December 31, 2012

Sauerkraut an old new-year tradition, and new twist for old Maine farms

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

For some Americans, New Year's Day is incomplete without a meal of pork and sauerkraut.

click image to enlarge

Simon Frost holds up some of the sauerkraut he made at his Thirty-Acre Farm in Whitefield, on Monday.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Eating sauerkraut brings good luck for the coming year, according to Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.

Although Vacationland is a long way from the Keystone State, at least one Maine family will partake in the tradition. Simon and Jane Frost are sauerkraut makers.

The production of sauerkraut and other fermented foods is a growing trend among farmers in Maine, according to agriculture experts. It's a way to preserve the vegetables long after the harvest, increase their nutritional value and stretch farmers' revenue sources into the leaner months of winter.

For seven winters, Simon Frost has been making sauerkraut, kimchi, gingered carrots, dill pickles and other products at Thirty-Acre Farm in Whitefield. He uses about 2 acres to grow vegetables for fermenting.

"For us, it's a real good way to preserve the harvest and sell it through the year. It kind of gives us a steadier income stream," he said.

The Frosts' cabbages are harvested in mid- to late fall after the first hard frost, and many are put into cold storage. Then, during late fall and winter, the family makes kraut.

"Shred it, salt it, press it and wait," Simon Frost said, describing his technique.

Although the ingredients are simple, the process that turns cabbage into kraut is complex, said David Swetnam, owner of Morse's Sauerkraut in Waldoboro.

"Sauerkraut is not rocket science, but there is a fair amount of microbiology that goes into a successful batch of it," he said.

Swetnam and his wife bought the company 13 years ago. Originally, the Swetnams made sauerkraut during the fall and winter, then closed the operation from April to September. As the popularity of Morse's Sauerkraut grew, they added a year-round restaurant and a gift shop that sells specialty foods imported from Germany. Since then, the business has become an out-of-the-way destination for tourists.

On the day Swetnam bought the company, he expected to receive a secret recipe from the previous owner. Instead, he was handed an empty coffee can and was told to add a few cans full of salt and sugar to the shredded cabbage.

"As it turns out, there's quite a bit more to assembling a barrel of sauerkraut," he said.

Swetnam experimented for years to get it right -- to learn all the variables of temperature and moisture content within the cabbage, depending on the season, and how to layer the ingredients in each batch.

Now that he has perfected his method, Swetnam has turned his focus to the continuing challenge of getting the product to market. Unlike pasteurized sauerkraut from major manufacturers, Swetnam's sauerkraut is a living thing full of healthy bacteria and generates carbon dioxide gas. He sells his kraut to retailers in 5-gallon food-service buckets for individual packaging in deli containers by store employees.

Sometimes Swetnam provides stores with a list of instructions on how to care for the living product, which has a life span of one or two months, during which it continues to ferment and exude gas.

"If we put our sauerkraut in a bag and sealed it up -- as other manufacturers do -- it would inflate and explode overnight," he said. "You can stop all that by pasteurizing it and putting all kinds of preservatives in it, but then you lose all the texture and the flavor and, of course, the health benefits, which are huge. It turns it from something you should eat every day into something you probably shouldn't eat at all."

Added nutrition

For Frost, the biology of fermented vegetables is a big part of the reason for making them.

(Continued on page 2)

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