Economics and the Zen of making sauerkraut

Who the heck still makes sauerkraut?

Actually I do, after being seduced by some handsome ceramic crocks made in Poland and advertised on a chef’s website. “Think of the experimental possibilities!!” I bought one 5L pot and then another, and then a 10L pot. It seems to make better sauerkraut. What do I do with them? I culture yogurt in one and rotate sauerkraut with kimchi in the other two. And where did I learn how? Not in my home-ec classes. By reading the web, then winging it.

Once you get over the fear of poisoning your family and friends, there’s a ton of guidance on the web. The clearest instructions come from fastidious sauerkraut-masters, and if you simply follow their fastidious rules, you won’t go wrong. However, your sauerkraut won’t realize its potential because you’ll still be ruled by fear.

What changed everything for me was the realization that I don’t make the sauerkraut. I choose the ingredients and create the conditions. The sauerkraut makes itself. That seems obvious, almost to the point of being trivial, but it frames the information question in important ways.

There is essential need-to-know information, like (1) how to create a water-seal to promote anaerobic fermentation and inhibit the growth of toxic bacilli; and (2) which ingredients are ideal vs. which are potentially toxic or explosive.

(I had to learn the hard way that cinnamon stick isn’t a flavor, it’s a catalyst; and that cranberry mash produces a moonshine-brine so potent it could cause cardiac arrest.)

But everything else is for you to work out—it’s your art.

Take fermentation. There is a critical period required for the sugar in the vegetables to turn sour. But now long is the ideal? Some websites say six or more weeks. The Korean women in my LIC-Y sauna say 14-20 days. I’ve tried it both ways and both work, assuming the ambient temperature is fairly stable. That’s because fermentation continues under refrigeration as the flavors continue to mature. Carrots taste best after 6 months, and chopped turnip tops taste best after 9 months, in my experience.

That has implications for how you slice your ingredients. Of course, it’s good to slice them finely in a mandolin to accelerate the process. But you don’t have to slice off your fingertips. Remember also that after making, and after seasoning, there is eating. The perfect texture for eating may be a variety of chunky and fine ingredients.

How much salt is ideal? You can use measuring cups, or you can rely on the feedback from squeezing your mash. If the cabbage isn’t yielding up copious juices, and it’s fresh, the salt’s probably not enough. But if your mash contains a high proportion of dry ingredients, like carrots, okra or parsnips, you’re going to have a hard time creating the bath for your sauerkraut, and it isn’t a salt question. To produce the requisite water seal (rule #1) you may need to top it up with some cool salted boiled water. Adding water may change the taste slightly but won’t make it, or you, inauthentic.

The analogy to economics came to me in a conversation over morning tea:

(1) We think we make the economy, but that’s ego. We determine the inputs and create conditions. The economy makes itself.

(2) Input prices do not directly predict good sauerkraut. Moreover waste is in the eye of the beholder. My best sauerkraut consists 60% of items I would otherwise discard—watermelon rind; turnip or carrot tops; basil, shiso, cilantro stems, or some combination—and 40% items I buy to make it—cabbage, sliced ginger and lemon, spices and salt. The correlation to the cost of my inputs (even the 40%) is low because the price of cabbage reflects more supply and demand than quality, and other than salt, the spices all have cheap substitutes.

(3) The “economy” in economies comes about through a controlled transformation. Transformation involves risk. Risk is mitigated by control factors based on skill and knowledge. Gaining knowledge of what matters is a question of the richness of collective experience, and gaining knowledge of what doesn’t matter can also be a question of individual experience.

The challenge of an advanced economy like ours where the most scalable form of production is repackaging (consider our media and financial industries) where the value of inputs and outputs is highly correlated and the incentives are perverse. Too often, the highest reward goes to the work involving the least labor and risk, and vice versa.

Happy Labor Day.