Thursday 13 November 2014

Creating my own kraut

The beautiful kraut crock, or ‘Keulse Pot’ (Pot from Cologne) that I inherited from my grandmother earlier this year, and painstakingly wrapped in an old jumper before packing it in my suitcase and flying it to its new home in Singapore, has been eyeing me for a few moths. So when I read that one serving of homemade sauerkraut contains more probiotics than a whole jar of pills, I knew the time had come: I was going to make my own ‘zuurkool’, or sauerkraut.

I was not sure whether the hot and humid Singapore weather was going to be a blessing or a threat when it comes to home fermenting, but I assumed there was only one way to find out: I bought a large head of cabbage. 

Some research online taught me the basics, and I went about it in the way I do with most things: tackle it head on, without too much of a plan. Indah shredded the cabbage for me very nicely, and very finely, in a way I would not have been able to manage myself. I added 2 smallish spoons of unrefined sea salt to the cabbage and mixed well. 

The amount of salt you need to add to cabbage to create sauerkraut is no exact science, as every cabbage size and type is different, and the same goes for salt. Try to use a fine natural salt with no additions, I like sea salt best. Generally speaking you want around 2% salt, or roughly 1-2 teaspoons per pound of shredded cabbage. 

The best thing to do is start on the lower end and add more when you don't get enough brine, but be careful not to over-salt, the end result should not be too salty. If you add a lot too much, the beneficial bacteria can't grow. This experimental way working of suits me well as I am not too exact myself (and that is someone with a MSc in chemistry speaking, go figure), but if you find it difficult to deal with, just taste your salted cabbage. It needs to be quite salty, without being overwhelmingly so. 

Now comes the fun, and hard part: you need to massage, knead, squash, push and work the cabbage until the brine comes out. Yes, with your (cleanly washed) hands. The salt will set off the process of osmosis (that’s the chemistry degree talking), and water will leak from the cells of the cabbage to the outside, mixing with the salt to make brine. The kneading breaks cell walls to assist this. The salty brine that is formed will stop the bad bacteria from growing, whilst encouraging the nice, healthy lactobacillus that will help ferment the cabbage and improve your gut health. You need to create enough brine for the cabbage to be fully submerged, as any bits sticking out risk going mouldy. If you don’t have enough brine, you might need to add more salt, but before you do that, leave it to stand for a bit and work it some more, you don’t want to oversalt, as this will ruin the batch. You can push the cabbage (which will wilt down to a lot less volume) down firmly to get the brine to the top. If you really can't get enough brine you can top up the kraut with a 2% saline solution, but this is really a last resort when nothing else works. 

Now the kraut is ready to go into your pot, and don’t worry if you have not inherited a nice vintage crock, any jar will do. You need to weigh down the cabbage so it stays down under the brine, if you don't have fermentation you can use a plate, large stone, or a ziplock bag filled with pebbles (which I did) or 2% salted water (don't use unsalted water, if your bag leaks that will ruin your kraut). If you want you can put in an additional layer underneath he weight, consisting of some whole cabbage leaves to keep the shredded kraut from floating up. Don’t put a tightly closed lid on the jar, the CO2 formed in the process needs to escape. You can cover it with a clean cloth instead, or if you do cover, make sure to burp regularly to let the gas out. If you want to go very professional you can buy a jar with an air lock: that way gas can escape and no air can get in. If you struggle with mould on your kraut this is a good way to prevent that. 

But don't worry too much about getting mould, traditionally this was just scraped off. As long as the cabbage underneath is not affected, this is safe to do. 

Then you wait. Check your kraut every day to make sure it is still submerged, as this will prevent unwanted bacteria and moulds to grow, Depending on the circumstances fermentation will take one to several weeks. Mine was delicious after just one week in the hot Singapore weather, after which I transferred it to a Tupperware jar, and put it in the fridge for safekeeping. If you want to know whether it is ready, the best way is the simplest: taste it. If you want to be more technical, you can measure pH, it needs to be below 4.5. But the best measure is you, if your kraut tastes great, it is great!

Mine was, but it still took copious amounts of applemoes (applesauce) to convince the kids of the edibility of Mama’s newest project. 

You can cook all your favourite dishes but I love to eat it raw, that way preserving all those hearty probiotics. Mix it with some (dried) fruits and nuts for a quick side salad or lunchtime treat. 

However I eat it, I'm loving it, and have already started on my next project: a more spicy, oriental version of this traditional Dutch recipe: Korean Kimchi, ladled with chili. Something tells me no amount of appelmoes will convince the kids to eat that one…

Meet the girls

After two and a half weeks in our garden, I am happy to say: our hens have settled in nicely. They love their spacious new home, and have quickly started to lose the unnatural behaviour they acquired in the cramped quarters of battery cages. When they first arrived they had no idea what to do with themselves. But now, they are starting to behave just like, well… chicken. They scratch the muddy ground, dig sand baths, lay their eggs in the nest boxes, and eat a varied diet of kitchen scraps, vegetables and chicken food. I even caught one snapping up a small cockroach this morning. They have learned to go inside in a thunderstorm, or when night falls, and some even understand the principle of sleeping on the roost, though others, despite my repeated attempts to hoist them up there after dark, prefer to huddle underneath, sitting in their own poo. They also learned that life in our garden might be more fun, but that it also carries more risks. The monkeys lolling about on their roof no longer bother them, but after observing a large snake strangling and eating a squirrel a mere ten meters away, some stopped laying for a week. The 5-foot monitor lizard snooping around the run probably did not help either. Since we have seen nor snake nor lizard for a while, they are back in action, and we struggle to keep up with the 4 to 5 eggs they produce a day. The fresh air and good food is doing them well, their feathers are fluffing up, their combs straightening, and becoming less pale. 

And off course, like real hens, they bicker. Life in a coop is strictly hierarchical, and slowly the pecking order reveals itself. So without further ado I present our leading, laying ladies. 


Josephine is a large, full feathered hen, and the leader of the pack. She is especially popular with Jasmijn, who calls her my ‘knuffelkip’ (cuddly-chicken), as her feathers are lush and soft and she loves a cuddle. Josephine is a sociable hen, one of the first to rush over when anyone enters the run. As her position as top hen requires, she sleeps on the top roost, overseeing her flock. When there is food to be had, Josephine will put herself in prime position, standing in the middle of the dish, ensuring she gets first dibs. 


Keetje (a Dutch name sounding a bit like Katie) is our ragamuffin, and Linde’s favourite. Curious, cheeky and bold, she was to first to dare eat from our hands, and she rushes over if there is anything to be done or seen (or eat). The rear of her back has a large bald spot, her comb is mangy, her head featherless, and the feathers she does have are scruffy, making us suspect life at the farm has been hard on little Keetje. She seems to have found her proper position in this flock, and is turning into one happy hen, whose attention is fought over by all the neighbourhood kids, that urge Linde to ‘share’ ‘her’ hen with everyone. 


Wilhelmina is a large and regal looking hen, hence her royal name. Wilhelmina always looks immaculate, with never a feather out of place. She had a pale, golden colour, with a white-flecked neck. Wilhelmina is beautiful, and she looks like she knows it. First we thought she was arrogant, and aloof, and suspected her of being top hen. Later we found she is just shy, and Wilhelmina is the only one that still won’t eat from our hands. She will hover in the corner until I am well out of the way, and those other pesky hens give her enough peace to eat. Her chosen sleeping position on the floor under the roost is another indicator that, despite her royal looks and demeanour, Wilhelmina’s position in the flock is low. 

Feetje and Leentje

Feetje and Leentje look very much alike, to the extend that I still struggle to keep them apart. Both have large, drooping combs that hang over their eyes like a fringe that needs trimming. Both have knotted tails with its feathers cut off. Both have bald spots on their long necks. The main distinction is that Feetje is slightly larger than Leentje, and that her comb is even larger and floppier. Both are friendly, cheerful hens, happy to drop by when there is food to be had.


Last but not least there is Tilly. Tilly is a fierce looking hen, with a dark red comb, and bright orange feathers with white, fluffy bits sticking out. Like Feetje and Leentje, Tilly stays a bit more in the background, but she is getting more confident by the day, and I suspect that when her feathers are fully recovered from life at an intensive farm, she will be a beauty indeed.