everyday, no matter how pristine the source of the water we are drinking. If you compound that with all the antibacterial chemicals being used as soaps and cleaning products, we are all constantly being subjected to all of these chemicals that kill bacteria."

Tuohy et al (2003) report that “The human gut microbiota plays a crucial role in host health, both as a source of infection and environmental insult and, conversely, in protection against disease and maintenance of gut function.” That’s fancy-scientist-speak for what our grandmas all knew, that eating good bacteria helps fight off bad bacteria, and that maintaining a healthy gut keeps us healthier overall. If your digestion is a problem, if you have diarrhea or constipation, acid reflux or sour stomach, if you’re having trouble losing or gaining weight, or otherwise feel like your digestion could need a boost, simple homemade ferments could be a wonderful addition to your diet.

The benefits of probiotics and fermented foods are clear:

So much of your overall health is based on the health of your gut - without a healthy gut flora your immune system, mental wellness and acuity and overall mood are unlikely to be up to par.

Fermented foods:

  • Improving intestinal tract health
    • Leaky gut syndrome is a growing concern in industrialized countries. Without healthy gut flora, leaky gut and its symptoms will only continue. Fermented foods help build a healthy gut environment by providing the life-sustaining bacteria we need
    • Eating foods high in lactic-acid bacteria and their byproducts helps protect the gut, through their ability to neutralize harmful bacteria. (Katz, Wild Fermentation)
  • Enhance the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients
  • Reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreasing the prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals
  • Reducing risk of certain cancers (Parvez et al, 2006)
  • Support proper metabolism and utilization of folate, pyroxidine, B vitamins, riboflavin and biotin depending on the strains of bacteria present. This is key to a balanced mood and energy, and to keeping cancers and heart disease away, by supplying the building blocks of the methylation cycle (a really important thing in the body!)
  • Fermented foods are rich in enzymes that improve and aid digestion, making all the nutrients in our food more accessible

It’s cheap and easy to ferment foods, and I myself am a big fan of the process, of turning a couple bucks worth of cabbage into a fizzy forkful of delicious kraut. The Kitchen Witch in me loves the magic of it all.

  • When digestion is improved, you can absorb more nutrients. It makes simple sense to me.
  • Cabbage is rich in L-glutamine. Glutamine has been known to play an important role in  gut function, immune system regulation, and other essential processes in the body, especially in times of stress. Glutamine has been used to treat gastrointestinal issues such as stomach ulcers, IBS, Crohn's, acid reflux and colitis. Naturopaths have historically treated a variety of emotional issues including depression, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, moodiness and ADHD with L-glutamine.
  • Fermenting is also fun and easy, and a jar of homemade fermented goodness makes a great holiday gift.

Let’s get to what you’re really here for, the How-To:

leo holding cabbage.jpg

Today we’re going to focus on making sauerkraut, and lucky for you, I have a very handsome butch assistant, Ms. Leo Wamsley, of Brooklyn fame.

I’m a busy gal, so I like to make lots of kraut at once. Use less cabbage if you want, just adjust the ingredients to suit. I also love to add things like shredded carrot, turnips, beets, onions and garlic (rich in healthy sulfur), seaweed (get your iodine on), greens. Mixing green and red cabbage makes for a pink kraut which is really pretty. Fruits are yummy: apples are my favorite and a fall classic. Herbs and spices such as caraway, dill or celery seeds are fabulous, and juniper berries or elderberrys all turn out great. I have done a lot of experiments and invite you to do the same!

Ingredients:

  • About 5 lbs of organic cabbage: white, red, napa, it doesn’t matter. Fresher is better, such as from your garden or the farmer’s market. If that’s not available, whatever, get yourself a cabbage and let’s get going
  • Around 3 tablespoons of sea salt for 5 lbs cabbage (Note: it’s super important to use really good quality noniodized sea salt. I love Celtic Sea Salt or Himalayan Pink Sea Salt. It’s more expensive, but well worth it).
  • Several very clean quart size wide mouth mason jars with the two part lids
  • A large ceramic or glass bowl - metal leaves a funny taste in my experience, and plastic has that whole yucky business of toxicity
  • You may need some room-temperature filtered water to top your sauerkraut off

How We Do What We Do:

1. Start with super-clean hands, cutting board, knife, mason jars. You don’t want to be introducing a bunch of yucky bacteria from your mittens into the kraut, right?

2. Take the two outer leaves off your cabbage, compost those, wash the cabbage well.

3. Cut it up in to the size and shape you like to eat. I like longer, thinner strands. I usually use a knife, but a mandoline is a good option. Cut the heart out or not.

4. Put the cabbage, and any yummy add-on like caraway seeds, in the bowl with the sea salt and mix well. I use my clean hands to mix!

5. Let the cabbage and salt mixture sit for at least 30-60 minutes. Don't have time to wait? Don't worry! Just add the cabbage and salt together in the jar, and add some filtered water on top. Done is better than some story about "perfect" - right?!

A little trick to keep the kittens out of it is to make an X over the bowl with tape and to then put a clean dish towel over that. Take that, kittenface!

6. The cabbage will get soft, but the salt should keep it from getting mushy. You’ll notice that water will come out of the cabbage, which is the goal of adding the salt and letting it sit. You can squeeze the cabbage with your hands if you need more water to come out.

7. With those nice clean hands put the cabbage in the mason jar in small layers, pushing it down with your fist or a wooden mallet as you go, packing it in tight.

8. Pour the water from the big bowl in, with the goal of having about a half inch of water above the cabbage, either from the veg itself or by adding filtered water as needed.  Leave 1-2 inches of head room between the top of the cabbage and the top of the jar.

9. Put the lid on tight with your hands and put it in the cupboard for 3-6 days. Once the lid gets hard, and doesn’t pop down when you press on it, it’s done. Open it up carefully, over the sink, as it’s likely to fizz over - which is a very good thing.

You can put it in the refrigerator now, which slows the fermentation. Finally, if you take a nice big forkful out of the jar and put it in your mouth, do NOT put the fork back in the jar! The bacteria from your mouth can contaminate the whole crock. Cleanliness is the name of the game.

I try to eat fermented foods every day. I love to put sauerkraut on a burger, with salad, on eggs in the morning. It’s easy once you get into the swing of it, and make fermented foods a part of your life. Other great ferments include kimchi, kefir, sourdough bread, fermented carrots, pickles, fermented coconut milk, Japanese natto, kombucha, salsa, beverages like homemade ginger beer and so many other yummy treats.

Get fermenting!

To your health,

Victoria


ps: If you don’t believe me, check out the evidence base:

“Probiotics are usually defined as microbial food supplements with beneficial effects on the consumers. Most probiotics fall into the group of organisms’ known as lactic acid-producing bacteria and are normally consumed in the form of yogurt, fermented milks or other fermented foods. Some of the beneficial effect of lactic acid bacteria consumption include: (i) improving intestinal tract health; (ii) enhancing the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients; (iii) reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreasing the prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals; and (iv) reducing risk of certain cancers. The mechanisms by which probiotics exert their effects are largely unknown, but may involve modifying gut pH, antagonizing pathogens through production of antimicrobial compounds, competing for pathogen binding and receptor sites as well as for available nutrients and growth factors, stimulating immunomodulatory cells, and producing lactase. Selection criteria, efficacy, food and supplement sources and safety issues around probiotics are reviewed. Recent scientific investigation has supported the important role of probiotics as a part of a healthy diet for human as well as for animals and may be an avenue to provide a safe, cost effective, and ‘natural’ approach that adds a barrier against microbial infection.”  (Parvez et al, 2006)

Check out this NYTimes article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/14/health/human-microbiome-project-decodes-our-100-trillion-good-bacteria.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

References

Parvez, Malik, Ah Kang, Kim (2006) Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Journal of Applied Microbiology. Volume 100, Issue 6, pages 1171–1185, June 2006

Tuohy, Probert, Smejkal, Gibson (2006) Using probiotics and prebiotics to improve gut health. Drug Discov Today. 2003 Aug 1;8(15):692-700.