Cabbage is a vegetable that was grown in every pioneer woman's garden. The cabbages were planted in spring, grew all summer long, and were harvested in the Fall when the temperature began to drop. According to tradition, a waning moon was necessary to ensure that the kraut would not swell excessively during fermentation.
After harvesting, the cabbages would be piled in the basement. It took two bushels of cabbage to make a ten-gallon crock of kraut. The cabbage would be stripped of the outer, soiled leaves, then quartered, with the center core removed. The kraut cutter would be centered over the crock. A kraut cutter is a board with side rails and two sharp blades to slice the cabbage. The cabbages were placed in the cutter box (of the kraut cutter) and run back and forth over the blades. This took great care and attention because you had to push down on the cabbage quarter and slice back and forth rapidly, with strong force, yet not slice your knuckles in the process.
When a few inches on cabbage gathered in the bottom of the crock, Kosher pickling salt was added. Getting the right amount of salt was where experience versus chance came into play. The approximate measurement was 3 Tablespoons salt per 5 pounds of cabbage.
After the salt was added, the cabbage was pounded mercilessly, called "stomping". A stomper was crafted from hardwood and was treasured and used from year-to-year. After stomping until the salt was mixed well with the crushed cabbage, the mixture should be quite salty to taste, but not briny.
The process of shredding a couple of inches of cabbage, salting and stomping was repeated again and again. The kraut mixture was tasted frequently during the process and beer was often used to wash the salty brine from the taster's mouth. This made the kraut-making much more fun and sometimes quite rowdy!
When the kraut tasted just right and the crock was about 2/3 full, a clean dish towel was placed over the top of the crock to keep it from being exposed to air. The crock cover or a dinner plate was placed over the dish towel and weighted down with a large stone. The crock was left in a cool place in the basement to ferment, which was rather odiferous in the early stages!
Once a week, the inner towel was removed and the excess bacterial growth rinsed out. Any softened cabbage was skimmed from the top of the brine. The finished kraut may take from three to six weeks to achieve perfection. In cold weather, the kraut was left in the crock over winter and scooped out when needed for supper. Some farm wives preferred to "cold pack" their kraut in jars with a copper boiler.
For our forefathers, sour kraut was a valuable source of nutrients, especially Vitamins C, B and K, during the lean winter months. In a tough year, sour kraut may be the pioneer family's only source of vegetables!