Fermenting 101: Basic sauerkraut

Make your own sauerkraut and other ferments with this simple basic recipe. It's a great introduction to fermenting and preserving your own food!

Fermenting is a skill that might seem daunting at the face of it. But once you get a hang of the basics, there’s no limit to where your inspiration or local resources can take you.

The great thing is that it really only takes a few, basic resources: Salt, vegetables, water, and a large jar with a good seal. I prefer rubber seals at least 1 cm (1/3 in) wide, I’ve had a lot of issues with jars that have a thin rubber seal less than 0.5 cm (1/8 in). So if you’ve tried fermenting before but they all went bad, perhaps a jar with a thicker seal will work better!

I also prefer clip tops rather than screw tops. It might be that all my screw top jars also happened to have thin rubber seals, and that’s why they went bad, but I just find clip top jars so easy to use, open and re-seal.

With that out of the way, let’s get right to it!

For sauerkraut you will need:

  • 2 clip top jars of approx 1 liter (34 fl. oz.) or one larger jar, clean
  • 1 Head of cabbage
  • Salt
  • Clean water. If you have chlorinated water, set a jug out overnight to evaporate the chlorine
  • Large bowl
  • Cutting board and knife

The good thing about fermenting is that, unlike with canning, we don’t actually need to sterilize our equipment. We want lactobacteria (good bacteria) to dominate our jars and outcompete any unhealthy or “bad” bacteria.

To do that, we make use of the fact that lactobacteria are halophilic, meaning they thrive in high salt environments. Most bacteria can’t handle lots of salt (hence why cutting boards and tables were scrubbed with salt back in the day), and so we give our lactobacteria the upper hand from the start.

Lactobacteria are also anaerobic, meaning they thrive in oxygen-free environments. To this end, keeping our vegetables submerged in a salty liquid is paramount. If you have any old ferments or have purchased live ferments from someone, you can also give your ferment a kickstart by adding a tablespoon of their liquid, which will be high in the kinds of bacteria you want.

With this, a clean jar, and making sure our vegetables are submerged in water, we ensure good conditions for our sauerkraut and the highest chances of success.

Procedure

Split the cabbage in half, then quarters, then eights. I find this makes it a lot easier to cut strips that aren’t really, really long.

Slice those sections finely. I include everything, core and all. It’s all edible, so all you have to do is make sure it’s cut into not-too-big chunks.

Layer your slices in that large bowl I mentioned earlier. It needs to be at least twice if not three times the size of your head of cabbage. White cabbage is packed seriously tight, so when we cut it open it demands more space.

Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt (I use sea salt) in between each eight or quarter you’ve sliced up. It’s going to seem like a lot of salt. That’s all right. This is a condiment, not the main dish. You’re not supposed to eat a whole jar in one sitting.

Now comes the difficult part. You need to wait. Anywhere from 2 to 12 hours.

Especially if you have limited storage space or want maximum amount of cabbage per jar, waiting is important. While you wait, the salt is drawing out water from the cabbage, making it shrink in size. If you wait long enough, a juicy head of cabbage will release enough moisture to submerge itself in the jar (if you press it hard enough).

If not, or if there isn’t quite enough juice in your cabbage, we top-up with a saltwater solution. This should be salty enough that you can clearly taste the salt. About as salty as seawater.

Pressing

If you move the cabbage and see a small pool of liquid at the bottom of the bowl, your cabbage is ready for pressing.

Simply take your clean jar and press as much salty cabbage + liquid into the jar as you can. This is pretty easy with a pair of clean, freshly washed hands.

Make sure that there is at least a full inch /2.5 cm of space between the cabbage and the top of the jar. Ferments create carbon dioxide, and this will cause the liquid to expand.

If you have a juicy cabbage and have waited long enough, you should be able to press the cabbage enough that liquid seeps up on top and completely submerges the cabbage. If not, or if you are not able to press hard enough, simply dissolve a tablespoon of salt in a liter or so of water (it is no problem if a little salt remains undissolved at the bottom of the jug) and pour that over your cabbage until it is submerged.

You need to make sure that your cabbage is submerged as much as possible. That means no long ribbons of cabbage lining the side of the jar over the liquid. I have heard of people saving a leaf of the cabbage for this to use as a “lid”, but I have to admit I have never done that. With clean tools and plenty of salt, I have not had a ferment go bad on me.

For a regular head of cabbage, two jars are usually enough, but it is not a bad idea to have another in reserve just in case. Especially if you know your wrists cannot take too much force, or you found a particularly large head of cabbage.

Here is the result of me packing two large-ish heads of cabbage. It might be difficult to see in the picture, but there is a layer of water over the main portion of cabbage, and an inch of air over the liquid again. In that one inch of air on top, the glass is carefully inspected for any renegade strands of cabbage that might promote mold.

Now, you just have to label them with the date you made them (especially useful if you make multiple batches like we do), and place them in a cool place to ferment. If you have an old baking tray, you can put them on that for the first 2-3 weeks (the primary carbonation period). If you overfilled your jar, the leak will be contained by your tray. This doesn’t hurt your ferment, it’s just cleanup for you.

I’ve found clip-top jars great for this part too. If a lid is too tight, you might have pressure buildup on the inside. But the clip-top jars allow air (and sometimes liquid) to escape to the outside due to overpressure but doesn’t allow air and germs in. In my now over five years of fermenting, I have never had a jar break on me.

Inspection

After 4 weeks, your sauerkraut is ready to eat. Ferments keep really, really well at room temperature and are great emergency preparation supplies. The only thing you need to be aware of is that the fermentation process will not stop, so as it ages it will grow more and more sour (until there is no more food for the lactobacteria to turn into vinegar). I have eaten sauerkraut well over a year old. The texture is a little less crunchy than fresh sauerkraut, but it was still perfectly fine.

Nevertheless, the last and most important step of fermenting is inspecting the end product. If it looks or smells bad, it probably is.

A healthy ferment should provide a pop and a small burst of bubbles when you open the jar for the first time, just like a bottle of carbonated soda. The bubbles may not be very big, but if you lean your ear close to the jar, you should hear a fizzing sound.

It should also smell tangy and fresh. If there is any mold or it smells bad, or the color is off, throw it out. A ferment will change in color as it ages, but it should still make sense given the original color of the vegetable. You don’t expect white cabbage to turn, say, brown or red unless you added any colorants to it that would warrant it.

Inspection all passed and good, now it’s time to tuck in! We enjoy sauerkraut in a tortilla with veggie dogs and all the toppings, or alongside heavier meals to lighten them up. It is also really good with rice and beans, again as a refreshing side dish.

For variation, you could try adding ginger, chili, and garlic to your sauerkraut. Or how about pineapple, turmeric, and ginger for a burst of yellow sunshine? There is lots of stuff you can do with this basic recipe. This is just the beginning!

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