Making Sauerkraut

“You are really going back to nature”, my mother told me in response to my excited announcement that I was going to try to make sauerkraut. I thought I went off the deep end with my vegetable garden, at-home composting, and sprouts. But, for my mom, sauerkraut-at-home was the sign.

When Deb provided me with two beautiful heads of red cabbage from Willowsford Farm and a challenge to make sauerkraut, I was intrigued and a bit perplexed. I read Alton Brown’s recipe and many other blog posts about fermentation. I wondered aloud about botulism and whether or not it would smell up my kitchen, forcing my roommate out of the house. Then, I found Wild Fermentation! and Sandor Ellix Katz’s recipe for sauerkraut. Amazed, I got started the same day as my first attempt at growing sprouts at home. It was a great day!

All you need to make sauerkraut is cabbage (and other vegetables if you want), a little salt, and a container to put it in. I couldn’t believe that was all it takes. I went on a mission to find a food-grade container to make the kraut- I went to the market and asked for an old plastic container which was used for tofu. I brought the container home, washed it, and disinfected the it with bleach. I’ve since learned that this container is WAY TOO BIG for the amount of cabbage I had on hand. You can use canning jars or other types of containers as well.

Here is what I did:

  1. Clean and disinfect container.
  2. Chop cabbage in small pieces and add salt.
  3. Put cabbage in the container.
  4. Cover with a plate and some weights (I used water in jars).
  5. Cover the container and store out of the way.
  6. Wait, look, taste, and wait…

I realized that my pantry was very cool and that the fermentation process was taking longer than I expected. So, I moved the container to my dining room in the corner. When the container was closed, there was no odor from the developing sauerkraut. But, I was still feeling unsure about the process.

Coincidentally, I was already signed up for the Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA) conference last weekend – including a pre-conference workshop with Sandor Ellix Katz himself! WILD FERMENTATION! The class was wonderful and I was able to pick up a signed copy of The Art of Fermentation. Some important take-aways from the class:

  • You really cannot get botulism from sauerkraut
  • It is okay if your sauerkraut has some mold on the top – just remove what you can and don’t worry about the rest
  • Fermentation is the oldest and most important method of food preservation
  • Making sauerkraut really is that simple! and it is fun
  • You can ferment any vegetable – and way more food items
  • The sauerkraut you buy at the store has been pasteurized, so the best way to get the health benefits from fermented foods is to do it yourself – ensuring that the good-bacteria in the food are still alive when you eat them!

Emboldened from the workshop and the conference, I went home and tasted my kraut. Of course, I found some of the white-mold on the top.

Ick. I removed as much as I could and realized how important it is to use an appropriately sized container – to avoid contact with the air as much as possible. The result of the fermentation was not too bad. It definitely tastes like kraut. I packed the sauerkraut into two smaller jars, moved one to the refrigerator and I’m going to keep letting the second one ferment on the kitchen counter to see how it tastes over the next week.

I am eager to try again. I will make sure to really smash my cabbage before putting it into the container to make sure all the water comes out. I will also use smaller containers to reduce contact with air (or WAY MORE CABBAGE). Plus, next time I’ll try adding in some other vegetables like carrots, onions, and garlic.

Here is the recipe from the master, Mr. Katz!

Sauerkraut (from Wild Fermentation)

What You Need

  • Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, one-gallon capacity or greater
  • Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
  • One-gallon jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)
  • Cloth cover (like a pillowcase or towel)
  • 5 pounds cabbage
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt

What You Do

  1. Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts, however you like it.
  2. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.
  3. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage, and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting.
  4. Add other vegetables. Experiment.
  5. Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.
  6. Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock.
  7. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine.
  8. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.
  9. Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. NOTE: Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.
  10. Leave the crock to ferment.
  11. Check the kraut every day or two. NOTE: Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air.
  12. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.
  13. Enjoy. NOTE: Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary.

Good luck and have fun.

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