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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:

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  1. I don’t believe a fly would hurt it. If you put enough salt in it, the pickling action kills most everything. You will definitely know if the saurekraut has gone bad because you will get a mold throughout the whole batch. Some mold on top is normal and can just be skimmed off. I know that possibly sounds weird but that is the world of fermented vegetables. Enjoy your kraut and check some other websites that are devoted to this subject for more info on fermented vegetables.

    Michael wrote on October 5th, 2011
  2. My kraut had some of the brind escape. How much salt to add to it then fill with water? If it turns a little brown is that still o.k.?

    Lorie wrote on November 7th, 2011
  3. My kraut had some of the brine escape. How much salt to a 3/4 of a quart jar should I put in with the water to bring to the top or is it no longer any good?

    Lorie wrote on November 7th, 2011
  4. Another great way to make this is by using whey. Use enough shredded cabbage (or other veggies) to make one or two 750 ml jars. Add 2-3 tablespoons of liquid whey (you can obtain this by separating traditional plain yogurt with cheesecloth. The liquid that drips out is your whey and the solids left over are wonderfully thick and can be used like cream cheese). Along with this, add your salt and some caraway seeds if you like.
    Pound the vegetables until there’s plenty of liquid formed and tightly pack into sterilized jars using a mallet or rock. Leave an inch or two space from the top to allow for expansion. Cover and keep in a warm place for 3-4 days. Yummy, tangy and flavorful with zero scum :)

    Kathryn wrote on November 29th, 2011
  5. thanks for the post. I want to make sauerkraut for the first time, and I want to make a small batch. I was wondering in I can add a layer of vegetable oil like olive oil as an oxygen barrier in addition to the heavy weight that keeps the sauerkraut down, would that way allow the formed gases to escape while preventing oxygen from the outside to come in? also if that is correct, should i still cover it with a tight lid or with a cheese cloth or gauze? thanks a lot

    ragaa wrote on February 13th, 2012
  6. Mark, I stumbled across your site when searching for a recipe for making sauerkraut with a small apple in the top of the jar. My mother was from Russia (German) and made lots of sauerkraut and when putting it in jars would put a small apple in the top. I don’t remember what she did at that point but it made the sauerkraut delicious. I didn’t like plain sauerkraut. Do you have any contacts who may know how to make it this way? Thanks!

    Gloria wrote on June 17th, 2012
  7. Cabbages have a “season” here, and during that season they are dirt cheap. Keeping cabbages in storage is almost impossible, but by krauting them, we make them last well into the winter, even some left in spring. Sauerkraut goes great with baked(carmalized) butternut squash and almost any cut of pork. A great choclate cake and be nad with suarkraut as an ingredient too! Love the stuff! eat it almost every day!
    Thanks for the great article, keep up the good work! Where’s the section on doing up pickles?

    Uncle B wrote on June 18th, 2012
  8. This is an excellent tutorial – much in line with my both my grandmothers’ old tricks! I’m inspired to do my first fermentation – thank you!

    Natalia wrote on January 13th, 2013
  9. Anyone know the difference between the Perfect Pickler and the Pickle, Sauerkraut, Kim Chee maker?

    Pam wrote on January 25th, 2013
  10. Hello I’m Polish and my mum is the saurekraut / fermented cucumbers and barszcz ( fermented betroot ) queen.
    For saurekraut – Mark’s recipe is good, My mum before stuffing the grated – or rather chopped thinly – cabbage into the jars, leaves it loose in a big bowl (plastic) mized with a bit of grated carrot, salt, spices ( juniper, bay leaves, caraway ( enhances digestion and fermentation!) – when the juices start to come out it’ tome to pack the stuff into the jar, make sure juices cover it all, put sth heavy on top to weight it – can be a ceramic, plate, we used to use piece of clean brick! and put aside in room temperature for a few days. From time to time it’s important to prick the cabbage with a long tool like the handle of the wooden spoon to let the gas come out. When after tasting you think it’s ready – move to the fridge.

    With barszcz, it’s wonderful and my favourite, i can always tell when people cheat by adding lemon to normal beet soup. The started is made of clean and sliced raw beets, boiled and chilled water, put a slice of sauerdough bread in, weigh with ceramic plate and wait for a few days. Mould – mentioned by someone is NOT A good sign. BIN it all if it appears as something must have gone wrong! start again.

    Cucumbers – you need the small ones with spiky pimples just like aloe vera. Clean, Add boiled chilled water, salt, horse raddish, whole dill, a few cloves of garlic, weigh down with ceramic plate, wait! If you take them out never ever use your hands. Use something sterile. Some like it less fermented, so make sure you taste them from time to time. Moving jar to the fridge will stop the process as well as closing tightly the jar and taking it to the larder – great for wintertime!

    Let me know if you have any questions, i can pass them onto my mum

    xx

    Polish Fermentator wrote on October 14th, 2013
  11. Chaqueta de color rosa pálido, diseño rosado del dobladillo con flecos, perverso sentido de la individualidad, dulce, lindo, poniendo de relieve el temperamento damas. Diseño Flecos dobladillo, una especie de sensación de saltar, muy inteligente, fresco, oh. Con polainas blancas, botas de nieve de peluche es muy agradable, y muy delgado.

    click here wrote on December 6th, 2013
  12. I am confused.
    The scum and mold on the top of sauerkraut is supposedly unhealthy.

    If heat destroys the enzymes and probiotics then what is the benefit of sauerkraut besides the fact that it is a yummy cruciferous?

    What on earth would you do with it if it can’t be cooked?

    If it is cooked, can the juices be reserved for the health benefits?

    Will the benefits be lost if it is rinsed and drained?

    Roberta wrote on January 10th, 2014
  13. This is really dumb, but what is the liquid in the jar? was the liquid in the mixing bowl to start with? I read through all of the directions, but the liquid is eluding me!

    Jer wrote on August 25th, 2014
    • The liquid you’re seeing is from the vegetables themselves, drawn out by the salt and squeezing. Cabbage especially is loaded with liquid.

      perchancetodream wrote on September 28th, 2014

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