Nevertheless, the fermented white cabbage is a staple in the Dutch kitchen. Especially during colder wintery days where, combined with mashed potatoes and a savory smoked sausage, this vegetable can really brighten your day in a zuurkoolschotel. And not just in the winter: sauerkraut lends a crisp, slightly tangy side to summery salads, or a surprising flavor to soups.
Zuurkool is said to have originated with the Tartars, a roaming group of Mongols, who formed part of Genghis Khan's army in the early 13th century. Whole cabbages don't travel well in saddle bags for obvious reasons, so they would cut them up in strips and transport them that way. The salt of the horse's perspiration would soak through the bags and trigger the cabbage to start fermenting and hey presto! zuurkool was invented. These culinary conquistadors are also presumably responsible for the invention of the steak tartare.
From China, where pickled cabbage became a big hit, it traveled to the Romans and Greek cultures, who fermented the zuurkool in wooden barrels, and on to the rest of the European cultures. Zuurkool, because of its high amount of vitamin C, would also travel well on ships and seafaring expeditions and help avoid scurvy.
The Netherlands produces on average about 45 million pounds of the sour cabbage: it's a very popular item! In the old days, many Dutch households would have a stone crock in the basement and make their own zuurkool, nowadays it's bought fresh from the produce market or in the grocery store. But we're spread out all over the world, and sometimes zuurkool hard to come by, so we're going to make our own!
It is an easy item to make, although it does require patience and some light monitoring. And you'll be pleased to know that no sweaty horses are needed! Some cuisines add juniper berries, herbs or white wine, but the Dutch prefer theirs just made plain, with only salt, but you are welcome to experiment!
5 lbs white cabbage (about 2 large heads)
6-8 teaspoons pickling salt or sea salt*
Remove a few outer leaves on each head. Cut the cabbages in half, remove the core and slice the cabbage very thin. You can do this on a mandolin (be careful!!) or with a chef's knife.
Take a clean container: I use a pickle jar as you can see in the picture, but a stone crock or any other jar will work just fine. Wash and rinse it so that it's clean and dry. Place the whole leaves on the bottom of the jar. Weigh out 8 ounces of sliced cabbage and add it to the jar. Use a potato masher or other blunt instrument to push down the cabbage. Sprinkle one teaspoon of salt on top. Layer with another 8 ounces of sliced cabbage, push down well, sprinkle salt. Repeat until the jar is packed,and finish with another two or three whole leaves.
The salt will start pulling liquid from the bruised cabbage and soon (although this could take up to 24 hours), the cabbage will be sitting in its own, salty, juice. Perfect!
Push the cabbage down as it will be wanting to float. Use a clean, inverted dish with a rock on top like they did in the old days or join the 21st century. I use a large ziplock bag that I fill with water. It weighs down the cabbage, flexible enough to cover every nook and cranny but is light enough to let any gases escape. The key is to have the cabbage submerged!
If there is not enough water to cover all the cabbage after 24 hours, carefully salt a cup of water with 2 teaspoons pickling salt, stir it until it's dissolved and add to the pot.
Let the crock sit on the counter for two days. Then move it out to a cooler part of the house, maybe the basement or the pantry. Make sure no pests, dirt or debris can get into the pot. As you're fermenting cabbage, gases will appear and create a slightly sour smell: that's a good sign!
After about three to four weeks, the zuurkool should be done. We'll make a traditional Terschelling dish with it!
* Do not use iodized or table salt as it is usually laced with other ingredients: use only sea or pickling salt.