The Many Benefits of Sauerkraut and How to Make Your Own

Homemade sauerkrautIn my last post I discussed the important role that gut bacteria play in our overall health and well being.  In this post, I’ll detail the process of making your own sauerkraut at home so that you can increase the proportion of beneficial bacteria in your diet.

According to David Perlmutter, MD,

“… there’s no better way to consume a bevy of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli than to get them from wholly natural sources, which make them exceptionally bioavailable (easily accepted by the body).  These are the strains that go to work in your body in numerous ways.  They help to maintain the integrity of the gut lining; balance the body’s pH; serve as natural antibiotics, antivirals, and even antifungals; regulate immunity; and control inflammation (…) they increase the availability of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as vitamins from the B-complex group” (Brain Maker, p. 181).

About sauerkraut, he adds,

“Not only does this fermented cabbage fuel healthy gut bacteria, but it also contains choline, a chemical needed for the proper transmission of nerve impulses from the brain through the central nervous system” (p. 183).

My one-year-old, two-and-a-half-year-old, and I each eat a small serving of sauerkraut with breakfast every morning (yes, my young children eat it and even ask for seconds!).  We eat it with breakfast because that is our largest meal of the day, and according to this blog, sauerkraut has the additional benefit of aiding in digestion.

To make your own sauerkraut at home, you’ll need a quart or half-gallon sized mason jar (depending on how much you wish to make at a time); or, if you plan to get in the habit of fermenting foods on a regular basis, you can purchase one of these fermentation crocks (I use the half-gallon fermented vegetable master). Using a crock makes the process more fool proof, with less vigilance required during the 7-14 day fermentation period. You’ll also need a large, dense head of cabbage or several small heads; if the cabbage is very light, it isn’t dense and you’ll need more heads in order to get the same amount of sauerkraut. Then scrounge up 1.5-2 tablespoons of sea salt, a knife, and a large mixing bowl and you have everything you need!

Before you begin, it’s important to wash your hands thoroughly with non-antibacterial soap and water so as not to introduce any harmful bacteria to the batch, and so as not to kill the beneficial lactobacillus bacteria residing on the cabbage with antibacterial soap residue.

Once your hands are squeaky clean, remove the outer layer of leaves from the cabbage and discard. Then remove and set aside one of the second layer of leaves for later. Cut the remaining cabbage into thin shreds (do this by hand–a food processor makes the shreds too thin) and place in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the salt on top (less for smaller amounts of cabbage and more for larger amounts–I use 2 tablespoons for a full mixing bowl of shredded cabbage) and toss the cabbage to distribute the salt.  Using your hands or a pounder, squeeze/crush the cabbage until it is limp and cabbage juices have begun accumulating in the bottom of the bowl.

Next, transfer the cabbage to your mason jar or fermentation crock one handful at a time, using a small pounder/pestle or your fist to pack down each handful (packing it down well is important). When all of the cabbage is transferred to the jar and pounded down, use the cabbage leaf you set aside earlier to cover the cabbage shreds, tucking the leaf around the shreds. If you don’t have fermentation weights, set a smaller glass jar filled with water inside the mouth of the larger glass jar to weigh down the cabbage leaf. Once the leaf and weight are securely in place, pour the juices from the cabbage shreds into the jar and add a little bit of filtered water if necessary to make sure there is an inch of liquid above the cabbage (if you need to add more than a quarter cup of water, add some salt to the water in the ratio of one teaspoon per cup). If you’re using a mason jar instead of a fermentation crock, cover the jar with a cloth and rubber band and set it on a plate away from direct sunlight for 7-14 days (the longer it sits out, the more beneficial bacteria there will be).

During the fermentation period, check the container at least once a day to make sure mold isn’t forming, which can happen if pieces of sauerkraut float to the top.  If there’s a tiny bit of mold on a piece or two of cabbage, simply remove the pieces with a clean utensil. These “floaters” are easier to control if you use a small-mouthed jar (as opposed to a wide-mouthed jar) and fill the cabbage to just below where the top of the jar starts to curve in. This helps the cabbage leaf cover to stay in place. I’ve also boiled stones from my yard and used them as extra weights to keep the cabbage packed down around the edges.

Mold won’t form as easily if you use the screw-on lid that comes with your mason jar, but you will need to release carbon dioxide every day or so by unscrewing and re-screwing the lid; otherwise, when you remove the lid after 7-14 days, all of the juices will surge out of your jar along with much of the sauerkraut in the same way a shaken-up bottle of pop will explode when you open it.

Sauerkraut will last in the refrigerator for several months–although in our household, it never makes it that long before being eaten! The lactic acid produced by the bacteria as they consume the sugars in the cabbage keep harmful bacteria at bay, which is why many culture in northern climates preserve their vegetables via fermentation for the winter months. Once you get good at this process, you can apply it to other vegetables as well to create a medley of homemade probiotics that will be much cheaper and more effective than their manufactured counterparts!

The Extraordinary Importance of Gut Health

The mangy munchkin getting dirty

I came up with several playful titles for this post before settling on the more serious one above.  The topic of digestive health and gut bacteria is certainly ripe for humor but it is such a critical topic that I decided to choose a title that would underscore its importance.

I recently purchased a copy of the latest book by David Perlmutter, MD (a neurologist), Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life.  I’m excited to read his take on a topic I’ve been poring over since learning of it several years ago from a good friend of mine who has healed all eleven of her adopted children’s various ailments through changes to their diet and home environment.  Thanks to this family’s story, I knew to turn to food instead of prescriptions to heal my mangy munchkin’s persistent eczema, which you can read about here.

So why is gut health so important?  According to Perlmutter,

“It’s now undeniable that our intestinal organisms [bacteria, yeasts, fungi] participate in a wide variety of physiologic actions, including immune system functioning, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter and vitamin production, nutrient absorption, signaling being hungry or full, and utilizing carbohydrates and fat.”

In fact, we could not do these things without them, as they coexist in a symbiotic relationship with our bodies.

Because the organisms in our gut play such a vital role in our well being, it is critically important for all of us–especially those of us with children and with health problems–to be aware of the emerging science of gut health and to stay up-to-date on the new information being published about our microbiome.  As Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD, argued in her groundbreaking book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, poor gut health can be a major factor, if not the primary factor, in conditions ranging from allergies and autism to depression and diabetes to multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.  If you or anyone you know suffers from these or related conditions, I strongly encourage you to read her book.

I plan to write a more detailed review of Brain Maker when I finish reading it, but for now I’d like to discuss a few points he makes in his opening chapters.  One is that our lifestyles and hygiene habits play as much of a role in our gut health as our diets do.  In the western world, where a majority of people live in sanitized environments, the average person’s gut microbiome is much less diverse than that of a person living in the developing world, where sanitation isn’t as ubiquitous and people live in closer contact with the ground, plants, and animals.  As it turns out, diversity appears to be important for a healthy microbiome since a lack of diversity means one species of bacteria can take over others more easily, leading to toxicities.  If you have children, let them get dirty!  Allow them to pet animals (healthy ones), play in the dirt, dig in the garden, climb trees, and so on. And DON’T use hand sanitizer afterwards.  Simply wash their hands with soap and water.  Disinfectants, it is turning out, may be part of our downfall.

Another point, essential for parents and parents-to-be, is that the method of childbirth/delivery (vaginal versus cesarean) sets infants up with completely different microbiomes, with as-of-yet unknown consequences–although the correlation is clear: children born via c-section are at higher risk of allergies, ADHD, autism, celiac disease, obesity, and type-1 diabetes.  If your child was born by cesarean delivery, and also if your child was exclusively formula-fed (which is likewise associated with a higher risk of certain conditions) PLEASE DON’T PANIC!  Our microbiome is not set for life; we can alter it by making changes to our lifestyles and diets.

What sorts of changes must we make?  That will be the topic of a future post–future posts, actually, as I plan to populate a category on fermented foods with recipes for sourdough, sauerkraut, pickled beans, kefir, and other yummy probiotic treats that will feed all the good guys in your guts.  For now, you’ll either have to patiently await those posts or go out and track down your own copy of the two titles I mentioned.  You’ll also find a lot of information online simply by googling “gut bacteria” or “gut microbiome.”

Please note that I am not a doctor and do not purport to have the necessary knowledge to dispense medical advice.  I only share what has worked for my own family and friends and what I read about in well-researched publications.  Please also note that I am not in any way affiliated with these authors or their publishers.  I am not receiving any income by promoting these books; I simply think they are phenomenally important reads for every human being, especially those of us living in the sterilized, symptomatic western world.

Simple, Succulent Squash

Pumpkin body suit

If you’re into tormenting your tiny tots then the above photo shows at least one alternative use for fall pumpkins besides carving jack-o-lanterns!  The idea to place my child inside a hollowed-out pumpkin wasn’t mine–I think I may have seen it on Pinterest–but I couldn’t resist sharing this picture of the mangy munchkin to begin my post on squashes.

Many people, myself included, like to adorn their homes with squashes in the fall.  Coming in all shapes and sizes, from short and squat to robust and round to simply bizarre, and covering all colors of the rainbow (except for maybe blue), squashes indeed make beautiful decorations for kitchens, entryways, and front porches.

But what do you do with so many squashes once the fall season is over and it’s time to bring out the Christmas decorations?  Eat them, of course! Squashes are among the cheapest and easiest fall fruits (yes, they’re a fruit) to prepare, and they pack a powerhouse of nutrients including potassium, carotenoids, folate, and fiber.  Best of all, kids love them and babies can eat them, too.

To prepare squash, split any variety (acorn, butternut, kabocha, pumpkin, spaghetti) down the middle with a large knife, scoop out the seeds, place the halves flesh-side down in a pan or casserole dish with an inch of water, and bake at 350 degree for 45-60 minutes. An especially large pumpkin may need to be cut into quarters or sixths and baked a few sections at a time.  Squash is done when a fork sinks easily into the flesh.  To serve, simply scoop out the flesh and add butter and cinnamon to taste.  That’s it!  If you have an infant, he or she may not like the texture (my girls didn’t when they were younger); in that case, run several spoonfuls (butter included) through a food processor for a few seconds to smooth it out.

If you’re feeling ambitious you can turn your baked squash into a gourmet soup using the recipe below (my own creation), which is easy to modify to suit your own palate.  For example, cinnamon and nutmeg can replace the curry and paprika.

Simple Squash Soup

  • 1 large squash (butternut works especially well)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 6-8 ounces coconut milk or heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
  • ground pepper to taste

Depending on the size of your squash, you may need to alter the quantities to get the right taste and consistency.  I use a stick blender to puree the ingredients together but a blender or food processor would work just as well.

Squashes are a staple in our home since they are so simple to prepare and because they have just the right amount of sweetness to entice children.  They also store easily if not eaten all at once: just place any uneaten halves or sections face down on a plate and put in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.  When you’re ready to finish, either heat it up in the microwave or melt a pad of butter in a saucepan and scoop the flesh into the pot with the butter until warmed.

If you’re looking for a new food to add to your meals, I highly recommend simple, succulent squash!

Decidedly Easy Deodorant

Homemade deodorant

Here is the DIY tip that prompted so many of my friends to encourage me to start a blog.  When I posted this picture of my homemade deodorant on Facebook back in April, almost as many friends “liked” it as they do when I post photos of my kids.  If you have your own kids and have experienced the flood of “likes” you get when you post a cute picture of them, then you have an idea of how popular this post was!  Since I received a lot of follow-up questions via private messaging when I posted the picture and accompanying recipe, I thought it might be beneficial to dedicate a full post to the process of making your own deodorant at home.

For several years, I had searched for a natural, aluminum-free deodorant that worked, without any luck.  Reluctantly, I purchased a small jar of Primal Pit Paste despite the $8.95 price tag because I’d read rave reviews about it on The Healthy Home Economist, a blog I follow.  Sure enough, it worked amazingly well.

Not wanting to have to spend so much money on deodorant, I thought I’d try to replicate the pit paste at home.  The ingredients listed on the label were simple: shea butter, arrowroot powder, coconut oil, and baking soda.  The exact amounts weren’t listed (no for-profit company is going to give away it’s secret recipe!) but the descending order meant that shea butter was the greatest ingredient by volume and baking soda the least.  So I purchased all four ingredients at my local food coop/health food store and experimented in my kitchen until I came up with a recipe that worked (below).

Decidedly easy deodorant recipe:

  • 4 tablespoons shea butter
  • 3 tablespoons arrowroot powder or starch (or cornstarch)
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons aluminum-free baking soda
  • 1 drop tea tree (melaleuca) essential oil

To make it, simply melt the shea butter and coconut oil over low heat in a stainless steel saucepan then stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour the mixture into a small glass container (I purchased mine from Target), refrigerate for an hour or so to re-solidify, then move to your bathroom for regular use!

I added a drop of tea-tree oil to my recipe after coming across Mommypotamus’s recipe for homemade deodorant.  If you don’t have air-conditioning, I strongly recommend against relying solely on coconut oil as your base like she does in her recipe because it turns liquid at 75 degrees Fahrenheit (the shea butter will stay solid); but I definitely like her idea of adding a drop or two of essential oil to each batch.

Once I figured out a recipe that works, it now takes me less than 10 minutes to prepare a batch every four to five months (yes, that little 4-ounce jar lasts that long!).  You only need a pea-sized amount under each armpit; apply it with your fingers and rub it into your skin (I scoop it out with the back of my fingernail).  Based on the prices I paid for my ingredients, the cost works out to about $2.50 per 4-ounce jar, and I will be able to make several jars before I need to purchase more ingredients.  Mommypotamus claims that this type of deodorant also works for her husband, so you may be able to cover your entire family’s needs in just 10 minutes every few months!  I’m thinking rosemary or bergamot essential oils would make good “man” smelling deodorant.

One caveat is that you may need to adjust the recipe slightly to suit your own skin (or your partner’s), using more or less baking soda (the deodorizer) or arrowroot starch (the moisture absorber).  The nice thing about this deodorant is that if it doesn’t quite work for you, you can simply scrape it back into a saucepan, melt, and add a little bit more of this or that until you have a formula that works.  Just make sure to write down what you did so that you remember it for next time!

I will admit that even this deodorant doesn’t work on the first two days of my period.  For whatever reason (hormones?), I just stink those two days of the month no matter what I try.  But for regular, everyday use (even during hot summer months without any air conditioning), this deodorant works, and works well.

Creepy Crawlers

Flourishing basil plant

For my debut post I thought I’d share a little trick I discovered for making my indoor plants thrive.  Winter will soon be upon us, forcing those of us in northern climates to move our plants indoors.  I always try to maintain a few potted herbs for use in cooking throughout the year since purchasing them fresh at the grocery store can be quite expensive.  This post will focus on improving existing plants, while a future post will issue advice on how to get started with indoor planting if you’re a newbie.

Above is a picture of my basil plant, which exploded in green, aromatic lushness after I made a few improvements to its soil in the early spring.  Until then, it had eked out a miserly existence in the potting soil I had planted it in two years prior.  With just two short branches, it produced only a handful of basil a month.  Now I can pick a handful or more every week.

What did I do?  I added a pair of earthworms to the soil!  After noticing the huge difference that earthworms had made in my garden, it occurred to me that they might be able to do the same for my potted plants indoors.  Not knowing much about the biology of earthworms, I did a bit of research on the Internet to figure out whether my idea was actually a good one.  The jury seemed out–I could find arguments both for and against earthworms indoors–but at least I learned that I wouldn’t have to deal with a worm infestation spilling out into my house if I gave it a shot:  if there isn’t enough food for the worms or the conditions aren’t quite right, they will enter into a state of hibernation until better conditions return.  In other words, they won’t crawl over the edges to escape!

Earthworms play a huge role in soil health, making nutrients more bioavailable, increasing aeration, balancing pH, and feeding beneficial soil microbes with their castings (aka poop).  To thrive, they need lots of organic matter to consume, so along with two earthworms from my garden I added a few handfuls of compost (which you can purchase anywhere gardening supplies are sold) as well as a handful of grass clippings from the yard.  To make room for the new material, I removed several scoops of the old potting soil from the outside edges of the pot so as not to disturb the roots of the existing plant too much.

Within a couple of weeks, my two-branched plant became an eight-branched plant that provided enough basil for delicious homemade pesto!  Since I never pick more than half of my leaves at once, I actually had twice the necessary amount.

If you can’t find earthworms easily in your yard, you have a couple of options:  1) Send your kids on a worm hunt!  This is best done after a heavy rain.  2) Purchase a carton of night crawlers from a bait shop.  WalMart and other retail stores with outdoor departments often sell them in refrigerator cases during fishing season, which can extend from early spring until late fall.  Put a couple of worms into your pot and release the rest into your yard.

If you’re interested in reading more about earthworms, I found this site very informative. It’s important to note that adding earthworms to your potting soil may not be a good idea if you’re growing new plants, as this site warns they may damage young roots.

It’s also very important to note that if you split an earthworm in two, it will NOT generate two earthworms.  At best, the head of the earthworm will survive and grow a new tail; at worst, you will kill your earthworm.  So please be kind to these helpful critters!

About Me

Shelling beans in my backyard

A number of my friends have been encouraging me to start a blog for awhile now, and I finally decided to give it a shot.  I actually have an existing blog here but I only add to it sporadically, and it has an entirely different focus than the one I’ve been encouraged to write.  While my existing blog is personal, about my innermost thoughts and musings as well as my travels, this new blog is intended to serve as an outlet to share all of the nifty tips and tricks I’ve picked up since becoming a stay-at-home mom in 2013, an opportunity that has given me the luxury of focusing more of my time on gardening, cooking, baking, and (obviously) parenting.

I never thought I’d be a homemaker.  I always assumed I’d work full time and maintain a career outside of the home if I had children; but as often happens, life had different plans.  Rather than teaching full time, I stay at home with my two little girls and keep my inquisitive mind busy by experimenting with all of the wonderful ideas I find on the Internet about cooking from scratch, caring for my children’s health, and maintaining a garden, yard, and horse pasture with materials provided by nature (aside from a few man-made materials to construct our hoop house and chicken coop).

This is a blog about the best ideas I’ve picked up from other moms and gardeners, other bloggers, and good old-fashioned research a la physical books along with a few of my own strokes of genius.  But even my own strokes of genius ultimately found their inspiration in the practices of others; one idea leads to another leads to another, and I come across a new way of doing something that is part mine, part someone else’s.  That’s the neat thing about the blogosphere:  we all feed off of each other in an ever-expanding–and hopefully ever-improving–dialogue about living life.  In addition to sharing what I’ve learned, I hope to learn a thing or two from my readers as they comment on my posts and respond with some of their own ideas and experiences.

As a reader, you should know that I value time and convenience over perfection.  That means the tip and recipes I share won’t necessarily look and taste exactly like the version you’d find at the store and on other DIY blogs, but they’ll be easy enough to do on your own even if you have a busy schedule.  And they’ll definitely be healthier than the pre-made versions you’d otherwise purchase.

Oh, and the name of my blog?  Mangy munchkin is what I affectionately call my oldest daughter, who is just over two-and-a-half at the time of this writing.  I once had a beloved dog whom I referred to as my mangy mutt (she really was a mutt that I had adopted off the streets), and somehow when our daughter was born, munchkin quickly morphed into mangy munchkin, especially during the long, sleepless nights I experienced after she was born, when her days and nights were backwards.  It was when I became pregnant with her that my interest in doing everything from scratch piqued, as I was concerned that all of the Generally Recognized as Safe ingredients in modern foods and products might have a negative impact on her delicate and developing body (how can ingredients whose testing is up to the private companies selling them be trusted?).

Libby was my motivation to dive into the world of DIY foods and projects, and the friends who’ve read about them on Facebook were my motivation to start this blog.  I hope you find it interesting and useful and not too overwhelming; I know when I first started reading mommy blogs, I thought I’d NEVER do half of the amazing things they write about!  But over time, I’ve added one new recipe or technique at a time until I’ve arrived at the point where I’m making for myself much of what I used to purchase at the store.  What used to look daunting now feels pretty simple, and hopefully it will for you, too!