Making sauerkraut from scratch is not only a rewarding experience it is also fairly easy to do. If you’re new to the traditional art of fermentation, homemade sauerkraut is a great place to start. Let’s get started!
RECLAIMING A LOST SKILL
Before modern conveniences like refrigerators and freezers found a place in every home, folks needed a way to preserve their harvest.
While root cellars were excellent for storing potatoes, squash and other hardy produce, a lot would have gone to waste without a means of preservation.
Fermentation is an art that goes way back and is a means to preserve produce, dairy, and even fish.
Today it’s a skill that is slowly being reclaimed, although in some parts of the world it still lives strong (ex. Korea’s totally healthy obsession with kimchi).
While you can ferment pretty much anything, today we’ll be looking at how to make sauerkraut from scratch.
MAKING SAUERKRAUT: A VIDEO TUTORIAL
Want to see a demonstration of how it’s done? Check out the video! If you like what you see, I hope you’ll subscribe to my YouTube channel!
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HOW DOES CABBAGE BECOME SAUERKRAUT?
While I feel like the word fermentation answers this question, it doesn’t say very much if you don’t know what that means.
Fermentation occurs when naturally occurring yeast and bacteria on the cabbage, your hands, and the air, meet together to party with the natural sugars and starches present in the cabbage.
Over the course of a few days, the microorganisms present in the cabbage digest these very same starches and sugars, which transmute into carbon dioxide and lactic acid.
This is what gives sauerkraut its effervescent and acidic flavour profile. This process is called lacto-fermentation and it has nothing to do with milk!
Related: Fermented Jalapeño Pickles
THE BENEFITS OF MAKING SAUERKRAUT
Apart from preserving, there are many benefits when it comes to fermenting a head of cabbage.
For one, sauerkraut is wildly nutritious.
When cabbage (or anything) is fermented, it increases the vitamin and mineral content.
Sauerkraut is also teeming with enzymes, which are great for the digestive system, and it’s rich in probiotics.
It’s for this last reason that people who eat sauerkraut seem to be happier and less stressed than people who don’t eat fermented foods. Improving gut health has a HUGE impact on one’s overall health!
PROBIOTICS IN SAUERKRAUT
Probiotics are on the opposite spectrum of antibiotics. Where antibiotics kill bacteria (the bad along with the good), probiotics promote healthy bacteria in the gut.
Yoghurt and kefir, are both examples of probiotic-rich foods, and so is anything that is lacto-fermented.
I’ve already mentioned that there’s a boost in vitamin and mineral content when something is fermented, but those same vitamins and minerals also become more absorbable.
In other words, sauerkraut is a bit of an immune booster.
Therefore, when you eat sauerkraut, it reduces your chances of catching the bug that’s going around the office.
I say let’s forget about the disinfectant wipes and double down on fermented foods come cold and flu season!
P.S. those disinfectant wipes are really bad for your healthy gut flora, so you might want to reconsider what you’re cleaning your home with!
HOW TO EAT SAUERKRAUT
Before I became a strong advocate for making sauerkraut from scratch, I used to equate sauerkraut with sausage on a bun. It’s a classic sausage topper, right?
My mom also cooks traditional German meals with sauerkraut, nestling in large pieces of ham and braising it together until the meat falls apart. So good.
However, the commercial sauerkraut you get in a can or jar doesn’t have the same health benefits as raw sauerkraut. Plus, cooking it destroys the enzymes that are so good for the digestive system.
I recently inspired my mother to make a batch of sauerkraut for herself after she enquired about a jar that was fermenting in one of my kitchen nooks.
The fact is, she had tried making sauerkraut with a friend years ago but ruined it by oversalting. I walked her through the process, though, and she made her kraut. A few days later, she called me up beaming with pride.
And then she told me she cooked it!
So then I had to explain why it’s better to have raw fermented foods over cooked foods.
She loves eating fresh, healthy meals, like this raw shredded salad she introduced me to a couple of years ago. Of course, she has a firm grasp on this concept, so then I moved on to explain why it’s even more powerful to have raw fermented foods, like sauerkraut, over raw foods in their natural state.
It turns out it’s just a cultural thing. She grew up on cooked sauerkraut!
In any case, it’s not hard to sneak sauerkraut into your meals. Use it as a condiment or as a side to flush out a meal. I’ll even use it to top a savoury breakfast dish of fermented steel-cut oats.
MAKING SAUERKRAUT SAVES YOU MONEY
Before we go into how to make sauerkraut, I need to list this last benefit.
Every time I spot a jar of raw sauerkraut in a health food store, the co-op, or even Costco, I can’t believe my eyes.
In Canada, a litre (or a quart) of this costs $12! A two-pound head of green cabbage, on the other hand, which yields the same amount, is around two or three dollars. Sure, it takes a little bit of time, but it’s fun!
WHAT DO I NEED TO MAKE SAUERKRAUT?
I have good news for you! If you’re brand new to fermenting, you won’t need to go out and spend a bunch of money.
If it turns out you like fermenting, you can invest in a fermentation kit like the one I recently picked up for myself.
You don’t really neede anything to start out though. All you will need is…
This one probably goes without saying.
Since I make small batches of sauerkraut, I ferment one head at a time.
One two-pound head of cabbage yields one litre or a quart.
Also, more on this later, but if you don’t have weights for fermenting, you can reserve the outer leaves to keep everything submerged, then place a makeshift weight over top.
I swear by Celtic sea salt for fermenting purposes because of its high mineral content. Mind you, it doesn’t have iodide, which is something the body needs, but you’ll get it in other places, I promise!
If you want to use regular refined salt, that’s just fine. Use whatever you have to start getting those raw fermented foods in!
A KNIFE/MANDOLINE/FOOD PROCESSOR
One of the first steps in making sauerkraut is shredding the cabbage. I like working with a knife and a chopping board, but use whatever you like to get the job done.
LARGE MIXING BOWL
You’ll need a vessel to massage the salt into the shredded cabbage. A large mixing bowl will do the trick for one head of cabbage. If you wind up making a bigger batch, you might want to use a stockpot!
Once the kraut is ready to go into the jar, you’ll need something to tamp it down.
The number one rule when it comes to fermenting is to make sure everything is covered in brine!
You can make sauerkraut in a mason jar!
I find that a quart mason jar is just big enough to fit a two-pound head of cabbage. Every so often, I won’t have enough room, so I’ll squeeze the rest in a smaller jar.
Fermenting crocks are available just for this, but they cost a pretty penny the larger they get.
Sometimes you can find vintage crocks available at an antique store, but you need to be careful with these as they used to be glazed with lead paint.
To keep the sauerkraut submerged in brine, you’ll need to keep everything weighed down or pieces of cabbage will float to the top.
There are specially designed weights for fermenting, but you can also place DIY weights on top of folded up cabbage leaves. These can either be little ziplock baggies that are filled with water, a heavy stone, or tiny water-filled jars.
Something that’s handy to have when you ferment a lot are fermenting lids. These can be screwed over top your wide mouth mason jars and help to release gas while keeping out anything that might contaminate your batch of sauerkraut.
If you want to keep things basic, place your jar on top of a baking sheet. Since carbon dioxide is released, there’s usually a bit of overflow.
THE SIX STEPS TO MAKING SAUERKRAUT
Now that we have everything assembled, let’s make some sauerkraut!
1) PEEL AND SHRED THE CABBAGE
If you’re doing this the old fashioned way, peel the outer leaves of the cabbage.
Give the leaves and the cabbage a good rinse and reserve the leaves for later.
Cut the cabbage in half, remove the core, cut into quarters, then shred with a knife, a mandoline, or run them through a food processor.
The rule of thumb for one two-pound head of cabbage is a tablespoon of salt.
Since it’s always easier to add more salt than to subtract it, I always add it bit by bit.
Start off with a teaspoon and add more from there. If the cabbage tastes delicious, so will the sauerkraut.
Even if it tastes delicious, you might have to add more salt later if a brine doesn’t develop.
This is the most labour-intensive part of making sauerkraut.
When I was little, I remember my mom and her best friend pounding down on a huge bucket of kraut with a sledgehammer to get that brine going. Unless you’re making enough sauerkraut to last your family all year, you can use your hands.
There’s no special technique for massaging cabbage that I know of. I tend to work the cabbage like I knead bread.
After the first five minutes, you will notice the cabbage getting wet. If you keep going for another ten minutes, or so, it should be dripping brine when you give it a squeeze.
4) PACK IT IN THE JAR
When you have a small pool of brine in the bottom of the bowl, it’s time to switch gears.
Pack the cabbage into a jar or a crock, and press it down with your hand, a flat-ended rolling pin or a kraut pounder.
The goal is to not only fit everything in the jar but to expel any air pockets and to have the lot submerged in the brine.
If there’s room in the vessel, pour in any brine remaining in the bowl.
5) COVER AND WEIGH DOWN
From here, fold up the reserved cabbage leaves and fit them into the jar, tucking them under the shoulders of the jar.
Now weight it down with something heavy enough to keep everything submerged in the brine.
Cover the jar with a regular lid or a fermenting lid to keep out contaminants.
If you’re using a regular lid, make sure to open up the jar daily to release any gas that’s building up.
How long does it take to ferment sauerkraut? Well, that all depends on your personal taste!
Check your sauerkraut daily and give it a taste.
When it’s sour enough for you, remove the weight and the leaves, cover the jar, and store it in the fridge to slow down fermentation.
I usually move mine to the fridge after 5-7 days, but you might decide to keep yours out for 14 days.
The younger it is, the crunchier and less acidic it will be.
Once moved to the fridge, it will very slowly continue to develop its flavour profile over time.
QUESTIONS THAT ARISE WHEN MAKING SAUERKRAUT
Hiccoughs happen to the best of us, especially when we’re learning something new. Here are a couple of issues I’ve run into in my journey so far.
WHY ISN’T THERE ANY BRINE IN MY SAUERKRAUT?
Have you been massaging and massaging to no avail? I hate it when that happens!
There are a couple of ways to get around this.
The first is to walk away and let the salt work its magic, drawing water from the cabbage to form the brine.
The second solution is to add a bit more salt. Since I don’t want to oversalt, I often undersalt, so adding a touch more usually does the trick.
IS THAT SCUM ON MY SAUERKRAUT?
Fermentation father, Sandor Ellix Katz fondly calls this “bloom”.
Something magical is happening in that jar of yours, so if something starts growing, is it any surprise?
It’s likely yeast or mould, but it won’t hurt you. Just skim it off and remove any discoloured leaves.
Unless the kraut smells way off, your hard work hasn’t gone to waste!
WHAT’S THE IDEAL TEMPERATURE FOR FERMENTATION?
When it comes to fermenting, the warmer it is, the faster the fermentation. The reverse holds true as well.
When you think about how food used to be stored (in root cellars), it’s not hard to see that ferments prefer cool temperatures.
The ideal fermenting temperature is between 65-72ºF (18-22º), but if you’re slightly over or under, it’s no big deal.
In the winter, I keep my kitchen between 61-68ºF (16-19ºC), and my kraut always turns out fine.
HOW LONG DOES SAUERKRAUT KEEP?
When you go to the trouble of making sauerkraut, you’ll likely want to know how long it will last.
If it’s a good batch of sauerkraut and you pick away at it regularly, it won’t last long at all! I usually store mine for up to a year, but it usually doesn’t last long enough to linger that long.
SHOULD SAUERKRAUT BE SOFT OR CRUNCHY?
Raw sauerkraut should be crunchy. The longer you let it ferment, the softer it gets, but it should still have a bit of a bite to it.
WHY ISN’T MY SAUERKRAUT CRUNCHY?
Unfortunately, this can sometimes happen and usually for one of the following two reasons:
- The fermenting environment was too warm, so the bacteria started partying too early.
- Not enough salt was added, so the bacteria got too early of a start.
SHOULD I WASH THE CABBAGE BEFORE MAKING SAUERKRAUT?
Peel the outer leaves and wash them, as you’ll be using these leaves to help prevent shreds of cabbage from floating to the surface.
Once peeled, you may give the head a rinse before shredding it. Nothing major.
MY FAVOURITE FERMENTATION RESOURCES
When it comes to making sauerkraut, there are all kinds of flavorings to play around with.
Start with spices, maybe tossing in some juniper berries, chili peppers, dill, or ginger.
You can grate up other root vegetables too, like carrots, turnips, and beets.
Whenever I need inspiration or more information, these are my go-to resources:
This guy is a fermenting legend, a revivalist if you will. He breathed life into this beautiful art when he released this highly informative book in 2003. It’s a must-read!
I could get lost in this book. This gets into the science behind fermentation and leaves you feeling like you can ferment anything under the sun
This is more of a cookbook for fermenting than what Katz offers in the aforementioned books. The Shockey’s give you inspiration for krauts, pickles, chutneys and other fermented condiments. The pictures are pretty, too!
HAVE FUN FERMENTING!
I could go on talking about fermented foods, trust me, but now I want to hear from you!
What’s your experience with fermented foods? Did you grow up with sauerkraut? Have you made it before? Are you brand new to fermenting?
I hope you’ll let me know in the comments below!
DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS?
If so, ask away! I’m here to help you on your fermenting journey.
By the way, another super easy way to get started with fermenting is by making these crazy delicious carrot pickles. It’s how I get my three-year-old to eat his vegetables.
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PRINTABLE CARD FOR MAKING SAUERKRAUT FROM SCRATCH
- Wide mouth mason jar
- Kraut pounder or flat-edged rolling pin
- Baking sheet
- Large mixing bowl
- Knife, mandoline, or food processor
- Weight (ziplock baggie filled with water or small water-filled jar)
- 1 2lb head of cabbage
- 1 tbsp Celtic sea salt (start with a tsp)
- Peel the outer layers of the cabbage. Rinse the leaves and the cabbage and reserve the leaves.
- Cut the cabbage in half, remove the core, quarter, and shred using a knife, mandoline or food processor.
- Place the shredded cabbage in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle on 1 tsp of salt.
- Massage the cabbage for 10-15 minutes until a brine forms at the bottom of the bowl. When you squeeze a handful of cabbage, it should drip.
- Transfer the cabbage to the jar in stages, pressing down on it to remove air pockets and to submerge it in brine.
- Using the reserved leaves, fold them up and tuck them into the jar, securing them under the shoulder. Place a weight over top and cover loosely with a lid. Place on a baking sheet to catch any overflow.
- Allow the sauerkraut to ferment for 5-7 days. Check it daily and remove the lid to release any gas. Give it a daily taste test and move to the refrigerator when satisfied with its taste and texture.
- The longer the sauerkraut ferments, the softer and more acidic it gets.
- During fermentation, always ensure the sauerkraut is covered in brine. Remember: if it’s covered in brine, everything’s fine.
- If a brine doesn’t form, try resting the cabbage for a little bit, letting the salt do the work for you, or add a bit more salt.
- It’s easier to add more salt than to remove it. If it tastes good raw, it’s going to make a delicious kraut!
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Love and gratitude,