I have a special love affair with homemade fermented foods, in particular Sauerkraut. I always have Sauerkraut in the house and I feel an itch, a craving, a need to make more when I reach the “only three jars left” mark. Yes, I eat a lot of it and don’t ever get tired of the fresh, crunchy, tangy taste.
“In the normal scheme of things, we’d never have to think twice about replenishing the bacteria that allow us to digest food. But since we’re living with antibiotic drugs and chlorinated water and antibacterial soap and all these factors in our contemporary lives that I’d group together as a ‘war on bacteria,’ if we fail to replenish [good bacteria], we won’t effectively get nutrients out of the food we’re eating.” – Sandor Katz
When I am talking about Sauerkraut I am not talking about the pasteurized, pale looking, deadly canned version sold in most supermarkets. The beneficial bacteria and bio-available nutrients in this sad looking variety have been long destroyed to guarantee a long shelf life.
The Story behind Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut has been a means of preserving cabbage and other vegetables for easy consumption throughout the winter for many centuries and in many cultures. Humans all over the world have been fermenting food since ancient times.
Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
To gain the health benefits of Sauerkraut, you have to prepare it the traditional way and consume it raw. If unpasteurized and uncooked, Sauerkraut not only contains live lactobacilli and beneficial microbes but is also rich in enzymes. The friendly lactobacilli improve digestion, restore proper balance of bacteria, promote the growth of healthy intestinal flora and soothe the digestive tract, while protecting against many diseases of the digestive tract.
The fermentation process increases the vitamin content in Sauerkraut which therefore is extremely high in vitamins C, B, and K. Sauerkraut is also high in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, both associated with preserving ocular health.
Sauerkraut has been used in Europe for centuries to treat stomach ulcers while strengthening the immune system.
How to make Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is one of the easiest fermented foods to make. Unlike other fermented foods, Sauerkraut can be created without starters, cultures, or other additions. The first few times I fermented vegetables I certainly did not feel as confident in my ability to produce a raw food so healthy and I dare say much tastier than any store bought Sauerkraut I have tasted.
Any kind of vegetable goes through several stages in the fermentation process. At each of the stages, it does have a different taste, color and texture. If you want to familiarize yourself with the process, I recommend tasting your Sauerkraut at different stages during the process. This will also allow you to learn your favorite stage and when to end the fermentation process.
One of my favorite combinations is:
Green and red cabbage
Stone crock (I use a 15L one) or any other jar or pot suitable
Step 1: Cleanliness
Make sure that the containers, the utensils and your hands are as clean as possible. Cleanliness is essential for successful fermentation. Choose firm heads of cabbage, fresh ginger and crisp carrots.
Step 2: Prepare your vegetables
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and set aside. You might want to use these leaves to cover the Sauerkraut to help with the anaerobic process. Cut out the core and shred or grate the cabbage into fine slices. Cabbage is covered in naturally occurring bacteria such as Leuconostoc, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. You want and need those bacteria as a critical part of the lacto-fermentation process, so do not wash the cabbage. Wash the carrots, peel the ginger and shred both either by hand or using a food processor.
Step 3: Get the brine going
Put all ingredients into a large bowl and mix well. Many recipes call for a certain amount of salt per pound of vegetables (Sandor Katz, the author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, recommends 3 Tablespoons of salt for 5 pounds of cabbage, but also says that he uses more salt in the summer and less in the winter). I usually start with a handful of salt when making these big batches and see how the vegetables respond when I gently massage the salt into the mix. The salt causes the cellular walls of the cabbage to lose water and acts as a preservative and an inhibitor to unwanted bacteria.
Step 4: Transfer to stone crock or jar
I keep massaging the Sauerkraut until it starts producing brine at which point I transfer it into my stone crock. I put single layers of Sauerkraut, pushing it tightly into the crock, using my wooden stomper. Before I owned a stomper I would just use my fist to stomp everything down, which works just fine. You can see how tightly packed everything is in the crock, it’s just a little above half full and I had a ton of vegetables.
I let it sit for another hour or so to allow for enough brine to develop. If that does not happen, I add brine to it until the juices are covering the Sauerkraut; you want a minimum of one inch of brine above the Sauerkraut. Brine solution is easy to make: Dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in 1 quart of boiling water, let it cool down before using it. Once everything looks good I put the lid on and fill the rim with water to create an anaerobic environment, oxygen can get out of the crock, but not into the crock. This is important since the bacteria that act to ferment the cabbage are anaerobic, they don’t need oxygen. A lot of other bacteria, fungi, and molds do use oxygen and will grow if you don’t keep the environment anaerobic.
Step 5: Wait and keep waiting…
Now all I do is wait and check over the next couple of days if the Sauerkraut is still well covered in brine. You really never know, I had times when I had plenty of brine and times I needed to add some. During the next few weeks you will hear grumbling and see bubbles emerging from the dark world of fermentation, telling you that all is good.
I leave my fermentation crock at room temperature (between 60 °F and 72 °F) for about 4 to 6 weeks. At lower temperatures the kraut will take longer to ferment which I prefer. At higher temperatures, the process will be faster, but the finished Sauerkraut will be of lesser quality and does not taste as good. I taste the Sauerkraut every week or so. When I really like the taste, I transfer everything into smaller jars and put it away in the refrigerator or my cold room.
One way to determine if fermentation has stopped is the absence of bubbles rising to the surface of the cabbage and brine mixture. However, slow fermentation will continue at room temperature, and the kraut will become much stronger in flavor if you let it sit for a longer period of time.
Some people will experience mold build-up on top of the brine. It can be white, velvety or powdery looking yeast or scum and though it is not harmful it surely does not improve the flavor and it is simply not very inviting for your taste buds. Mold or yeast will most likely develop with poor hygiene, exposure to air, or lack of salt.
But not to worry. If you see scum forming on the surface you can just skim it off. Make sure you discard any Sauerkraut that had contact with the mold or scum. I personally never had any mold, probably due to the fact that I am using an old style fermentation crock. Always trust your own judgment; if the Sauerkraut smells horribly or if you see blue or black mold, throw everything out.
Happy Fermenting and Enjoy!
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