How to cook Classic Fermented Sauerkraut like an expert

Looked at one way, a significant purpose of our cooking is to prevent our food from rotting.

Check any list of the many transformations of food that we call “cooking”: searing some steer on the grill; pickling a cucumber; salting ground-up pork for a sausage; smoking salmon; culturing milk; drying apricots; canning the abundance of a summer shopping spree; or even merely freezing leftovers. Each staves off the decay that inexorably besets carbon-based matter.

We may think we’re just eating, but in its way, cooking is a plea for permanence.

One of the earlier and more primitive transformations of foods is fermentation, the conversion by yeast, bacteria or microbe, often in their wild state, of one form of food into another, thus lengthening its useful life.

Milk spoils readily; cheese and yogurt less so. Grapes rot; wine does not. Oh, a cabbage might pass the length of an entire winter relatively intact in a cool cellar. But a sauerkraut made of it may last years. The storyline is thus with many other forms of food.

We tend to think of fermentation mostly in its liquid manifestations — wine, beer and the distillates or spirits made from them — and less frequently in the ubiquity of its solid (or semi-liquid) foods.

Fermented foods are all around us: bread, of course (which is, when you think of it, a brick of beer), yogurt and kefir, that sauerkraut and other so-called pickled foods, and many a condiment in the refrigerator door (soy and tamari sauces, many mustards, many hot sauces, and anything vinegared).

But we’re wary of fermentation, overall. It’s not practical or convenient to brew beer or make wine at home when bottles and cans of it are so easily got. And for many of us who grew up when packaged food got its groove, cans bulging with botulism were as scary as a just-yanked grenade.

“I wish it wasn’t that complicated,” says Jean Denney, group editor at Ogden Publications, the issuer of a new magazine called “Fermentation.”

“All you need,” she says, “is a jar and a lid.” And from there, it looks as though cooks may get as complicated or keep it as simple as they wish.

Denney ticks off several pluses for home fermenting: It introduces “huge palates of transformed flavor” to both the kitchen and the dining room; it “shifts our attention away from the supermarket and back to an earlier time in our food history”; and it reminds us “that food was the first medicine.”