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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ;)
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.)
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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Making Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut
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