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Every autumn, there are certain things I am compelled to do. Perhaps it’s the change in the weather that drives this compulsion; the urgency of the leaves turning and falling; the weakening sunlight.

I find myself taking silent inventory of pantry provisions: 4 jars pickled beets, 10 jars apple butter, 3 jars brandied figs… I freeze and can and preserve and dry almost compulsively. I realize I am not unlike a squirrel, its cheeks full before the waning season.

Apple butter is one of my yearly preserving pursuits. I typically make several batches of the stuff through some feat of nesting fever. I have a love-hate relationship with the process: hours of stirring and splattering and sticking, pounds upon pounds of apples reduced to a few small jars, and enough chopping and straining for three people.

But again, it’s an urge strong enough to make me not mind the inevitable burns I will get on my forearms while attempting to stir the lava lake of molten apple pulp. An urge strong enough to make me forget, every time, about how I will need to scour the stovetop and the floor afterwards.

This is the same urge I yield to when I make my annual batch of sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut might be in my blood. According to family legend, one of my great aunts would make sauerkraut beneath an old oak tree, only on the full moon. Sounds a bit like witchcraft, and if you’ve ever made sauerkraut before, you know that it feels a bit magical.

Sauerkraut is one of the easiest things to make in the pickle realm. Chop cabbage, add salt, wait. Okay, so there’s a teensy bit more to the process than that, but not by much.

Sauerkraut is the gateway fermented food. It’s straightforward and simple, the materials are inexpensive, and the payoff is fairly quick. It keeps well, and it’s far more delicious than anything you can buy. You may have seen gourmet sauerkraut at your local natural foods store. It often comes in an attractive jar, and it will cost upwards of six dollars.

The ingredients? Cabbage and salt. Maybe some caraway seeds. You can make a gallon at home for six dollars. So roll up your sleeves and embark upon a fermentation journey with me.

I first made sauerkraut because of Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. As it happens, Sandor Katz referenced the Joy of Cooking when he first started to get into fermented foods. Small world.

According to both JOY and Katz, the proper ratio of cabbage to salt is 5 pounds to 3 tablespoons. Or, if you like to do things by weight, use 1.5% the weight of the cabbage in salt (Ex: weight of cabbage x 0.015 = weight of salt to add). Katz gives recipes for low-salt or salt-free sauerkrauts, but for our purposes, we’re going to start with the basic salted sauerkraut.

Salt not only helps preserve the cabbage, but it keeps the cabbage crunchy. You may use fine sea salt (really, you could use flaky sea salt if you wanted, but it's expensive and won't dissolve as readily), canning salt, or kosher salt. If using kosher salt and measuring in volume (i.e. tablespoons), you may need to use more (this is not the case if going by weight--just always use that 1.5% calculation mentioned above). If you use Diamond kosher, double the amount of salt (so, for 5 pounds cabbage, use 6 tablespoons). If using Morton's kosher, the amount of salt will be about the same by volume. The only salt I've been told to avoid is table salt (due to anti-caking agents and additives in this salt, which may turn your brine cloudy). However, I have in fact made delicious sauerkraut with iodized salt. Kraut is a very forgiving ferment--which salt you decide to use isn't as important as using enough of it--3 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces) per 5 pounds vegetable matter. 

This is a very versatile recipe. You can use any variety of cabbages—green, red, savoy, napa, or a blend of different cabbages. Add apple, caraway or dill seeds, shredded carrots, turnips, beets, and so on. The only thing to keep in mind is the ratio of vegetables to salt: five pounds to three tablespoons, or 1.5% salt.

Sauerkraut FAQ:

  • My sauerkraut smells funny. Is it okay? That depends. Fermented foods go hand in hand with funky smells. Your sauerkraut may smell sulfuric (that's cabbage for you), fruity, cheesy, etc. Some people are more sensitive to these smells than others. Since I can't come to your house and smell and look at your sauerkraut, I can't tell you if it's okay or not, but usually there are other signs when something has gone wrong--do not eat sauerkraut that is slimy or that is covered in mold, especially black mold. 
  • My sauerkraut has some mold on it. Is it okay? Again, that depends. I check my sauerkraut every day. Since I usually ferment it in a mason jar, this is easy to do since I can just glance at it and confirm that everything is going as it should. However, I have found that crock fermentation is more likely to result in some mold. If the mold is in small patches and is white, I would just skim it off and proceed, keeping a close eye on it going forward and being proactive about removing mold. In the future, make sure the kraut is completely submerged beneath the brine at all times and, if possible, use an airlock and a fermentation weight. As always, if in doubt, throw it out.
  • My sauerkraut has a thin layer of white scum on top. Is it okay? Probably. A thin, white scum on the surface of a ferment is usually kahm yeast. If left long enough, kahm yeast can become crenulated--like the rind on a bloomy cheese. It looks kinda cool, to be honest! Just skim it off (we have used a paper towel to dab it off the surface of the brine) and keep an eye on it. It should not have any ill effects.
  • How long do I need to ferment my kraut? This is a matter of preference. Some people say that you need to ferment for weeks and weeks on end to get the maximum amount of probiotics. This is baloney. The types of bacteria change as your sauerkraut ferments. The bacteria initially doing most of the work are Leuconostoc bacteria. Then, when the pH lowers (becomes more acidic), Lactobacillus bacteria start to predominate. There are other key players in fermented foods, but my point is that the types of bacteria change, as well as their concentrations. There is no way to know, short of lab analysis, how many probiotics are in your ferment or what kinds are present. Nor is there any scientific proof that more probiotics are better, and there is certainly no way of knowing what an "optimum" amount of probiotics is. This is why I always, always, always go by taste. When I like the taste, I refrigerate my sauerkraut. 
  • Doesn't cooking kill the good bacteria in my ferment? So I should only eat it raw, right?  No. While cooking will kill the bacteria, keep in mind that sauerkraut has uses other than to be a probiotic supplement. It tastes good! Sauerkraut is delicious in soups, fritters, braises, etc. Don't let a worry over not getting probiotics stop you from cooking with kraut! Eat some raw, eat some cooked, and chill out. Take a probiotic supplement if you're worried about getting enough.
Makes about 1 quart

     5 pounds firm, unblemished cabbage heads, outer leaves removed
Remove the cores, and thinly slice or grate the cabbage on the large holes of a box grater. I like to dice the cores and add them to the kraut as well.
Place the cabbage in a large bowl with:
     3 tablespoons canning or pickling salt, sea salt, or Morton's kosher salt (if using Diamond kosher salt, use 6 tablespoons); or weigh out 1.5% the weight of the cabbage in salt of any kind
Massage the cabbage. You can do this with squeaky-clean hands or with another utensil, such as a spoon or even a potato masher. I like to use my hands because it enables me to better manipulate the cabbage and get it to release more water. However, do wash your hands thoroughly every time you work with a fermented product. As you massage, you’ll notice that the cabbage begins to release water and wilt. Continue to massage the cabbage for up to 30 minutes. This length of time is not mandatory by any means, and often you won't need to massage it this long. You're done when there is a decent amount of liquid in the bottom of the bowl and the cabbage is pliable and wilted.
Pack the kraut into a small stone crock or a half-gallon Mason jar. Press down firmly to submerge the cabbage beneath the brine.
Ideally, the cabbage has released enough water on its own to create a brine in which the cabbage remains fully submerged. However, some cabbages are drier than others. If your cabbage does not release enough water, make a brine of:
     1 ½ tablespoons canning or pickling salt, sea salt, or Morton's kosher salt per 4 cups distilled water (distilled water because tap water may contain chlorine, or, if you have hard water it may be basic rather than acidic or neutral, which can affect the final pH of the ferment)
Pour this brine over the cabbage to cover it. At this point, you need to weight the cabbage to keep it submerged. You can use a freezer-safe zip-top bag (freezer safe bags are more durable) filled partially with brine of the same strength as you used for the cabbage, above. The bag conforms to the shape of the container you use and is easy to manipulate. Or use specially made fermentation weights, a whole cabbage leaf, or the glass top from a small Weck jar.
Cover the crock or vessel to keep out flies, but make sure it can breathe. You may use a square of kitchen towel secured with a rubber band for this purpose, or buy specially made fermentation airlocks (they're great!).
Check the kraut every couple days. Within a few days, it should start to bubble—this is an indicator that fermentation has begun. Stir or compress the kraut regularly (the CO2 bubbles created during fermentation will often push the kraut above the brine if it's not heavily weighted). If scum forms on top, don’t worry. Simply scrape it off and discard it, then press the kraut beneath the brine again.
When the bubbling slows, fermentation is nearly complete. Personally, I prefer to go by flavor over any other indicators of doneness. Taste the kraut as it ferments. When you really like how it tastes, it's done. At this point, you may pack the kraut into a quart jar and refrigerate it (no need to do this if it's already in a jar) or store it in a cool place, like a root cellar or unheated basement. Refrigeration will not stop the fermentation process, but it will slow it down significantly.
Kraut keeps indefinitely. JOY gives a shelf-life of “several months,” but I have year-old kraut in the fridge that tastes wonderful. If your kraut goes bad (in this case, it would be slimy and have a strong, disagreeable smell), discard the kraut without tasting it, and wash and bleach your fermentation vessel. A word of encouragement--I've never made a bad batch of kraut.


john's picture

I don't think it will kill off all of them... I suppose it depends on how much you plan to add. A splash shouldn't hurt anything :-)
Murray Dale's picture

When you want fermentation to stop should the mason jar be properly sealed? (Sealer ring)
john's picture

Yes, and refrigerated!
Ralph's picture

I made sauerkraut for the first time yesterday.I used for small/medium heads of green cabbage that I grew in my garden. I packed it real tight in mason jars. The cabbage did not make enough brine,, so I made a mixture of bottled water and kosher salt to cover the cabbage. I then put mason jar lids on the jars. Is this okay or should I remove the kraut from the jars and put in a crock? Also, if I keep it in the jars , remove the lids and place a cloth over each jar?
john's picture

Use sections of cloth and screw them on top with the mason jar rings.
Ralph's picture

I've had my sauerkraut put up in six mason jars. The first four were put up five weeks and two days ago.the second two were put up three weeks and five days ago. I started out checking, mixing and tasting each jar every two days, and then every three days, and the last two times ,four days. I've kept them covered with a find cloth, and secured with the lid ring. The plan was to place them in the refrigerator after six weeks. This morning after four days, I uncovered the jars. My first four jars were covered with a scum that looked more like gray mohair than anything else. I decided it was time to put the first four jars up. I then scraped off the scum and tasted the kraut. It tasted just fine. Nice and sour and crisp. The liquid level was low, so I stirred the kraut sprinkled one quarter tsp kosher salt on top. Then I just covered the top of the kraut with previously unopened bottled water. I sealed the jars with the lid and placed them in the refrigerator. Now, the second two jars had no scum on top. I tasted them and they tasted just fine. Not as sour as the first four, yet good and crispy. I decided to put them up also. Again, I stirred the kraut and followed the water and salt procedure. Seald the jars and into the refrigerator they went. This is the first time I made sauerkraut. I used home grown cabbages. I am anxious to eat some of this stuff. How long should I wait? I must admit I was shocked when I saw that mohair on top! What do you think? Everything safe? I tasted the jars ten hours ago.all tasted good, not dead yet.
john's picture

You can absolutely go ahead and eat the sauerkraut. I often start eating ours after as little as a week to 10 days of fermentation. It's kind of nice to enjoy the sauerkraut at different stages of tartness. If there's something on top of the kraut it could be one of two things: mold or yeast. Mold looks fuzzy. Yeast will look like a rumpled, velvety fabric. Or, if you've ever seen some of the soft French-style cheeses with a white rind that looks rumpled--that's yeast. With either, I just skim it off generously, discarding any of the cabbage it touches. Mold isn't ideal, but not the end of the world either. One way to prevent mold is to keep the cabbage well submerged beneath the brine, and use an airlock. Having said that, making kraut the old-fashioned way often means dealing with a little mold.


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