It didn't matter that Gramma was an Irish/Scottish mix (her father was the Gallagher; her mother was the Leslie). She married a German/Irish man and that meant you'd better be making sauerkraut. I remember most the smell - that gawd-awful rotting stench coming from the basement, which she tended to daily, skimming scum from the top with great detail and care. I remember her making it, using that big wooden mandoline to grate the cabbage and the wooden tamper to pound down the alternate layers of cabbage and salt into the big crock. She made a ton of it, and even as a kid I thought it was one of the best tastes on the planet.
Luckily, I'd paid attention while she made it, and subsequently as my mother learned from her mother-in-law how to make it. During my first marriage, I was heavily into canning everything in sight. And sauerkraut was right up there. I showed my own kids how to make it, and I have photos of them tamping the cabbage carefully so as not to pound the bottom right out of the crock.
After years of sauerkraut drought (Gramma passed away in 1989 and Mom stopped when Dad filled the garden with Christmas trees), I decided a few weeks ago to resurrect the tradition. My husband, who is nowhere near German, has never had a good homemade sauerkraut, which in my opinion has robbed him of experiencing real stuff, not the swill you get in the stores. We're about three weeks away from his first taste of it, but oh, the anticipation!
It's simple, really. And the days of skimming scummy water from the top of the crock are over - I've found an equally simple method of preventing any scum and any loss of the top layers of kraut (about 2 inches is lost in the traditional plate-weighted-with-a-brick method). I've included the recipe below. If you start it now, you'll have some for Christmas and New Year's!
Before you start, figure out where you're putting the crock and make sure you're able to move it there once you're finished. It should be in a dry, cool place, such as a basement or a laundry room. Don't put it in the garage if you live where the temps dip below 40 at night.
cabbage (here it's tricky - you can use one head, which yields about a pound and a half of kraut, or go for broke and use 5 heads, making about 10 pounds)
Salt (I prefer pickling salt)
A crock (Mine is 5 lbs., which keeps me under control)
A wooden mallet (do NOT use anything metal! the taste will transfer and ruin the whole deal)
Slice your cabbage very thin using either a mandoline or a knife. Put a thin layer of cabbage in the bottom of the crock. Sprinkle about a Tbs. of salt on top, then use the wooden mallet to tamp down the cabbage, which brings out the juices in the cabbage, as does the salt. Note: this process will be the most time-consuming. Be patient and tamp away! Repeat the process, layering and tamping, until the crock is about 3 inches from full.
Fill a small trash bag (such as a bathroom trash can would use) with about 4 cups of water. Double bag it. (It's important that you do not use Ziploc bags. The bag has to be quite flexible, and Ziplocs have very defined corners.)
Place the bag on top of the cabbage, which seals out all the outside air (which typically causes the water to get scummy). Make sure the crock and cabbage are placed in a cool, dry place and for safety's sake, put a towel or a sheet of plastic under it!
In six weeks, scoop kraut out of crock, rinse if desired, and cook and serve. Or can it following traditional canning instructions.