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Feature Article on making sauerkraut.   Topic: AGRICULTURE
By Lew and Pat Diehl in October, 1999


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"First, have good cabbage.  It takes roughly two bushels for a ten-gallon crock,"
says Lew Diehl.  And you need a willing worker, in this case, Pat Diehl. 

An appealing characteristic of history is that it remains a part of us one way or another. How many of us today continue to practice customs handed down in our families for generations? Sauerkraut is a case in point. When the Historical Highlights editor heard we were making sauerkraut, he said he thought no one did that any more. He thought the tasteless, white stuff sold in the supermarkets was all there was. That led to the suggestion of an article for our historical society newsletter. Kraut making can certainly be said to be a part of Shelby County history, with all our German and other European ancestors. What follows then is a self interview. — Lew and Pat Diehl

Lew:  Making kraut is something I "came home to" by way of Patty’s family. But this late summer work goes away back in both our German families. My parents didn’t make any that I can remember, but my grandparents, with their large family, made it by the barrel. Grandpa Diehl was descended from immigrants to "Little Lampertheim," as Chillicothe, Ohio, was once known after all the German gardeners settled there. He wrote of buying extra cabbage by the hundredweight for the purpose. According to his mother’s diary, shucking corn and making kraut were the last two jobs my great-grandfather did before dying of typhoid in October of 1906.

Pat:  Grandpa Kloeppel always had a big garden behind their house on Highland Avenue in Sidney when there was only a big field there. I suppose that’s where my father (George) learned about making kraut. After we moved to the farm near Swanders in 1945, we had big gardens too, and I remember kraut making. It was usually in October, when it was cool. The moon sign had to be right — going down, or waning. Otherwise the kraut would swell and run over.  We used big stone crocks. A crock was set near the chimney in the basement so that it could help hold the cutter in place while slicing the cabbage. Later, I would sneak down and snitch handfuls out of the crocks. I liked the taste of the salty cabbage even before it was fermented. I can’t remember if they canned it or just left it in the crock until it was gone.

Pat:  We cooked it with pork. Grandma would come out from town and make her dumplings to go with it. She had her own special technique for making them, and they were cooked in the pot on top of the kraut. Nobody could do it like she could. She would split those big dumplings open on the serving platter and drizzle hot bacon grease over them before the pork and kraut were added.

Big Garden is First Step
Lew: When we settled in Shelby County, Ohio, in 1963, we began having big gardens, and Pat’s folks got us started making kraut with the cabbage we raised. We came by an old 1893 model kraut cutter and I fixed it up - even blued the blades to make it look nice - then made a "stomper" out of a piece of seasoned red elm trunk. We didn’t have a basement in our first house, and a batch went bad. You have to have a cool place to ferment it. It’s gone well almost every time since, because we built our own house after that, with a basement. One other time we didn’t have enough salt in it and that batch went bad too. Too little salt, even if it doesn’t really go bad, will allow growth of some yeast that make it turn red and have a weak flavor.

The time-honored way of making kraut, as we learned it anyway, is as follows:   First, have good cabbage. It takes roughly two bushels for a ten-gallon crock. If you can raise your own, so much the better. It’s possible to make kraut of turnips or even green beans, but we’ve never done that.

From Flat Dutch to Tropic Giant
Pat: We used to use Flat Dutch, but I tried raising different varieties from seed, and Tropic Giant is our pick right now - very large, sweet, tight heads without bitterness. When you make kraut is a matter of how soon you plant and when the cabbage is ready. You can’t wait too long or the heads will burst in the garden. We usually harvest in August or September, but it can be late as October. That’s when my folks used to make it.

Kraut Cutters More Than Just Antiques
Lew: The special tools you need include a kraut cutter, which is a board with side rails and with a couple sharp knives mounted in it. A box slides in grooves in the rails. This holds the cabbage together while it’s being sliced. Cutters can occasionally be found at a flea market or farm sale, or at an Amish hardware store like Lehman’s at Kidron, Ohio. The stomper can be made of any dense, seasoned hardwood that won’t impart a taste or absorb liquid, like elm, beech, or hard maple. It’s just an upright cylinder about six inches high and wide, with a handle two or three feet long. Cylindrical earthenware crocks complete the list. Everything must be very clean!

Other than the cabbage, the materials are simple. It requires only Kosher pickling salt (no iodine!), and a bottle of beer for each participant.  The cabbage is stripped of all its outer, soiled leaves, then quartered, with the cores removed. Set a crock okraut.gif (20867 bytes)n the floor near a post or wall, with the cutter centered over it. Have a couple clean throw rugs under the crock to absorb shock to help prevent breakage and, if in the basement, to keep the chill of the floor from the kraut. The pieces of cabbage are then placed in the cutter box, and run back and forth over the blades, which should be adjusted for very thin shredding. This takes great care and attention, because you have to push down hard on the cabbage, move it rapidly, and yet not include any parts of your fingers in the kraut. A square piece of wood can be used by the fearful, but then you risk having wood shavings in the cabbage.

Don’t Pound the Bottom Out
Lew:  When a few inches of shredded cabbage are in the crock, salt is sprinkled generously over it. Getting the right amount is where experience versus chance comes into play. (The books will tell you to use 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of cabbage.) Now the cabbage is pounded mercilessly, but without breaking the bottom out of the crock like I did one time — another matter of experience. After stomping until the salt is mixed in well, the resulting mixture should be quite salty to the taste, yet not briny. If you are doing a good job, a cake of pressed cabbage will build up on the bottom of the stomper.

The process of shredding in a couple inches of cabbage, salting, pounding, and tasting is repeated again and again. The beer washes down the salty cabbage in the taster. (That’s German!) As work progresses, the cabbage begins to release juices and the mixture becomes very wet and easier to mix.

Beer is Important
Pat: Tasting the cabbage off the bottom of the stomper and following it with beer is the best part, a family tradition. When you are certain the crock’s contents taste right, and it is 2/3 full, a clean dish towel is placed over the kraut to keep it from being exposed to air, and a dinner plate is turned down over that. This is weighted down with something such as a clean plastic gallon vinegar jug filled with water. (The old timers used a circular piece of wood with holes in it, and a granite fieldstone — not limestone!) Finally, the crock is covered over with another towel and left in a cool place for the microorganisms to start their organic chemistry. You may want to hold off inviting neighbors over while the fermentation occurs.

Once a week, take out the inner towel and rinse the excess bacterial growth out of it. Also rinse the weight and plate. After skimming off any softened cabbage from the top, check the remainder for taste to see that it is progressing in the right way. Then reassemble everything. It takes anywhere from about three to six weeks for the kraut to be finished. You will know when it’s ready by the taste and smell, a matter of personal preference.

If kept very cool after that, it can remain in the crock a while — but watch it! In this day and age, it’s better just to put it up in quart jars and run it through the pressure canner, 20 minutes at ten pounds pressure. Now it will last a long time. The old way was to leave it in the crock or barrel, or "cold-pack" it in jars in a copper boiler. If all has gone well, you now have a product that is nothing like the cabbage and vinegar and lactic acid mixture that is sold for kraut at the store. When partially browned pork chops or smoked sausage, or even humble wieners are cooked in it and served with mashed potatoes or dumplings, you have an excellent old German meal.

Kraut Juice is Good to Drink
Lew: Patty thinks I’m crazy, but I believe the excess kraut juice, mixed half and half with tomato, is very good for breakfast — beats the old orange juice routine. Raw kraut and kraut juice are reputed to be very good for an upset stomach, and I remember hearing it told how one of my aunts, the morning after a post-Prohibition Saturday night, would go down to the basement for a bowl of kraut fresh from the barrel to set herself straight. But mostly it’s just a fine food item, and it’s great to have a row of jars full of it on your shelf for hearty wintertime meals.

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Parts list for making kraut: Cabbage (two bushels for a 10-gallon crock), a kraut stomper (dense, seasoned hardwood), a cutter (board with side rails and a couple sharp blades), and an earthenware crock. "A bottle of beer for each participant" is not a requirement,
but is useful, according to Lew and Pat Diehl.

Kraut Our Forefathers Knew

Homemade sauerkraut was a common food among Shelby County farm families in the last century. This recipe appeared in the local newspaper in 1882.

You should first cut off the loose, outside leaves, quarter the heads and throw them into a tub of clean water, from which take out one piece at a time and place in a small box open at top and bottom, and running in the grooves of the kraut machine, which is about four feet in length, one foot in width, and six inches in depth. The box runs over three or four knives, which may be made of an old scythe blade placed diagonally across the bottom of the machine. The edges of the knives are slightly raised above the level of the bottom, when the box is moved backward and forward in the grooves, and pressure is made with a small piece of board on the cabbage, the latter is cut into thin, small slices, which drop into the tub beneath the cutter.

As the cabbage is cut, put it into a clean barrel and pound with a heavy, wooden mallet. The more closely it is packed the better. One pint of fine salt to the barrel is sprinkled with the cabbage as it is packed down. No addition of water is required. Fill the barrel to a point two inches from the top, cover the kraut with large cabbage leaves, and place over the whole a wooden cover small enough to be inserted within the barrel, where it must be kept firmly by a heavy stone until the process of fermentation is passed. Place the barrel within five or six feet of the kitchen fire, and in a few days fermentation will commence. A frothy substance will appear, which, if it does not run off, should be removed. After four or five weeks it is ready for sale or use. Keep it in a cool cellar (Shelby County Democrat, Aug. 25, 1882).

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It’s tattered and worn from long use, but Pat Diehl keeps the now illegible recipe for Kraut and Dumplings her mother, Dorothy Kinninger Kloeppel, copied down in the late 1930’s. Pat says the recipe was handed down word of mouth from Grandma Kloeppel who "would come out from town and make her dumplings to go with pork and kraut."

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