What are pro-biotics? The simple answer is that they are beneficial bacteria which live in our bodies and support a wide range of healthy, biological activities. Here’s a brief summary of what these little beings do for our over all health: production of vitamins, fortify the immune system and keep invaders out, reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure, process internal toxins and waste, help convert food into useful neurotransmitters that our nervous system uses to keep us regulated with a stable mood, maintain a healthy skin barrier, and much more. There’s almost no end to the ways that bacteria keep us alive and well, and even modern medicine is finally starting to take a look at these dynamics.
The most common occasion for people to find out about the importance of pro-biotics is following a course of anti-biotics to thwart infection. Anti-biotics have the unfortunate effect of wiping out the body’s native immune system in the process of attacking the invading pathogen. This is because anti-biotics have no discernment between the good and bad bacteria in our bodies – they more or less kill whatever they come into contact with. Because all of these beneficial bacteria are so important for the continued health of the immune system, repeated antibiotic use can actually make you more prone to infection if more of those good guys aren’t re-introduced.
Natural health care industries have taken advantage of this awareness by fashioning pro-biotic pills that contain anywhere from 500 million to 50 billion bacteria per dose. The amount listed on the bottle is at the time of manufacturing, not the time when you buy it; and if it’s not in a refrigerator, you can bet that the numbers are a lot lower than stated. For this reason, pro-biotic supplement use has inconsistent results.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what humans did to balance gut flora prior to the era of modern technology? Why, they ate fermented foods! Of course, they didn’t have microscopes to tell them that it had anything to do with bacteria, but they did know that regular consumption of ferments were part of a healthy lifestyle, and that taking even more ferments after periods of illness would help restore health a lot faster.
All over the world, unpasteurized ferments are in use to this very day: sourdough, yogurt and kefir, kimchi, kombucha, ginger and root beers, fermented fish, the list goes on. They’re very easy for the body to digest and assimilate, and they surpass probiotic pills because they contain literally trillions of beneficial microbes in single servings. In this article, I’m going to focus on how to make one of the best ferments through a process that’s so incredibly easy that you might wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
Enter sauerkraut! It literally means “sour cabbage”. Most people have been exposed to sauerkraut through hot dog stands – it’s a popular addition to fast food. The great thing about cabbage is that it already has the good bacteria on it, so making a sauerkraut doesn’t require you to add bacteria cultures from an outside source. Unfortunately, most sauerkraut on the store shelves has been pasteurized by exposing it to heat, completely eliminating its bacterial content and likely some of the nutrition as well. Here are just some of the benefits to consuming raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut:
- Source of vitamins B, C and K, folic acid, the minerals iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium, and is a great source of dietary fiber
- Lactose free and gluten free
- Loaded with enzymes that aid digestion, specifically the breakdown of protein (which is why sauerkraut is popularly served with meat)
- Beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli are present in the trillions, and these help regulate gut health without the need to consume dairy ferments or pro-biotic pills
That’s why I recommend you make your own at home, using the very simple recipe below.
What you’ll need:
- A one litre (1L) mason jar
- Cheese cloth, enough to cover the top of the jar
- An elastic band
- 1 smaller jar to fit inside the mason jar
- 1 head of fresh cabbage (green or purple, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s cabbage!)
- Sea salt or himalayan salt
- Optional: other veggies to layer into your kraut. We added some sliced carrot, beet, and spring greens like dandelion and mustard greens. If you’re a fan of wild foraging for tender springtime greens, they make an excellent addition!
- Optional: flavorful spices. In the example below we used dill, celery seed, black pepper, and a bit of cayenne
How it all works:
Make sure all cooking surfaces and hands are clean. We want to make sure that no unfriendly bacteria get introduced to the process.
Step 1: Remove the outer layer of cabbage and discard it. Cut up the cabbage into small segments and place in a clean bowl. The size of the cabbage pieces is really a matter of preference. Some people grate their cabbage to make it even smaller.
Keep a big piece of cabbage leaf. I’ll explain why later!
Step 2: Add about half a teaspoon of salt to the cabbage.
Step 3: With clean hands, begin to crush and massage the cabbage. If you’ve cut a whole head of cabbage and you’re doing this alone, the massaging part should take you about 10-15 minutes or so. Eventually the cabbage will start to get watery and soggy, and your hands will be dripping. The salt extracts the liquid from the cabbage and makes it ready to be bottled.
Step 4: Once the cabbage is limp and soggy, you can add your desired spices to the mix. We used dill, celery seed, black pepper and cayenne. How much you add is really up to your personally taste.
Step 5: Now comes the fun part! Start packing the wet cabbage into your mason jar. If your hand can fit into the jar, make a fist with it and really pack the cabbage down as tightly as possible. If not, then use a spoon to really pack it in. You’ll notice that as you pack more and more cabbage, there will be a lot more liquid coming out of it that begins to submerge the cabbage. This is known as the brine, and it’s an essential part of the process!
If you decided to add some extra veggies, you can begin adding them in between cabbage layers. When you add veggies, just pack more cabbage on top of them.
Step 6: Stop packing the cabbage when you get close to the top of the jar, you’ll want to leave room for all that brine. As the sauerkraut ferments over the next week or so, more liquid will be created by the bacteria that might spill over. It’s all part of the process!
Next you’ll take that big cabbage leaf from earlier and wrap it around all the veggies at the top of the jar to prevent them from floating. As long as all of the vegetables remain beneath the brine, they won’t go bad. In fact, they will keep fermenting!
Use the smaller jar to pack down the veggies, and then leave it in there to hold everything down.
Step 7: Because sauerkraut needs to breathe during the fermenting stage, you won’t put a lid on the jar. Doing so could cause explosive results! Instead, use some cheese cloth and a rubber band.
That’s all there is to it! Place the jar in another bowl to catch any spills, and put it somewhere safe at room temperature to ferment for the next week or so. You can start eating it as early as 5 days, but some people prefer their kraut to taste really strong so they’ll keep it fermenting for 10-14 days. Feel free to taste it every day after day 5, and put it in the fridge to stop the fermentation once it’s to your satisfaction.
Some people have permanent kraut on their counter tops in bowls. When they remove cabbage to use, they just add more and weigh it down with a plate. It’s possible to maintain such continuous ferments for years! The ferment is continuous and never goes bad as long as everything stays below the surface. Mold may occasionally grow on the surface, but it has no impact on the ferment underneath the liquid. You can skim the mold and the ferment will be just fine, but of course, use your best judgment!
Add the kraut to any dish you choose, it adds the much needed sour flavor to the diet and will help digest any meal you’re chowing down. You can also eat it on its own too in fork fulls if you are a big fan of the kraut itself!