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What I love about fermenting cabbage is that you start with a raw, sort of bland cabbage head and end up with a crunchy, salty taste without cooking or adding a bunch of other ingredients. And making the perfect batch of homemade sauerkraut is so EASY!
If you’re thinking about making sauerkraut but are hesitating because you think it’s difficult, let me guide you through the process. Simple, basic kitchenware is involved. It’s not complicated, takes just a few steps, and there is nothing to fear.
There’s one basic ingredient: Cabbage!
You’re chopping cabbage, adding salt and an optional spice or vegetable, and letting it sit to ferment. That’s it.
If you’re worried that you might mess up your batch and get food poisoning, don’t be. Fermented vegetables are safer than raw vegetables, according to the experts. Wild-fermented vegetables (as opposed to using vinegar) kills bad pathogens you might otherwise find with vegetables in their original state.
This technique has been used since ancient times to preserve food.
What’s so great about homemade sauerkraut?
Homemade sauerkraut is mouthwatering, sour, and crunchy. Use it as a condiment to jazz up a sandwich or make it a go-to side dish for dinner. Sauerkraut is there waiting in the fridge. It also satisfies that craving for salt that you sometimes get. You know the feeling … where you go looking for a bag of chips or tortillas. Okay … it’s not exactly the same as chip munching, but it’s a good substitute.
Fermenting helps protect your body against disease
Sauerkraut is a natural probiotic, teaming with live, healthy bacteria cultures that promote a healthy gut, improve digestion, allow you to absorb nutrients better, and retain vitamins and enzymes.
Regarding vitamins, sauerkraut preserves the Vitamin C in cabbage, and makes the Vitamin C more bioavailable. The fermentation breaks down proteins into amino acids, creating a kind of predigested food, making it easy for the body to use.
Bubble and Fizz
The fermentation process is what creates sauerkraut’s gut-friendly bacteria—and its saltiness. For that to happen, the cabbage needs to be starved of air. That’s the reason you pack the shredded cabbage tightly and cover it. As the cabbage ferments, aided by the salt, it becomes acidic. This encourages the lactic acid in the cabbage to produce certain strains of good bacteria to thrive, namely lactobacillus.
Billions and Billions
Other types of disease-causing bacteria and microorganisms don’t like the acidic condition and die off. And we’re talking lots of good bacteria … billions or even trillions. Bacteria outnumber the cells in our body by 90 percent, so good bacteria is necessary.
A few words about starter cultures
When you become more experienced, you may want to play around with starter cultures and add other vegetables, seeds, and spices. I’ve read about a batch of sauerkraut using a starter culture that was sent to a lab. The report came back with a phenomenal number of friendly bacteria … in the trillions.
Buy Fresh, Local Cabbage
Your best bet for delicious, healthy, homemade sauerkraut is your own fresh-picked harvest or locally sourced cabbage. If either of those isn’t possible, at least buy organic. If you live in a cool climate, you may be harvesting cabbage from your garden right about now. In warmer climates like South Texas, you may be expecting a harvest in late fall.
Does the type of cabbage matter?
It’s whatever you like. Sometimes, I mix a little red cabbage in with the green. It gives sauerkraut a pretty bright-pink color.
Cutting the cabbage
There’s nothing magical about how you cut the cabbage. The easiest way to cut the head is into quarters or eighths and then slice. Shred it any thickness you desire. Again, it’s a matter of personal preference.
Add other ingredients to your batch of homemade sauerkraut for some interesting tastes.
Some options include: Herbs, seeds, spices or other vegetables. Some common ones are caraway seeds, dill, garlic, cinnamon, red pepper flakes, carrot, radish, beet, ginger, hot pepper, apple, or green leafy vegetable (spinach, Swiss chard, kale).
Go easy on the added vegetables—particularly the dark green ones
The fermentation process brings out strong flavors. You don’t want those strong flavors to overpower your cabbage … or maybe you do. If so, that’s okay. Some people like to kick up the heat with peppers. I prefer additions as subtle accents.
My favorite combo is carrots and caraway seeds.
How To Make The Brine
The salt performs several functions. It helps draw the water out of the cabbage to create the brine, helps prevent surface mold, and slows down the fermentation process. In the summer, fermentation takes place more quickly. If you want your sauerkraut to be firmer longer, use a bit more salt in summer and less in winter. Also, if you want to lessen the saltiness of the sauerkraut, use less salt.
Salt isn’t a requirement for fermentation, so feel free to experiment to reach the salt level that tastes great for you or don’t use it at all.
I prefer using salt because it quickly draws out the cabbage juices (brine). And I like it on the saltier side. Use kosher salt or sea salt, not table salt. Minimize the use of any salt containing preservatives.
What You Need to Start
Don’t let the “fermenting cabbage” supply list that you’ve read in other places intimidate you. You don’t need a sauerkraut crock with water sealing systems, special airlock lids, or utensils. When you’re making large batches, crocks are handy, but there’s nothing special about a crock. Don’t bother buying a tamper either. Use your fist to push down on the cabbage. We’re going for the simple version.
After packing and covering, add pebbles to a glass jelly jar for the necessary weight. Push down once or twice a day, compacting the cabbage and drawing more brine to the top. You want to keep the cabbage submerged under the brine at all times.
A glass mason jar is just one type of container you can use to make sauerkraut. If you’re just starting out, it’s the easiest. Use either a one- or two-quart size. You’ll be able to fit a medium head of shredded cabbage in a one-quart jar. Go for the container that will tightly pack your cabbage.
Fill as much of the jar as possible to crowd out any empty spaces that could fill with air. Fermentation likes an anaerobic environment.
A word of caution on containers: Never use plastic or metal containers. Plastic can leach chemicals and metal can give the cabbage a metallic taste.
Why you need a cover
Use a covered glass jelly jar or a small inverted plate that will fit inside the mouth of the jar if your jar is packed to the rim. Before adding the weighted jar, cover the top of the sauerkraut with a piece of discarded outer cabbage leaf—it helps keep the cabbage covered below the brine and protects it from direct contact with the weighted container. Put a small kitchen hand towel on top and secure with a rubber band.
Fermenting is going to release pressure the first few days or so. During this time, don’t screw on a lid. The brine will bubble, and you may even hear it fizz. When I first made sauerkraut, I was thrilled to see bubbles. That’s how I knew I was on the right track.
How You Know When It’s Ready
There’s no set number of days until your sauerkraut is ready. Taste test it every so often. It’s ready when it tastes good to you. As soon as you put it in the refrigerator, the fermentation will slow down significantly.
This is such a great fall and winter food, especially if you like your sauerkraut on the salty side. You can let it ferment longer, as it does, it will taste saltier.
What Could Go Wrong?
Very little can go wrong.
Some of the reasons for rancid or moldy sauerkraut are:
- Unclean containers or tools
- Air allowed to enter cabbage
- Cabbage not packed below the brine
- Salt contains additives
If the sauerkraut goes rancid, your sense of smell will tip you off. Toss it out if that happens. Your jar, utensils, or other materials that come in contact with the cabbage need to be washed well in hot soapy water, and the cabbage must be packed tight and covered.
If a little bit of mold forms on top, you’re ok. Skim it off and make sure the cabbage stays under the brine. After a few days or whenever the bubbling stops, make the jar airtight by adding a lid. This will reduce the chance of mold forming. If mold starts growing down inside with the cabbage, throw it out.
Push down on the weighted container to prevent the cabbage from turning bad. It’s also possible that additives in your salt might affect your batch. When in doubt, take a sample taste.
- Big pot
- Large sharp knife
- Cutting board
- 1 or 2 qt. wide mouth canning jar (Mason jar), sterilized
- Small glass jelly jar and lid, sterilized
- Pebbles (for weights)
- Small kitchen cloth
- Rubber band
- One head green cabbage (or part green, part red)
- 1 to 1-1/2 tbsp. kosher or sea salt (or to taste)
- Cut cabbage into quarters. Remove the white core, and cut into thin slices. Keep a piece of the outer leaves and compost the rest.
- If adding other vegetables, peel and slice thinly.
- Place in large bowl or pot. Add salt. “Massage” the shreds for about 7 to 10 minutes. The cabbage will start releasing moisture. It will become limp and more translucent when ready. Save this liquid. It’s your brine.
- Add seeds, herbs, spices, or any other vegetables, if desired.
- Pack cabbage and brine tightly into Mason jar.
- Snugly place a piece of the saved outer cabbage leaf on top of the shredded cabbage, below the brine.
- Add small pebbles to a jelly jar or use another container with weights that will fit into the mouth of the jar, pushing down as far as possible to remove any air pockets.
- Cover with a cloth and secure with a rubber band.
- Set jar in a cool, dark place away from direct sun.
- Each day, or even twice-a-day, push down on the weighted container to keep any stray cabbage down below the top of brine and to keep the air out. Be sure to put the cloth cover back on.
Your cabbage will bubble, and might even fizz (or it might not). That’s great! It’s working.
After about three to five days, give it a taste. If it tastes right, it’s done. Screw the mason jar lid on and refrigerate. If it’s not to your liking, let it sit for another few days before you taste it. It could take a couple weeks or more, depending on the time of year and the room’s temperature.
Enjoy your homemade sauerkraut as an appetizer, snack, side dish, or as a condiment in a sandwich. It will keep in the refrigerator for a year or more.
Smelling, tasting, and looking to see if anything is growing in the cabbage will be your tip-offs to its expiration.
Have fun! Experiment with different flavors. You’re doing your digestion and overall health a big favor making nature’s super probiotic!
Have you made sauerkraut before? Tell us your yummy story in the comments below.
“Lactobacillus Effectiveness, How It Works, and Drug Interactions on EMedicineHealth.” EMedicineHealth, WebMD, www.emedicinehealth.com/lactobacillus/vitamins-supplements.htm.
Ducrotté, Philippe, et al. “Clinical Trial: Lactobacillus Plantarum 299v (DSM 9843) Improves Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, Baishideng Publishing Group Co., Limited, 14 Aug. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3419998/.
LaBorde, Luke. “Sauerkraut (Home Food Preservation).” Home Food Preservation (Penn State Extension), Pennsylvania State University, http://extension.psu.edu/food/preservation/safe-methods/sauerkraut/extension_publication_file
Sarah. “The Crucial Difference Between Pickled and Fermented.” The Healthy Home Economist, The Healthy Home Economist, 7 July 2017, www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/the-crucial-difference-between-pickled-and-fermented/.
Henry, Derek. “Lab Results Reveal This Truly Superior Source of Probiotics.” NaturalNews, NaturalNews, 25 June 2014, www.naturalnews.com/045720_probiotics_digestive_health_sauerkraut.html.
Mercola, Joseph. “Fermented Foods Contain 100 TIMES More Probiotics than a Supplement.” Mercola.com, 12 May 2012, articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/05/12/dr-campbell-mcbride-on-gaps.aspx.
Mercola, Joseph. “Dr. Mercola Interviews Sandor Katz about Fermentation.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Aug. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkXT-XgyzkI.
Gould, S E. “Sauerkraut: Bacteria Making Food.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 26 July 2014, blogs.scientificamerican.com/lab-rat/the-science-of-sauerkraut-bacterial-fermentation-yum/.
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