Fermenting Sauerkraut at Home
How to Make Old Fashioned Sauerkraut
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Sauerkraut translates literally to “sour cabbage.” Fermenting sauerkraut at home has been happening for hundreds of years. While we typically think of Germany as the kraut-eating capitol, France actually surpasses Germany in the average consumption of sauerkraut, but don’t tell anybody that I told you that.
Fermenting sauerkraut at home is actually very easy, especially if you happen to be growing cabbage in your garden. I’ll walk you through it step-by-step, but first I want to explain why this type of fermentation food preservation works.
For traditional sauerkraut, you do not want to add any type of vinegar or alcohol. All you need is some unrefined salt that is high in mineral content. When fermenting sauerkraut, we use lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation utilizes the Lactobacillus cultures that naturally occur on the vegetables growing in your garden. These cultures are strongest and healthiest when the vegetables are freshly picked, so produce grown in either your garden or from a farmers market may produce a better or at least quicker ferment than grocery store produce.
When we are fermenting sauerkraut at home using lacto-fermentation, we encourage the Lactobacillus cultures to grow prolifically. As long as the right culture is growing and thriving, they will choke out any undesirable bacteria. We help encourage this by using natural, unrefined salt. Unrefined sea salt works well because it is high in minerals. Himalayan pink salt would also be a good choice. Table salt and kosher salt are too refined and often contain anti-caking additives that can hurt the Lactobacillus culture. The lactic acid that the bacteria produce is what preserves the food and gives the uniquely sour flavor.
When choosing your cabbage, the most important factors are freshness and that the cabbage is not going to seed. Pull off the outer leaves, reserving a large, clean leaf set aside for later. Rinse the cabbage with just water until clean, then pat dry. You will then core and slice the cabbage very thinly. Having a very sharp knife will save your hand from some aches during this process. I preferred to cut the cabbage into eighths or even sixteenths before beginning the thin slices, but my cabbages were also close to five pounds each.
When cutting up the cabbage, it is important that you do not become lazy in the width of slices. Thin slices encourage the natural juices of the cabbage to emerge, which is very important. Feel free to pile the cabbage in a bowl as you slice. Once the cabbage is all sliced, you will want to know the weight minus the bowl. Tare your scale with the empty bowl before adding your sliced cabbage.
Once your cabbage is sliced in a large bowl, you may add the unrefined salt. Add ½ tablespoon of salt per pound of cabbage. If your salt is very coarse, you may want to crush it a bit. I crushed mine in a small glass dish using the end of my rolling pin and it made such a difference in how long and hard the next step took.
After you sprinkle the salt onto your cabbage, you will massage it in. You want there to be salty brine (created by the combination of the salt and the juices coming out of the cabbage) to be coating every slice. Knead it like bread. Get a little bit rough. Brine should begin to pool in the bottom of your bowl. If not, crush the cabbage a little more. Now, taste some cabbage. It should taste pleasantly salty, but not overly salty. If it is not pleasantly salty, add some more salt, up to one tablespoon at a time, depending on how large your batch is. Thoroughly massage this salt in and taste again. If there is not a significant pool of brine, cover the bowl with a towel and let it sit for 45 minutes.
If the rest time did not give more brine, massage and knead the cabbage some more, possibly adding just a touch more salt as you do so. At this point, you may begin placing your cabbage in a fermentation vessel. While crocks are ideal, not everyone has easy access to one of the proper size. Glass jars work well as long as you can easily get your hand in the jar. No metal. I used a large gallon-size pickle jar. As you scoop the cabbage into the jar or crock, be sure to tamp it down firmly between scoops. The end of a flat-ended rolling pin is perfect, but potato mashers and wooden spoons work well also.
Once all the cabbage is in your jar or crock, tamp it a bit extra to be sure that every last piece is below the level of the brine. If the brine is not to the top of your cabbage, you can let it rest and check it later, tamp it extra vigorously to release more juices, or even dump it all out to heavily massage all over again. If your brine is sufficiently to the top of your cabbage, you can now grab that large outer leaf that you set aside earlier. Set the leaf over your cabbage, folding if needed to make it fit in the jar. Now you need a weight on top to keep all the cabbage AND the leaf under the brine. I used a resealable bag filled with water.
If using a crock, it may have its own follower or weight, or you could use a plate that fits the crock. You can even use a clean rock. Just be sure that it fits over the leaf well enough to keep it all submerged. If any cabbage (including the follower leaf) comes above the brine, it will mold and could turn the whole batch.
Now place your jar or crock out of the light where you won’t forget it. This will ferment best at normal room temperature. Do not place a tightened lid on at this time because the fermenting process will release gases that would build up pressure.
When fermenting sauerkraut at home, check daily to make sure everything is still submerged. Begin tasting after five days. Mine took two weeks, but smaller batches will ferment more quickly. The longer you allow it to ferment, the stronger your kraut will taste.
When it reaches your desired level of sour, divide the sauerkraut into smaller jars for storage, pouring the brine over the top. You may now place a tightened lid on and keep your fermented sauerkraut in the fridge for up to one year, although I am sure you will finish it off long before then!
Shockey, K. K., & Shockey, C. (2014). Fermented Vegetables. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing. Available at iamcountryside.com/shop
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.