By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
Touring Northern Europe, my food appreciation classes recently got their hands deep into the food. They were making sauerrueben, a version of fermented turnips very much like sauerkraut, but t0 my mind much better. Sauerrueben has a nuttiness and depth of flavor most sauerkrauts lack. Tossed with sauteed onions, it works great next to a Polish sausage, for instance.
All you have to do is grate some turnips and add salt. Truly, this is more a formula than a recipe. For every five pounds of grated turnips, mix in 3 tablespoons pickling salt (or substitute sea salt or kosher salt--no chemicals allowed, including iodine). You can make more or less, depending on your needs.
What you see in the photo above is one of my students mixing the turnips with her hands. This is the most fun part, although the kids are crazy for peeling and grating turnips as well. Anything involving a kitchen tool will keep them focused for hours. But there's nothing like squishing sloppy, grated turnips through your fingers to get the juices flowing--literally.
We are fermenting our turnips--about 10 pounds--in a ceramic crock made for that very purpose. Otherwise, I would use a plastic bucket from the paint store. You just need a tight-fitting ceramic or glass plate (or a piece of non-resinous hard wood cut to size) to lay over the top of the turnips. Salt draws the water out of the turnips, creating a brine that should cover not only the turnips, but whatever object you are using to hold them down. For good measure, place something heavy--like a plastic jug filled with water--on top to weigh everything down and keep it submerged.
What happens next is a kind of culinary miracle. A procession of bacteria will multiply in your brine, creating lactic acid that inhibits noxious organisms. The bacteria feed on the turnips to survive. So you might say that the finished sauerrueben--or any fermented food, for that matter--has undergone a process of rot.
Sounds rather unpleasant, and there is a bit of odor to go with the fermentation. But it sure tastes good. Just put your crock in a cool dark place for a few weeks, covered with a tea towel. And I love teaching kids how our ancestors dealt with food preservation before they had refrigerators.
The bacteria are happiest in an ambient temperature of around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Check on their progress periodically. You'll know your sauerrueben is done by tasting.
You can store your finished sauerrueben in the refrigerator, which will slow the fermentation process to a crawl. I've had it as much as two years later and it was not only edible, but incredibly delicious.
This is one science experiment you can definitely eat for dinner.