How to Ferment Cabbage: Making Sauerkraut
Who doesn’t enjoy a large scoop of sauerkraut on their all natural hot dog in the summer, or their cowpeas and collard greens in the winter? You can find our family adding sauerkraut to something almost every day. It brings a new dimension of flavor to our meals—even our salads occasionally get topped with the good stuff. It isn’t just the taste that keeps me coming back for more. Recent studies are finding that fermented foods have super health benefits as well.
While Germans have produced sauerkraut for centuries, the First World War added a new wrinkle to the legacy of this wonderful condiment. At the time, sauerkraut was like the German Apple Pie. The reputation of the condiment was so closely linked to its home country that, by the Great War, the British had begun calling Germans “Krauts.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans developed their own taste for kraut. Wanting to avoid any association with the enemy condiment (while secretly taking pleasure in it), the Americans resorted to a rebranding campaign. For the duration of the war, it was relabeled “Liberty Cabbage”.
Understanding the Health Side of Fermenting
Americans still enjoy sauerkraut today, but most become intimidated at the thought of making their own, simply because they do not know the physiology behind it. Sauerkraut is produced with the help of bacteria, who use the sugars in the vegetable to make an acidic solution. The necessary lactic acid bacteria, namely Lactobacillus, are always present around us, and when given the right conditions, the bacteria will grow and form an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of other types of bacteria, some of which can be harmful. It is from these “good bacteria” that many important foods, such as cheese, vinegar, and pickled vegetables are created.
When we consume homemade sauerkraut, the bacteria present will act symbiotically. The bacteria, now commonly called probiotics, help the gut flora continue enhancing nutrient absorption, aiding the immune system, and keeping out pathogens.
Lactobacillus grow in many anaerobic (without oxygen) environments, including high-saline solutions that are difficult for bacteria to grow in. By catering to this salt tolerance, we can give the good bacteria the advantage by placing what we want fermented in brine. Any salt can be used when preparing brine, but pickling salt (canning salt), is the easiest to use. These salts are small and uniform, meaning they dissolve quickly and can be easily measured. Avoid salts that contain anti-clumping agents, such as table salt, because these chemicals cloud the brine. The exception would be kosher salt; the anti-clumping agent it usually contains does not affect the brine.
Useful Tools for Fermenting
Before you start fermenting, be sure you have the necessary tools to work with. Find a suitable container for fermenting. Look for a large, tall, container, made from food safe plastic, glass, ceramic, or stoneware.
Another necessary tool for fermenting is a weight to press down the cabbage. A plate of slightly smaller diameter than the container works well for this purpose. On top of the plate fill a large plastic bag with a 3% brine solution—2 quarts of water along with 3 tablespoons of dissolved salt. This bag will be used to press down the cabbage and give a seal around the pot. Remember, Lactobacillus is an anaerobic bacteria, the less oxygen available, the better the kraut. A cloth placed above the apparatus aids in keeping foreign objects from getting into the container and keeps your scum skimming to a minimum.
A stoneware fermentation crock offers a fine alternative to a homemade rig. These crocks are made for fermenting and already have clean walls and weights for the vegetables you ferment. Most have a shallow rim along the lid to fill with water and provide an airtight seal. This feature prohibits mold and yeast from growing and makes skimming unnecessary. Further, because of its efficiency, less salt has to be used while fermenting. If you plan to make a large batch of Sauerkraut every year, I would highly recommend investing in these crocks.
This “recipe” really is a method for fermenting cabbage and many other vegetables. You can add seasonal herbs or classic spices in the batch to your liking. In this recipe, I am using the most authentic spices, caraway and juniper berries. I also recommend adding a little apple cider to the brine. This will add a delicious fruity touch to the finished product.
To me, it always makes things easier to see a “how to” video. I hope this video is helpful. I recommend that you watch it if you have never fermented anything. It should ease your mind as to how easy it really is to ferment your own foods.
- 5 lbs Cabbage shredded, and keeping back a couple outer leaves
- 2 ¼ oz salt (3 tablespoons pickling salt) less salt is required if you are using fermentation crock (1½oz)
- Brine—2 quarts of water to 3 tablespoons salt
- 1 Tbs juniper berries
- 1 Tbs caraway
- Combine the cabbage and salt in a large bowl. Work the cabbage with your hands to allow the salt to pull out the liquid in the cabbage. Incorporate spices and continue to work in for about 15 minutes, then allow mixture to sit for a good half hour.
- Tightly pack the cabbage in the container, then place a cabbage leaf on top of the mixture to keep out air. Finish by topping with the added weight.
- Slowly add some of the prepared brine while pressing down on the cabbage. Use enough brine to cover the cabbage by an inch. You will not use all of the brine.
- Cover or seal off and let ferment for 2 to 4 weeks, or until bubbles stop coming to the surface and bubbling up around the rim. You will be able to hear the bubbles. When you stop hearing them, it is time to remove the cabbage from the crock.
- If using a container with the plate and bag, mold and yeast will try to grow around the surface. Skim the scum off periodically; if kept at bay, it will not affect the product.
- If you are using a fermentation crock, seal off and do not open for a month. Your patience will be rewarded.
- Once fermented, remove from crock and can the sauerkraut using the hot water method. Alternately, place Sauerkraut in clean airtight jars and store in refrigerator for up to 2 months.