A Little Sour

By Kate Payne
Photography by Jo ann Santangelo

Last fall, my small garden was fraught with neglect after book-touring events took me everywhere, it seems, except my backyard. Thus, my delight in discovering a head of cabbage tucked within the rogue tangle was immense and deserving of a ceremony. I chose a celebration of sauerkraut.

I set to the task of digging up my family recipe by dumping out the contents of the tattered manila envelope my late grandfather prepared for me when I was 10. I hoped there would be some reference to foods consumed or made stashed somewhere among the exhaustive charts of names, birth and death dates and cities of origin for the Payne/Hansson line. Instead of recipes for fermented foods, though, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather was exactly as tall as I am the day he enlisted in the Union army in 1863, and that both sides of my paternal grandmother’s parents had families from Germany. If there’s German in me, there is certainly sauerkraut somewhere in there, too.

I called my grandmother and grilled her on sauerkraut and her experience eating it growing up. “Well, we ate it with mashed potatoes…you know, with butter…and sauerkraut and pork,” she said. “My dad was a sauerkraut guy so my mother made it all the time.” Then my grandmother confessed that she’d never made it herself—apparently my grandfather was not a sauerkraut guy.

My mom certainly never made it, either; she hates sauerkraut. Therefore, I turned to fermentation guru Sandor Katz for some suggestions. Now, after two generations of soured-cabbage quiet, our old friend is back—a tangible link to my ancestors sitting on the refrigerator shelf in a quart-size mason jar. And thanks to our CSA program’s turnip abundance, I got to experiment with another kraut-like slaw called sauerruben.

Both sauerkraut and sauerruben can obviously be made in larger quantities than those below, though I’ve found that first forays into newly revived foods—whether from deep within our ancestry or just from a generation or two ago—are best made in smaller batches. It can be a real bummer to end up with a gallon of something that doesn’t captivate a house full of modern palates. A single pint jar of sauerruben was plenty for this household of two—one of whom was never quite sold on soured turnips. Both of these are excellent served over a hot dog and drizzled with mustard.



Makes 1 pint

1 small head of cabbage (about 1 lb.)
½ t. dill seeds
5 black peppercorns
2 juniper berries
2 t. kosher salt

Core and finely shred the cabbage into long strands. Add the dill, peppercorns and juniper berries to a wide-mouth quart-size mason jar. Pack the cabbage into the jar—sprinkling the salt evenly throughout the packing. Condense the salted cabbage by firmly pushing it into the bottom of the jar. Weight the cabbage with a 12-ounce jelly jar (an 8-ounce jar will also work, but taller jars work best). Place a heavy book on top of the jar weight. Within 5 minutes, the salt and the combined weights will begin extracting moisture from the cabbage to create a brine. Let the cabbage sit for 2 hours then remove the book, but keep the jelly jar in place. All of the cabbage should now be submerged in the brine. Cover the whole thing with a large piece of cheesecloth or muslin bag to keep fruit flies and other things from settling in the jar. Store the jar, unrefrigerated, out of direct sunlight in a cool place for 7 to 14 days. Assess the progress of the jar daily—skimming off any foamy residue and bits of slaw that might float to the top and replacing the jar after each skimming. The sauerkraut is ready when it’s soured to taste preference. Remove the jelly jar, peppercorns and juniper berries, clean any residual foam, transfer to a pint jar and place in the refrigerator. Sauerkraut will keep for many months in the refrigerator.


Makes 1 pint

1 lb. purple-top or other variety turnips
¼ t. cumin seeds
¼ t. coriander seeds
5 black peppercorns
2 t. kosher salt

Remove the top and root end of the turnips and wash well, but do not peel. Shred the turnips and follow the method for sauerkraut above.