Monday, October 08, 2007

Making 'kraut

[The "hobler," working up a sweat]

[Watch that blade!]

[Perfectly prepared cabbage]

[Don't spare the salt]

[Kraut-packin' fool]

Yesterday’s return to seasonal temperatures befitting fall were the perfect setting for reconnecting with my German-ness, via the preparation of a traditional, ethnic food.

Sauerkraut, the product of cabbage and fermentation evokes many happy memories. It helps me to think back to that time, each fall, when I got to hang out with my father, uncle and grandfather, as they prepared their supply of sauerkraut for the winter. I first witnessed the making of this German staple around the age of eight, or nine.

Many know sauerkraut merely as an ingredient on their Reuben sandwich, or possibly from purchasing it already prepared at the supermarket, or better, Morse’s, in Waldoboro. Most however, know little about how it is made.

While I had a bird’s eye view of the process as a youngster, once I became a teenager, I had little interest in family ways, or ethnic foods. As a consequence, when I married and became a father and got interested in perpetuating tradition, I realized I didn’t know how to make the dish I loved as a youngster.

Upon returning to Maine from Indiana, I found that my father and uncle’s batch of sauerkraut had a different and less pungent taste than when my grandfather used to make it. I wasn’t sure why.

At a family gathering of the Baumer clan, someone had cooked a batch of sauerkraut. I tasted it and knew the flavor was what I had been searching for. I found out that my cousin had made it and put up a batch every year. We agreed to get together the following fall and he’d guide me in making my own supply.

What I found out is that sauerkraut is easy to make, but you need a couple of key items and a little muscle-power. One such item is a special cutter that my father and cousin called a “hobler,” which I assumed referred to the company that made this device. I actually found this description, via Roots Web and it provides a bit of insight into this shredding device and the sauerkraut-making process.

A Krauthobel is a long board with three or four blades set at an angle in the center. There are grooves on each side which hold a rectangular wooden frame that permits the tool to slide back and forth.

The "Hobel" must be fastened to a stable base that would not buckle under pressure from the work. A clean cloth was spread out on the ground underneath so that the shredded cabbage would fall upon it.

"Hobeln" (planing or grating/mincing the cabbage) was very hard work. The "Hobler" placed pieces of a cut-up head of cabbage in the wooden frame and pushed the "Hoble" back and forth in a smooth, rapid motion with just enough pressure so that the cabbage would be cut into shreds. A pyramid of cut cabbage gradually grew on the cloth below. Because "Hobeln" was strenuous work and required alot of strength the "Hobler" often had to stop periodically to wipe beads of perspiration from his forehead to prevent it from "seasoning" the cabbage. It was more and more difficult as the pieces of cabbage became smaller and there was constant danger that the "Hobler" might slice his fingers. One had to be extremely careful. As the pile of cut-up cabbage heads became smaller the pyramid of shredded cabbage on the cloth grew larger. Finally the work of "Hobeln" was finished.

I can identify with the “strenuous” nature of being a “hobler,” as I was perspiring heavily, even though the temperature was in the low 60s. It’s rugged work and there is danger of slicing one’s finger, as happened to me my first time working the cutter, with my cousin. I nearly cut the tip of my finger off. Fortunately for me and my sauerkraut, I avoided an encounter with the blade, this time.

Adding to the physical nature of preparing sauerkraut, each shredded cabbage, or two, requires “packing” into the container (in my case, a large stainless steel stock pot, which is my alternative to the traditional ceramic crock, which I find are often cracked, at least used ones picked up at yard sales—stainless steel works well and doesn’t alter the taste), by pounding it down with your fist, after adding salt. Because this can be quite abrasive on your knuckles, I suggest using a rubber glove, which offers protection and saves the skin on your hands.

My wife and I prepared 50 pounds of cabbage, which we’ll be ready to cook, probably with a nice pork roast, in about four to five weeks. There’s nothing like entering the home where sauerkraut is being cooked, particularly on a cool, crisp, late autumn day.

While sauerkraut is an acquired taste, more and more people are coming to appreciate it, particularly now that others are recognizing the health benefits of fermented foods like sauerkraut.

If you’ve never had homemade sauerkraut, I recommend a fall trip to Waldoboro, particularly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to Morse’s. Take a left at Moody’s and head north on Route 220 for about eight miles. You’ll see the farm on the left.

If you’d like to learn more about fermented foods, like sauerkraut, I recommend a great book, by Sandor Ellis Katz, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. My wife and I sat through a presentation that Katz gave at The Common Ground Fair and he’s a real advocate of many fermented foods, including Kimchi, Borscht and wide array of other live-culture treats.

In our germ-phobic, overly-sanitized world, there’s something to be said for the wisdom of the ages and fermentation.


John said...

I enjoyed your post about making sauerkraut. I have never tried making this wonderful cabbage-based dish, but do enjoy stopping at Morses in Waldoboro when my wife and I have a chance to visit your wonderful state. At those times, we like to pick up a supply of sauerkraut.

We reside in Connecticut and try to make our way north as frequently as we can.

John Mayes/Hartford, CT

Jim said...


I'm happy to know that sauerkraut is helping Maine achieve a favorable trade balance with its neighbors to the south.

Morse's is a great alternative to making your own, but you really ought to give it a go at some point.

The key for me was having the grater, or "Hobler" as my relatives always called it.