Bare feet stomping on shreds of cabbage in barrels hits a decidedly European collective nostalgia. (Have you ever heard of a kimchi stomp? Nationwide kimchi making season—yes, kimchi pounding—no.)
Across the country, festival goers shuck their shoes and jump into barrels to feel cabbage and brine squeeze between their toes. It offers a chance to get grounded, literally, in their food. (I hope that at the end of the day this particular cabbage gets fed to a compost pile.)
My guess is that the stomp mythology comes from a few places. From experience, I know that when great quantities of garden freshness are being preserved during the harvest season, it is an “all hands on deck” kind of a time. Sauerkraut needs pressed evenly through the vessel, whether it is a crock or barrel. What a great job for the kids—wash your feet and press this down, fits the need of any humming homestead. For a few minutes the kids are contained, entertained and helpful. It doesn’t get any better than that.
At the opposite end of homestead preservation this is another scene this time from the early industrialization of sauerkraut production. Barrels the size of small houses were filled with cabbage. Since the success of fermentation is based on the cabbage being completely submerged, men in rubber boots with pitchforks was the best way to ensure the cabbage evenly distributed and immersed in the brine.
But what does this all mean to the home or even farmstead fermentista? The goal is to allow the salt to work into the cells of the cabbage to release the brine. The question is: Should you pound your kraut?
I am not a pounder. I used to pound when my batches were a few cabbages small, but when we started processing hundreds of pounds of cabbage it became clear that this physically demanding workout was not sustainable. We learned it didn’t have to and we let the salt do the work. It saved our shoulders and our kraut stayed crunchy.
If you enjoy pounding by all means pound away. Just be careful to not hammer, beat, clobber, pummel, grind, crush, pulverize, or mash your cabbage. Too much pounding will render your resultant kraut mushy. And watch the edges of your crock. I have seen first hand and heard many tales of woe about what enthusiastic pounding can do to the rim of a stoneware crock when accidentally caught by the mallet.
All you have to do is thoroughly mix in the salt and massage the cabbage or other vegetables for a few minutes—as if you are kneading bread dough. Then let it rest covered for a half hour, or more for larger batches. Check it. If it is weeping enough, start pressing it into your jar. If not, agitate it more and let it sit a little longer.
When your cabbage (or other vegetables) are juicy, they are ready to tuck into a jar or crock. Place a little in the bottom of your vessel and apply pressure until you see or feel the juice. Add more salted vegetable and repeat; this will keep your veggies crispy and safely fermented.
This is the part that is probably the most important step—PRESSING. (Don’t forget keeping your vegetables under the brine conquers evil every time.) Pressing is defined as applying pressure or continuous force; it is a slow steady motion. You want to bring the brine to the surface of the vegetables with this pressure. After pressing with my fists or fingers for awhile, I started to look for a more comfortable way to make kraut. I was talking to our friend Jerry, a grandpa with a wood shop, and a week later he had turned wooden tampers of multiple sizes; a few small ones which fit nicely into the tight spaces of a crock or jar, one with holes in the bottom to allow the brine to flow through, and lastly, the one for our 10–gallon crocks. It was a block of wood affixed to what looked curiously like a raft paddle handle. When I asked, I learned it was the next incarnation of a paddle that had worn out its serviceable life on the Colorado River.