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24 Mar

The Wonderful, Pungent World of Sauerkraut

sauerkrautAlthough fermented cabbage has been around in some form or another since ancient times – Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote of the stuff in the first century A.D. – modern methods for making sauerkraut were developed sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries. It’s primarily known as a German staple, but most other European countries use it in their traditional dishes. It’s pretty easy to understand why it was so popular: it keeps for a long time without refrigeration. Dutch, German, and English sailors found that the vitamin C-rich kraut prevented scurvy on the open seas, and the fact that it was salted and fermented made it ideal for long voyages without other preservation methods.

As the name would suggest, sauerkraut is quite literally sour cabbage. The sour flavor comes from the process of lacto-fermentation, similar to the pickling of cucumbers. But instead of soaking the cabbage in a vinegary brine solution, sauerkraut preparation requires only salt and the lactic acid bacteria already present on raw cabbage. More than just a delicious, tangy flavor, the beauty of sauerkraut also lies in its considerable health benefits. I already mentioned the great vitamin C content, but there’s also tons of lactobacilli, a healthy probiotic that aids in digestion and immunity. The fermentation also produces isothiocyanates, compounds shown to prevent cancer growth in animal tests. Even cabbage itself is a good source of manganese, vitamin B6 and folate.

But most of us get our kraut at the grocery store. Going that route means you’re probably losing all the good stuff through pasteurization, so why not make your own? It’s incredibly easy. All it takes is some cabbage, whatever other vegetables or fruits you’d like to include (carrots, different colored cabbage, garlic, onions, beets, even apples), a sealable storage vessel, a bit of sea salt, and patience.

The Basic Method

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Gather the necessary items:

–    Cabbage (red and/or green)
–    Miscellaneous vegetables
–    Sea salt, fine (about 3 tablespoons is good for about 5 pounds of vegetables)
–    Storage vessel (ceramic crock, large glass jar – just no plastic or metal)
–    Mixing bowl

Begin by chopping up your cabbage. I used green, but you can throw in some red cabbage to make the batch pink. Include the heart or remove it. Chop it coarsely or finely; it’s your choice. What we’re going for is high surface area, because more surface area means more fermentation and exposure to the juices. Dump it into the mixing bowl and add salt as you go.

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I’m including some carrots and garlic here. I like intense flavors, so I’m going to grate the carrots and dice the garlic to get the most out of both vegetables. I didn’t peel the carrots, but that’s just me. Peel the garlic though. Dump these into the bowl and add some salt as well.

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Get in there with your hands and squeeze and press the ingredients together. Squeeze hard. You want to stimulate the natural juices of the vegetables, because they’re going to be your brine. The salt will already start pulling the moisture out, but you can certainly help the process.

Start packing your mix into your vessel. I used a mason jar, but you can use a larger ceramic crock for a bigger batch. Just make sure you can cover whatever vessel you use. Pack it down good and hard, going slowly to make sure each addition is completely compressed in the jar. This will extract water and ensure the fermentation process goes smoothly.

Cover it with a snug fitting cap, or a plate if you’re using a larger crock. Top that with something heavy to weight it down, like a bottle of water or a rock. You want to make sure the weight is enough to keep the mix packed tight and submerged in the brine. Cover the whole thing loosely with a cloth or towel to keep bugs out.

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Every few hours for the next day or so, press down on the top and make sure the mix is submerged in brine. If it isn’t by the next day, you might have old cabbage. That’s fine. Just add a bit of water to cover everything, along with a teaspoon of salt.

Check your kraut every day or so. The volume will reduce as fermentation begins, and that’s exactly what you want. Mold or scum might appear on the surface every day; just skim that stuff off. As long as you stay on top of it, your sauerkraut is totally protected by the brine.

Start tasting your kraut after a few days. It should be tangy by now, and you can begin to gauge just how pungent you want it. The taste will get stronger as time increases. Every time you eat some, make sure you pack the rest of it in just like before: tightly packed, submerged, and with a weight pressing down. Though sauerkraut is usually ready to eat in 3-7 days, if it’s cool enough, like in a cold cellar, sauerkraut can improve for months. If you live in warmer climes, you might want to move your kraut into the fridge after a few weeks. Just stay on top of it, keep tasting it, and you’ll be able to decide what to do with it.

So really, it’s all about waiting. The actual preparation takes just a few minutes.

Stay tuned for some great sauerkraut recipes. Start making your own today so you’re ready!

Further Reading:

How to Make Dried Fruit

How to Make Your Own Jerky

10 Delicious DIY Salad Dressings

“Primalize” Your Pantry

10 Ways to Forage in the Modern World

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This is great. I’ve been hoping to stumble on a sauerkraut recipe from a reliable source.

    Now I just have to actually “do it.”

    Thanks!

    Adam

    Adam Steer - Better Is Better wrote on March 24th, 2009
  2. not gonna lie… the idea of scraping off mold/scum kind of makes me squirm, but I’m gonna definitely try this anyway!

    Jane wrote on March 24th, 2009
  3. I eat kraut all the time. Can’t wait to make my own. I wonder, would this work with hot peppers included?

    Simple Sam wrote on March 24th, 2009
    • I have made saurkraut with roasted jalapeno peppers and its turned out well.. i have not tried them uncooked tho.

      Brenda wrote on June 12th, 2013
  4. Everything sounds very appealing with all the benefits and what not. Then their is the mold scum. Yuck. I wish I could get over the fear of eating the stuff but every time I even try to eat any fermented food I almost barf thinking how it is made.

    Anyways that is a very cool recipe. Thanks

    Greg Cook wrote on March 24th, 2009
  5. Great post! I started making my own last year and will never go back. I use the Chinese Napa Cabbage which is a bit leafier than regular cabbage, and actually might qualify it as kimchee. I vary each batch, adding ginger, garlic, radish, daikon radish, carrots, hot peppers, various onions etc. I also prefer the crock method so I get several quart jars from a batch that I put in the fridge after a couple of weeks or so. Pushing down on the plate makes sure the kraut is covered in liquid and also lets you see the bubbles from fermentation so you know it is working. Experimenting is the key, and the taste is outstanding. Just remember not to heat it when you eat it if you want the good bacteria to survive.

    Rodney wrote on March 24th, 2009
  6. Great tips, Rodney.

    Don’t heat the kraut for full probiotic effect.

    Mark Sisson wrote on March 24th, 2009
    • Yogurt has been something I’ve missed a lot since I went paleo last June. I’ve got my first batch of mostly-carrots kraut fermenting now! But I am a slave for variety – would this work with black kale or would that just be nasty?

      Jennifer wrote on March 25th, 2011
    • do you have a recipe for making cucumbers fermented?

      Thanks Mark

      Darrell wrote on October 30th, 2012
  7. I have been making my own sauerkraut for about six months. It was good with all purple cabbage, green, or a mix. I also added a few carraway seeds and some grated carrot. Recipes like Polish Bigos and Choucroute Garnie can make eating it a epicurean delight.

    One question is about using a plastic container since the recipe above says no plastic. I got used 2.5 and 5 gallon food grade plastic containers from the grocery store bakery (frosting and cream cheese icing came in them) and have used them. Am I risking some kind of contamination issue from plastic outgassing or what?

    Mike wrote on March 24th, 2009
    • I love bigos! I am a pro at this.

      Donna wrote on July 20th, 2012
    • I know this is years late, but I just found this article and I’d love to see an answer to this question as well. Food grade buckets are very popular in the homebrewing/home winemaking community for fermentation. Why are they not recommended for sauerkraut?

      Mark wrote on June 15th, 2014
  8. Sauerkraut goes on the SoG’s list of “just probably will never like”. I have never been a fan… which doesn’t sit well with my largely german family ;-) I may give it one last primal try but if it doesnt make it past that, I give up.

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on March 24th, 2009
  9. Wow this reminds me of my grandparents house. Every autumn my grandmother would make these big ceramic pots of the sauerkraut and they would eat it all winter long. She also fermented cucumbers, not in vinegar but in water. I think that is the more traditional Polish way of doing it. And then the smell of bigos….YUMMY…and barszcz (fermented beetroot soup). So much fermentation and mould, yet sooooo delicious!

    Spring Girl wrote on March 24th, 2009
  10. Son of Grok, try to figure out what part you don’t like and eliminate that flavor/veggie. Try adding veggies and spices you do like and come up with your own non-traditional form of kraut or fermented veggies. Some people don’t like the caraway seed. If it’s just the taste in general then I would try adding lots of different veggies and spices and see how you like that.

    Rodney wrote on March 24th, 2009
  11. Here is probably my favorite recipe ever for it (it comes from a woman from Germany that I know). You can use Mark’s recipe to make the kraut and then try this:

    Ingredients

    2 28 oz. cans Sauerkraut (Anneliese prefers Weinkraut by Kuhne)
    1 medium-sized smoked ham hock
    1 medium white onion
    1 medium-sized red apple
    1 small potato
    1 Tbs olive oil
    1 tsp caraway seeds

    Preparation

    Dice the onion and sauté in the oil in a large pot until golden brown. Drain the cans of sauerkraut; if using the Kuhne kraut, keep the liquid and set it aside. Otherwise, discard the liquid. Add the drained sauerkraut to the onions in the pot and sauté briefly. Add liquid to the pot to cover the sauerkraut. (If using Kuhne kraut, add the drained liquid from the cans, plus about 8 oz. of water. If using a different kraut, add water equal to the amount drained, plus 8 oz.) Add smoked ham hock to the pot. Cover pot. Simmer at a low boil for about 1 and 1/2 hours. Core and quarter the apple and add to the pot. Peel the potato and add to the pot. Add the caraway seeds. Cover and simmer on low boil for 1 and 1/2 hours. Check occasionally and add water if needed for desired consistency.

    Guten apetit!

    Zen Frittata wrote on March 24th, 2009
  12. Rodney,
    I will definitely try that.

    Son of Grok wrote on March 24th, 2009
  13. I’ll give this a try as soon as my wife finishes up one of the glass jars full of Kimchee! :-)

    DaveC - DaveGetsFit wrote on March 24th, 2009
  14. I just started making kraut recently. The first batch was good but i think i refrigerated it too soon. Its flavor has developed, but slowly. I’m now making cortido wich is cabbage, onions, carrots, plus dried oregano and chili flakes, and sea salt. I’m planting a pickle garden this year to grow lots of stuff just for lactofermentation. I can’t wait to throw fresh cukes and dill into a crock and serve the picles with grilled brats.

    warren wrote on March 25th, 2009
  15. Is it possible to make a souerkraut without salt?

    Bobber wrote on March 25th, 2009
  16. I had Romanian guests staying with me, and the older lady made me “varsa”. Romanian sauerkraut.
    3 jars in my fridge, I watched closely, when I run out I will make my own.
    Guys, this is delicious with some fried eggs in the morning.

    Marc

    Marc Feel Good Eating wrote on March 25th, 2009
  17. By the way, I don’t think Grok would have had anything like this would he?

    Bobber wrote on March 25th, 2009
  18. I made my own kimchee a few months back and it was great, but I have been having issues with reflux so I have to try and keep spicy things (along with tomatoes, chocolate, and oil) out of my diet into we can figure out the cause of it.

    Glad to have this kraut recipe as a replacement! Looking forwards to the accompanying recipes!

    Camille wrote on March 26th, 2009
  19. To do away with skimming off scum and fuzzies, make sauerkraut in a sealed container with an airlock. Two ready made products for this are Harsch crocks from Germany (the smallest of which, makes ten pound batches) and the PerfectPickler (perfectpickler.com), which is an airlock lid that you use on canning jars. The CO2 given off during the first couple days of fermentation purges the container of air. The scum and fuzzies are all aerobic organisms that can’t grow without oxygen. I have a Harsch crock, and it makes perfect kraut every time with 5 tablespoons of salt per 10 pounds of shredded cabbage. I once let the sealed crock sit in a cool room for four months, and when I opened it up, there was only perfect kraut, clear kraut juice, and zero scum or mold.

    As for salt-free sauerkraut, I know people do make it, but I have no experience with it. I did make one batch using only 3 tablespoons of salt instead of 5, and the resulting kraut tasted so bad I threw it away.

    Alex wrote on March 26th, 2009
    • After you have made the kraut how do you preserve the rest (like do you put the rest in canning jars and just seal them or is there another step to it?) I need to know. thank you, Deb.

      debra day wrote on July 21st, 2010
  20. Why is there a plastic bag inside the jar?

    Lauren wrote on March 26th, 2009
  21. Good question, Lauren. I used a rock to push the kraut down so that it would be submerged in the water. The plastic is just used to distribute the weight evenly. Yes, kind of makeshift and there is probably a better way to do it…

    Mark Sisson wrote on March 26th, 2009
  22. Instead of plastic, set aside enough of the large outer cabbage leaves to completely cover the shredded cabbage and put the weight on top of that.

    Alex wrote on March 26th, 2009
  23. I have used a plastic bag and have had leakage problems so started double bagging and also used salt water in the bag so any leakage did not dilute the salt in the cabbage.

    Mike S wrote on March 26th, 2009
  24. Good thinking, Alex, Mike S. Thanks for the tips.

    Mark Sisson wrote on March 26th, 2009
  25. Good stuff! Fermented veggies are a part of the Bulgarian cousine. A nice way to have variety in the long winter days.

    The good thing is spring is almost here so it’s fresh veggie time yay!

    Yavor wrote on March 27th, 2009
  26. That is a great one page intro to making sauerkraut. I used directions out of Nourishing Traditions last year. You got me inspired to try again.

    Halle wrote on March 27th, 2009
  27. I am so glad to see this recipe!!!! Thank you.

    Dr Dan wrote on March 28th, 2009
  28. Made Kraut from cabbages in my garden, in plastic food grade tubs with sealable rimmed lids, put a bubbler from a wine kit in each, a make-shift screen with a weight on top of kraut inside the tub to hold it under the juice, and salted as recommended. Bottled same, in a boiling water bath, to preserve, and it was good for three years, on the shelf – no expensive fridge space needed! Will do again this year if cabbage crop is good, and want to reduce the salt slightly – are the recipes for “rounded tbsp”, or “Leveled Tbsp”? This year I will try “Leveled tbsp”!

    Uncle B wrote on April 2nd, 2009
  29. Gotta love them Global knives. Bought myself a couple just at the beginning of the month. Shame I didn’t get the cook’s knife out of the packaging without slicing my index finger open – seven stitches and a nice clean scar later, and the brand has won my respect!

    Stuart Hughes wrote on May 25th, 2009
  30. we make our own sauerkraut, but would like it more potent. any suggestions??? or is it just time that makes it so?? someone said wait until the first frost and then process some, but it didn’t seem to make much difference last year. what’cha think? thanks, bonnie

    bonnie wrote on August 8th, 2009
  31. bonnie, i think it is really about leaving it to ferment for a much longer time than mark suggests. i am trying to keep mine steeping for a month at least.

    Camille wrote on August 8th, 2009
    • Last time I made some, it was really really good at 3-4 months, I need to make more!

      Stella wrote on June 1st, 2013
  32. I use a white pillow case (damp) and put my ingredients in it therefore there is no problem with the scum it is easily taken out of the pillow case.

    Jeanette Thomas wrote on August 21st, 2009
  33. here’s a great video for visual and sound people that explains how to do it as well (no offense mark :D)

    Lillian wrote on March 28th, 2010
    • hi there,
      if you don’t make your own sauerkraut
      – is bought sauerkraut an alternative? or unhealthy?
      greets!

      mike wrote on May 14th, 2010
      • Bubbies is a good brand. Look for it in the cooler area at health stores. 3 ingredients: well water, salt, and cabbage

        Andy wrote on September 9th, 2011
  34. bought saurkraut can be really great. you just need to make sure that it was made unheated, fermented and not just “pickled” cabbage. health food stores sell “bubbies” which is great or you can also look for…crap…i’m blanking on the name, but it uses an old “barrel” recipe.

    jennifer wrote on May 14th, 2010
  35. I cut up about 3 pounds of cabbage and used 1.5 tablespoons of salt. I’ve tasted it after 4 days and it just tastes like really salty cabbage. So salty that its almost inedible. Not sure if its done yet, but if the final product is meant to be this salty I can’t see myself eating it. Am I on the right track?

    Andrew wrote on July 23rd, 2010
    • I use 2 heads of cabbage and each handful, I add just enough salt on top that fits in between my forefinger and thumb. Comes out perfect (to my pallet).

      Jay wrote on March 12th, 2011
  36. Great article! Sauerkraut is my favorite food. I use the ‘Pickle, Sauerkraut, and KimChi Maker’ and the Pickling crocks available on Mike Snyder’s website at http://store.therawdiet.com/sakicrpo.html , they work great and make delicious cultured foods.

    Mike wrote on September 6th, 2010
  37. I’ve just made my first jar or sauerkraut thanks to your blog:) I’m excited to see how it turns out!

    Miss Kimbers wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  38. Is this recipe safe to eat while pregnant? How about when breastfeeding?Ewa

    Ewa Gula wrote on August 20th, 2011
  39. I check my fermenting kraut (kimchi) daily. After 10 days I found a dead fly in the brine. Will my kraut be OK or should I toss it and start over?

    Mike wrote on October 5th, 2011

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