Sauerkraut! I think this fermented cabbage is a love-it-or-hate-it food. I like it and Mr. M doesn’t think a hotdog is worth eating without it. One day, years ago, I had an abundance of cabbage from my garden, so I decided to try my hand at making sauerkraut. I thought it would be such a challenge! Boy, was I wrong! It is really easy. Considering how much better homemade sauerkraut tastes that the commercial offerings, I want to encourage you to try it for yourself.
The first time I made sauerkraut, I used a recipe from an old book I had on food preservation. The method was so simple that I have stuck with it for all of this time. Now I see on the internet that one needs a lot of overpriced equipment to make it. Special jars and fermentation locks, and so on. What?! No way!
Historically, sauerkraut was made to preserve cabbage, and sometimes other vegetables for long periods of time. Usually, cabbage was “put by” in large stoneware crocks. A plate or a wooden disc, called a follower, was laid on top of the cabbage and a weight, often a scrubbed stone, was added to help keep the the cabbage submerged. How unsanitary! How did they get away with that and live to produce another generation?
Well, the answer is that fermentation produces enzymes and probiotics. The probiotics are from the lactobacillus strain of bacteria (the same ones found in cultured milk products like yogurt). These bacteria are the good guys. Not only are they good for our innards, they are naturally anti-fungal and anti-bad-bacteria. The probiotics actually protect the fermentation of the cabbage. Where does the lactobacillus bacteria come from originally? Well, it seems that it occurs naturally on cabbage leaves.
So now that we have established that the fermentation process won’t kill you, what fancy ingredients do we need to make delicious and healthful sauerkraut? Here they are: cabbage and non-iodized salt (I use sea salt). That’s it! Simple, simple, simple. What equipment do we need? A container: I use half-gallon canning jars, or if I have a lot of cabbage, a big pickle jar. But I really like those 2 quart canning jars. The other stuff you need are a way to submerge the cabbage in the brine it will produce and a way to keep it out of bright light.
Adding salt to the shredded cabbage will induce it to produce moisture, hopefully a lot of moisture. The liquid and the salt mix to make brine. The brine needs to cover the cabbage to produce an anerobic, that is oxygen-free, environment for the lactobacillus to grow. The bacteria then will affect the cabbage and turn it into sauerkraut.
So, how do I keep my cabbage submerged? Some people use those fancy (and expensive) airlocks, some people use a glass jar the is smaller than the width of the fermentation container. Not me. I use a food safe plastic bag. I partially fill the bag with a weak salt water solution, insert it into the jar of cabbage, mold it to the shape of the inside of the jar, pushing it to submerge the cabbage. I wait a couple of hours to let the brine increase until I can seal the top of the cabbage completely. I cover the jar with a towel to exclude the light, put the jar on a tray, and walk away. I do check it every day because the brine will eventually overflow the top of the jar and I like to keep it cleaned up.
After all that information, here is how I make sauerkraut in pictures:
First I shred the cabbage with my favorite chef’s knife
Weigh the cabbage and toss it into my clean dishpan:
Now comes the most important step: Add 1/2 tablespoon on non-iodized salt per pound of cabbage. Mash the cabbage with all of your strength. Really work on it. You want the cabbage to be limp by still crisp. This starts the moisture flowing. Don’t overdo the salt or you will need to rinse your sauerkraut before you can eat it.
I put the cabbage into clean jars. As I put it in I tamp it down as much as possible. Any liquid produced goes into the jar also.
I put the partially filled bags of mild salt water into the jars and mold them over the cabbage to fill any available space. If I have it, I use a large cabbage leaf over the shredded cabbage sort of like a tophat, then I add the baggie of water. I use about 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a quart of water. It just in case somehow a little gets into the sauerkraut.
The brine will actually surround the bag and come to the top of the jar. This is what you want. The bag and the brine will keep that air out. Eventually the brine may overflow the top of the jar and the cabbage will make bubbles that will escape through the brine. For that reason do not seal the jar with a lid. Just put a towel or cloth over the top of the jar. Be sure to put the jar on a plate with a rim or a bowl because you will want to catch any overflow.
You can start tasting your sauerkraut after about a week or so. Sometimes it may take 5 or 6 weeks for it to complete fermentation depending on how warm your house is. I live in Florida so mine only takes about three weeks. How can you tell when it is done? Taste it and if you like it, put in the refrigerator. I have kept mine for several months in the refrigerator. To tell the truth, I really don’t know exactly how long it will keep, we eat it fast enough that it has never gone bad. It is delicious!
A few more tips:
You can add other vegetables, like onions or carrots. If you add chiles you will make a sort of kimchee, an Asian ferment.
You can add fruit like apples.
Garlic and other spices add a different flavor to sauerkraut.
When you put the jar into the refrigerator, REMOVE the plastic bag and put a clean lid on the jar.
If you have a big jar of sauerkraut, try putting part of it in a smaller jar as you use it to keep your main supply fresh.
While the sauerkraut is fermenting, you may want to put it somewhere that it won’t annoy you with its fragrance. Remember those bubbles I spoke of?
I hope you will try making your own sauerkraut. It is really easy and inexpensive. Even if you have to buy the cabbage, it is usually one of the least expensive fresh vegetables available. Cabbage and salt. That’s it!