As I mentioned in my previous post, I was determined to learn how to make my own sauerkraut, but it took me a while (and a lot of excuses!) to get my courage up to try it. I had my share of flops and failures, but I finally got the hang of it, and now I confidently make sauerkraut and other vege ferments on a regular basis.
Everyone who makes their own vege ferments always says “oh, its so easy!” For me it was one of those things that I had to “get the hang of”. Now that I’ve got the hang of it, it is easy! But I had to learn a few tricks along the way. Here’s how I’ve learned to make my sauerkraut.
Making Sauerkraut, Step by Step
1 medium/large cabbage (green or red)
3 teaspoons fine-ground sea salt
1/4 cup whey
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped (optional)
1-2 teaspoons Caraway seeds (optional)
1. Gather your ingredients. At a minimum, sauerkraut requires cabbage and salt. I also like to add caraway seeds and a clove or two of garlic. I like the caraway seeds for the flavor they provide, and the garlic for its many healing properties and health benefits.
I also use whey (not shown in the photo). The purpose of the whey is to act as a starter culture for the fermentation process, as it contains the lactic acid-producing bacteria. I make whey by letting plain yogurt (with live bacteria) drip through cheesecloth and collect the liquid whey as it drips into a bowl. Whey can also be made from kefir or raw milk. Here is a post on How to Make Whey from Cheeseslave if you’re interested.
NOTE: Whey isn’t essential for making sauerkraut, but I feel like it helps to ensure a successful fermentation. Traditionally just salt was used. The salt works by inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria, thereby allowing the friendly lactic-acid producing bacteria (lactobacilli) to thrive. The lactobacilli are naturally present on the surface of all vegetables, so why use whey? Whey is rich in lactobacilli, thereby providing an extra boost of the good guys and allowing less salt to be used.
2. Gather your equipment. You’ll need a clean cutting board, a good cutting knife, and a clean LARGE glass bowl for mixing the shredded cabbage in, or sometimes I’ll use my stainless steel stock pot.
You’ll also need a clean wide mouth glass jar with a lid to ferment the cabbage in. The quart-size mason jars work well although you’ll need a couple of them for 1 large cabbage.
3. Chop up your cabbage. I first remove any wilted, soft leaves that maybe on the outside of my cabbage. I peel them off until I reach the first layer of firm, crisp leaves. Using a sharp knife, I cut my cabbage in half down the center, then I cut each half in half i.e. my cabbage is now in quarters. The photo below shows two quarters. I then cut out the core fom each quarter.
At this point you could use the shredding/grating blade of your food processor to shred the cabbage, but I honestly find it easier and quicker (less clean up) to shred it by hand. I slice each quarter lengthwise into thin strips, no more than 1/4 inch thickness. Then I like to slice once down the center so that my strips of cabbage aren’t too long.
I continue to layer cabbage and salt in this way until all of the cabbage has been cut up. Then I sprinkle the chopped garlic, and any remaining salt and caraway seeds over the cabbage.
NOTE: Three teaspoons of salt is what I’ve found works best for a medium/large cabbage. If my cabbage is really large or really small then I’ll adjust the salt accordingly. If I’m not using whey then I’ll use a bit more salt.
Once all of the cabbage has been chopped up it will look something like this:
5. Scrunch the cabbage. At this point, I like to wash my hands, roll up my sleeves, and start scrunching the cabbage using my hands, over and over again, to release the juices and mix in the salt. I probably do this for about 5-10 minutes, and once I’ve finished it looks like this:
Wow, where did it all go? If I’ve done enough scrunching, I’ll have at least 1/4 cup or more of juice in the bottom if my bowl (tip it on an angle and see how much collects).
6. Pack the cabbage into the fermenting jar. Scoop up the cabbage and start packing it into your jar. Pack it down tightly so that the juices start to rise up above the level of the cabbage. I pack down the cabbage using my wooden spoon, but a pounder or meat hammer would probably be more effective.
Now for the whey. I add the whey bit by bit. I probably pack in a third of the cabbage, pour in a third of the whey, pack another third of cabbage, pour in another third of whey etc. This isn’t a scientific formula, its just how I do it
When all cabbage has been packed into the jar, and the whey has been added, check whether the juice is covering the cabbage. Press down on the cabbage and see how far the level of the juice rises. If there is less than an inch of juice covering the cabbage, then mix up some brine. This is simply 1 cup of filtered water and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Mix until the salt dissolves, then pour it over your cabbage until the cabbage is covered by an inch of brine when firmly packed.
7. Apply a weight. How to keep the cabbage weighed down? This was always the tricky part for me. The best way I found is to use a glass jar, bottle or drinking glass that snugly fits inside the mouth of the jar that contains the cabbage. Make sure it is clean! As you can see from the picture below, I have a drinking glass that works perfectly. But I have also used glass jars filled with water or dried beans to make them weighty.
You can see in the picture below that once I placed my weight on top, the cabbage is covered with a good inch of juices. Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process, which means it won’t work in the presence of oxygen. If your cabbage is completely covered by the brine, then oxygen can’t reach it. Sometimes a bit of cabbage floats to the surface, but this has never caused me any problems.
Important: make sure there is at least an inch of space between the level of the brine and the top of the jar, because the brine level will rise a bit more as the salt continues to draw the juice out of the cabbage.
Room temperature is considered to be around 68-72 degrees. Anything significantly cooler is ok, it just means that a longer fermentation time will be required. A room that is consistenly over 75 degrees is too warm in my experience, and that’s when I start to get mold. I can’t ferment sauerkraut in my kitchen in summer. Instead I must find the coolest place in the house, which happens to be the floor of the coat cupboard!
9. How do you know if it’s working? This is the fun part – I like to spy on my sauerkraut! After a couple days I take a peek under the tea towel. If all is well, the cabbage will still be completely submerged in the brine. In fact the brine level should have risen slightly. The brine may be starting to look a little bubbly/foamy.
After 4-5 days, if I open the cupboard door and get a strong whiff of something sharp and tangy, then I know that the good bacteria have won the war, and my cabbage is well on its way to becoming sauerkraut!
10. Store it in the fridge. After a week (or longer if its cooler), I retrieve my sauerkraut from wherever it’s been fermenting. I remove whatever I used to weigh it down, and I take a look at it. Does it look ok? (no slime, no mold*). Does it smell good? (no off smells, and smells fresh and tangy). If it looks and smells ok, then I taste it. It should taste kind of tangy, sour, crunchy, salty. If everything is ok, then I have a successful ferment! I put on the lid on the jar and store the sauerkraut in the fridge.
I find that initially the sauerkraut tastes more salty than sour, but it will mature over time with the saltiness becoming less pronounced. I try to make more sauerkraut well before I run out of my current batch so that it can have a week or so in the fridge to mature before I want to eat it.
*Once or twice I got a small amount of mold around the top, but the sauerkraut itself wasn’t moldy, and it smelt and tasted good, so I ate it and didn’t have any problems.
If you’ve never tried making your own sauerkraut before, give it a go! It is a great traditional food technique to master, and there really is no limit to the variety of vegetable ferments that you can create once you’ve got the hang of the basic process. For more information, this is a great article from Wild Fermentation.
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