Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Making Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut

purple sauerkraut with avocado

Homemade, lacto-fermented sauerkraut is vastly, wonderfully different than storebought. I have always been a fan of sauerkraut, but now that I make it myself I absolutely love it and it's become a regular part of my diet, no longer just some novelty to eat with the occasional bratwurst. 

Raw, naturally fermented foods are great for digestion, and this homemade sauerkraut makes a great snack when you crave something crisp and salty. In a few weeks you will have about a half gallon of sauerkraut for the cost of two heads of cabbage.

lacto fermented sauerkraut

Purple cabbage stays firmer during fermentation; green cabbage become softer, more like the texture of storebought, cooked sauerkraut. Because I love the color, and the nutritional profile, of purple cabbage, I like to use one head of each type in my batches of sauerkraut, for a gorgeous shade of bright pink.

Start with about 5 lbs of cabbage, or 2 medium-sized heads. Remove or wash outer leaves, and chop cabbage into shreddable chunks, discarding the core. Shred however you prefer; I use a food processor with a slicer blade.

Mix all the shredded cabbage in a large crock with 3 Tb sea salt. This is where it gets messy! If you're using purple cabbage, your hands may get a bit stained, but you'll survive. I use one hand to mix, keeping the other clean, but use both if you want to really get in there. The cabbage needs to be squeezed and mashed and pressed, together with the salt, until it releases enough of its own juices to fully immerse itself.

purple cabbage for sauerkraut
Two heads of freshly shredded cabbage, plus 3 Tb salt. You can see how my 4 qt crock is full to the brim; after kneading it well, the crock will only be about half full.

Recently I've learned to first knead it a bit with the salt, and then let it sit for several minutes to allow the salt to do some of the hard work for me, drawing out the water from the leaves. Then, after a relaxing break to check my email or whatever, I get back in there, pressing and squeezing until I can punch the cabbage down below the level of the liquid.

If enough liquid cannot be obtained this way, like if the cabbage is a bit old and dehydrated, you can mix up some brine by dissolving a teaspoon of sea salt in a cup of water. Pour this over your cabbage in the crock. Don't give up too easy, though. Most of the time, you will not need any added brine.

While it's possible to make salt-free sauerkraut, the added salt helps to ensure that only our desired bacteria grows, resulting in a beneficial lacto-fermentation rather than an icky putrefaction. If the fermentation goes "off" for some reason, it will smell bad and taste worse; you will know it. However, I often don't much like the smell of sauerkraut right when I take it out of the crock; it often seems to need a week or two in the fridge to mature. At that point, it's always delicious! So, don't despair if your kraut smells not-quite-right when you take it out of the crock, some time in the fridge will fix it up.

Using a clean crock, clean utensils, and clean hands will go a long way toward ensuring a clean ferment. Also, I always use dechlorinated water (see here for my easy how-to if you don't have a water filter) for fermentation, since the intention of chlorine in tapwater is to kill organisms, and when we ferment we are trying to actively culture healthy organisms.

This next part is why I avoided trying to make my own for a long time: The cabbage must be weighted down in a sort of elaborate way, so air can't get to it. I simply use an old, round crock pot and a small plate that fits right inside. If your crock pot is the oval variety, you will need to find a different container. It should be something cylindrical and ceramic or glass. 

how to make sauerkraut
Crock with small plate covering kraut, with a large jar weighing down plate so the liquid is always above the level of the cabbage.
 So, the plate goes on top of the cabbage, and is weighted down with a full gallon jar. You could probably get away with a smaller jar, filled with water. It just has to be heavy. Try using a large boiled rock instead, if you want to be rustic.  

Then, over top of all that, goes a dust cloth. My friend uses a pillowcase, which I think is a good idea, but I can never be sure that there's no lint in the corners of my pillowcases, so I just stick with a tea towel, wrapped and pinned like a little nappy. The cover is important in keeping the fermentation clean and allowing it to breathe. 

fabric cover for sauerkraut

Fermentation in the crock takes 3 weeks; I always mark my calendar. You don't have to do much during this time except check under the cloth occasionally, weekly really, for any escaped bits of cabbage or spots of mold. Using a butterknife, collect any debris or foam forming on the surface of the brine. The first time I made sauerkraut I totally skipped this step and it worked out fine, but I like to do this little maintenance; it allows me to check how it's doing and feel maternal ;) 

how to make sauerkraut
This foam is a harmless byproduct of fermentation. I scrape it off after about the first week.
Floating mold is NOT a sign of anything wrong with your sauerkraut; it just means there was a bit of debris that escaped the plate. Anything under the brine will be fine.

After 3 weeks, I scoop the kraut into jars, packing it down to minimize air. I then place it in the back of my fridge, or in my cool, dark pantry, for a week or two, and then give it a try. I've stored sauerkraut like this, raw and alive but dark and cool, for many months in my pantry and fridge. While I think it lasts longer in the relative cold of the refrigerator, it seems to do fine in my pantry (which is just a dark cabinet in the always-cold garage.)

lacto-fermented sauerkraut with avocado

It should taste salty and sour when you give it a try. The broth is very healthy and can be added to dressings or consumed alone. Try a cup of sauerkraut with a diced avocado for a super healthy, satisfying lunch. Add it to salads, or use as a side dish with really any fare. Eating sauerkraut with cooked meals helps them break down easier.

If it seems like there really ought to be a less fussy way to make sauerkraut, that's because there is! My preferred method is linked here, in a more recent article.


For more on the benefits and history of lacto-fermented vegetables, as well as a whole world of other fermentation ideas, check out the original source of my inspiration, two books by Sandor Katz. Both probably available from your local library, but also definitely worth owning. If you buy either through my ad links below, Amazon gives me a tiny bit of cash. Thanks in advance!

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53 comments

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May 8, 2012 at 7:58 PM

Thank you for writing this all out. I've read the classic book about fermentation, but somehow knowing a real person did it makes it feel more manageable. Way better than $10/jar at Whole Foods (even if my girl is/was the face of their product).

Molly

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May 9, 2012 at 12:30 PM

Yumm, this looks tasty! And fairly straight forward. Your directions and pictures really helped - as the previous poster said, watching you actually do it, step by step, makes it seem more manageabel :) Thanks for linking up at Tiny Tip Tuesday! I'm pinning this :)

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May 9, 2012 at 3:18 PM

Thanks Sarah! I hope it helps. It took me a while before I tried it because the process is a little elaborate, but once you get the right setup it's very easy.

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May 13, 2012 at 7:18 PM

Interesting! I've never eaten sauerkraut, let alone made it, lol. Thanks for linking up to Healthy 2Day Wednesday, and come back next time to see if you were featured!

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May 16, 2012 at 11:37 AM

I just got a new fermenting book and looking forward to trying all these new recipes out. This was a great tutorial.
Thanks for sharing this with the real food community at Whole Food Wednesdays.

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May 16, 2012 at 11:15 PM

"Raw, naturally fermented foods are great for digestion, and this homemade sauerkraut makes a great snack when you crave something crisp and salty."

Wow, that's great. I read an article before that fermented foods are really healthy, is this true? and great alternative for processed foods.

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May 17, 2012 at 7:57 AM

Like everything, there is debate, but we just have to choose to believe the advice that feels right for our bodies. Fermented foods have a huge history and are found in virtually all traditional diets. They are also sorely lacking from the modern American diet, but have lately been coming back! There are some great books out there on the topic, including "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Katz, and "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon.

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May 18, 2012 at 6:39 AM

It is really interesting how you make this... I might give it a try. I believe you that it tastes very different from store bought. Please share this on my food party today.

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May 19, 2012 at 3:58 AM

Interesting process! Loving the at home way to make something normally you would only thing to get from the store!
Thanks for linking up on Successful Saturdays!

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May 19, 2012 at 8:44 AM

Thanks for sharing how to make your own lacto-fermented sauerkraut. I've bought some from Whole Foods, but would love to try making it at home.

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May 20, 2012 at 6:42 PM

As a kid, my family would make sauerkraut from scratch using the same process as yours. Instead of discarding the cabbage cores, we would quarter them and mix them in the batch - they are delicious after the fermentation cycle is complete! This sauerkraut also freezes well, so for those who don't want it taking up their pantry space, this is another option.

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May 23, 2012 at 12:57 PM

This is amazing! Thanks for sharing your ideas on "Strut Your Stuff" Saturday! We hope to see you again! -The Sisters

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June 8, 2012 at 9:44 AM

I love homemade sauerkraut. I make it every year. I make mine in jars and love to see how you made it a crock.


Thanks for linking up at the Carnival of Home Preserving!

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June 14, 2012 at 7:24 PM

This looks amazing! I love red cabbage!! Thank you for sharing this yummy recipe at Fit and Fabulous Fridays!!

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July 7, 2012 at 5:32 AM

Love sauerkraut on a hot dog! This looks amazing.

Thank you for sharing at Rural Thursdays this week. xo

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August 28, 2012 at 9:52 AM

Great instructions. I've been a little intimidated by the idea of making sauerkraut but now I think I'll give it a try.

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September 3, 2012 at 3:42 PM

Your sauerkraut looks delicious. I have never made sauerkraut with purple cabbage, but it is particularly lovely.

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September 30, 2012 at 9:37 PM

Do you need to add any whey or dairy to lacto ferment?

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October 1, 2012 at 6:36 AM

You do not. It's just called lactofermentation because lactic acid is produced. You certainly CAN add whey, but sauerkraut doesn't need it. Whey will help it ferment faster, but I personally don't like the flavor of the goat-milk whey that I've tried.

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October 3, 2012 at 6:35 PM

I didn't know that, I just assumed that lacto meant it came from dairy. Thanks for clearing that up for me. Now I want to try it for myself!

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October 3, 2012 at 9:31 PM

I thought the same thing myself, and had to look into the chemistry a bit when I started making sodas, and realized it had nothing to do with dairy ;)

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October 12, 2012 at 3:12 AM

I hope to get a copy of Sandor Katz's book soon , I have to wait until I can budget it in.. or maybe I'll add it to my Christmas list. Ha ha! But what happens if the cabbage comes over the brine while fermenting? I've made only 2 batches of kraut so far my first batch marking the first time I'd ever tried kraut so I'm taking a wild guess at what it SHOULD taste like. I've also only used the closed jar method. Do you make your ferments using open air and towels by preference or is there a scientific and more nutritious reasoning behind that?

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October 12, 2012 at 7:59 AM

C.J., I've gone to the jar method as well! It's just easier. In "Wild Fermentation", the crock seems to be the method Sandor Katz recommends for more traditional preparation. However, in his more recent book "The Art Of Fermentation", he describes all kinds of closed-jar ferments. While the crock method works fine, I don't think it has any advantages over the jar method, except that it can easily release gas. With the closed jar you do have to release pressure every day to make sure it doesn't explode.
When I first began making krauts I wasn't so sure about the flavor either, but I found that after a couple weeks in the fridge, they really tasted good. There is a slower fermentation that happens in cold storage, where the flavor matures. There are all kinds of ingredients you can use, and all kinds of ways they can taste. As long as you like it, go with it. And if you don't so much like it, try keeping it in the back of the fridge for a bit and then try it again ;)
Can you get his books from the library? That's what I do! "The Art of Fermentation" is a much larger and updated collection of his and others' fermenting experience. Though it's likely more expensive, I really recommend it.

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January 8, 2013 at 2:43 PM

I love sauerkraut and this sounds awesome! My parents just gave me a huge antique crock from the old farm where I grew up, so now I have a crock to make this :)

Thanks for sharing on the Winter on the HomeAcre Hop! Join us tomorrow for Wildcrafting Wednesday!

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January 8, 2013 at 4:34 PM

Wow, I love those old crocks, that sounds really nice!

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March 20, 2013 at 1:55 PM

Do you keep the brine on the vegetables when they are done?

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March 25, 2013 at 8:33 AM

Thank you! I love sauerkraut but never felt confident enough to make it myself. This makes it sound like a much more simple process than I imagined! I think I'm actually going to try it!

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March 26, 2013 at 4:25 AM

I haven't ever heard of sauerkraut with avocado, but that sounds awesome! I hope to make more fermented veggies this summer - especially since my kids seem to devour the stuff. I would love for you to share this at what i am eating http://www.townsend-house.com/2013/03/what-i-am-eating_22.html

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April 25, 2013 at 12:37 PM

I'm currently fermenting for the first time. I hope I did everything right! We'll see in a few weeks! :) Thanks for this post. The directions were great... I think I'll try using a crock next time!

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April 26, 2013 at 11:44 AM

I make sauerkraut as well. Love your pictures. Thanks for sharing at Wildcrafting Wednesday.

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May 4, 2013 at 12:32 PM

Making sauerkraut again for the 3rd time. Found your site because I was trying to look up my smell issue. See, it's been murder trying to find a good crock situation (without one of those expensive crocks specifically made for this purpose). A couple years ago I finally came up with a glass punch bowl to use. I cover that with a plate (which doesn't fit perfect, but it does OK) and then weigh it down with a gallon sized ziploc bag filled with water. I don't lobe the idea of using plastic, but I haven't found a better weight solution yet, and still be able to cover it w/ a dish towel. Anyway, this time when I started it, I didn't have any gallon baggies on hand, so i weighed it down with an old tequila bottle filled with water. I got busy and forgot to check it for a few days. I finally checked it today, and some of my brine was gone and it smelled kind of off. But it Looks fine. So, I made up some more brine, added that and weighed it down better. It's only a 4 day old batch. Do you think it's OK?

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May 15, 2013 at 11:23 PM

Sorry some time has gone by since your question. I always assume it's ok ;) Sometimes if the smell is not great, you can just jar them up and refrigerate them for a while, and the flavor will improve. So, if it still seems iffy at maturation, try storing in the fridge for a few weeks. Sauerkraut is amazing stuff, it rarely fails altogether.
By the way, I now make sauerkraut in jars. It's easier than the crock by far! I'll post an article about it soon.

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May 16, 2013 at 12:10 AM

Yes! Sorry for the delayed response. I keep the brine in the jar with the veggies. We use the brine here and there in dressings, but mostly just keep it with the kraut because it helps keep it fresh to stay submerged in liquid.

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June 22, 2013 at 1:43 PM

Thank you so much for sharing with Full Plate Thursday. Hope you are having a great weekend and come back soon!
Miz Helen

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July 21, 2013 at 8:20 PM

WOW Jenni.. I didn't know you can freeze this fermented sauerkraut!! In what a freezer bag ?? I am 100% organic .. are there organic freezer bags ??

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July 22, 2013 at 7:13 AM

I would just freeze sauerkraut in a canning jar. Refrigerate it first, so it's cold going in, and don't fill the jar all the way so it has room to expand.

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August 12, 2013 at 5:25 PM

I just got sauerkraut at the store to see if we like it. If we do, I will certainly give this method a try. Thanks for sharing on Tuesday Greens!

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August 28, 2013 at 8:15 PM

Just made my first batch and it smells like chlorine?! Any suggestions – I can't find any troubleshooting tips online. Thanks, Andrea

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August 29, 2013 at 9:21 PM

Gosh, I've never had that experience. My first batch smelled weird to me when I first jarred it, but after maturing in the fridge for a couple of weeks it smelled fine and was really tasty.
A lot of people are a bit fearful of trying their first fermentations (myself included). This sauerkraut will keep in the fridge for months, so you can save it until you're feeling brave, if that's the issue. Or, maybe that's not it at all but some time in the fridge will help the flavor settle.
I assume you didn't add any tap water, so there wouldn't actually be any chlorine in it. I have no idea what the smell could be from.

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Anonymous
September 19, 2013 at 8:26 AM

I have 2 questions please, Mellow,: 1. I wonder if I could ferment dilly beans in a crock covered with only a cloth not a lid and 2. When they are fermented can one safely store them in a jar that is in a somewhat cool place ( not as cold as I would like) without worrying about the jar exploding? I have read recipes elsewhere on fermented dilly beans, but I like your posts and I feel you are knowledgeable about a lot of things so I thought I would ask you. Thanks Tatjana

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September 20, 2013 at 8:14 PM

I love dilly beans, but I don't have any experience making them. I'll definitely ferment some next summer, but until then I could only guess at the answers to your questions! There are some great resources out there including lots of other experienced fermenters. I would check out Sandor Katz's books, as well as internet searches, for specifics on dilly beans.

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November 13, 2013 at 2:52 PM

Hi there, just trying my hand at fermenting. I have a two week old batch in a crock now that smells very bad and the brine is cloudy. Is that normal or did I do something wrong? I am having a hard time figuring out what it should smell like. Thanks

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November 14, 2013 at 7:41 AM

Cloudy brine does not sound like a good sign. Some krauts don't smell good (like kimchi!) but if it smells VERY bad, it's probably rotting instead of fermenting. Did you use enough salt (1 tablespoon per quart of veggies)? Were your containers clean, and your veggies in good shape (not rotting) when you added them? I'm not sure what else could be causing it. Better luck next time! It really is foolproof most the time, but we all have stuff go bad when we are first trying our hand at fermenting different things.
That said, my first kraut smelled icky to me after three weeks and I didn't want to try it. So, I jarred it up and left in in the fridge for a few weeks, while I worked up my nerves to try it. Maybe it transformed in the fridge? It was really good when I finally tried it. My finicky young son even liked it.

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November 14, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Hmm, I will let it sit another week and see what happens and try putting it in the fridge although I do not have high hopes for it. Thanks for responding.

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February 5, 2014 at 7:56 PM

After the saurkraut has finished fermenting and is put into the refrigerator does the saurkraut still have to be compressed under the brine or does is not matter when refrigerated?

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March 8, 2014 at 2:35 PM

It does last longer if it is under brine, even in the fridge. But if the brine goes below the level of the kraut, don't worry. Just try to use it sooner.

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March 23, 2014 at 6:56 AM

Hello there,
I was wondering if you have put up the instructions for making your saurkraut in jars yet?
Cheers Yvonne

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March 30, 2014 at 9:05 AM

Thank you for the reminder and inspiration, Yvonne! I'll try to get it published tonight.

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Anonymous
July 6, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Hi, the purple cabbage is actually called "Rotkraut" in Germany (Rot =red)

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