Making sauerkraut, or fermenting cabbage, is so simple, I don't know why I didn't start making it years ago! I made my first batch last fall, after hearing fermentation guru Sandor Katz speak at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo. I had traveled to Vienna earlier in the year, where I was, once again, reminded how good fermented sauerkraut is in comparison to the vinegared version typical in U.S. grocery stores. And I decided it was time to delve into the wonderful world of wild fermentation, taking advantage of naturally occurring microbes to alter food.
A couple generations ago, when many families were producing much of their own foods, fermenting cabbage was commonplace. And the sauerkraut in the cold cellar was an important vegetable for the fall and winter months. I am fortunate to be able to share the following family story about sauerkraut that spans five generations.
This red rock sits in the garden outside my parents' antebellum Missouri house, which was once my grandmother's home.
Over the years, Grandma Marr moved that rock with her from one home to another. Grandma displayed the stone when the house was part of a historic homes tour about 45 years ago. This was the text she wrote for the tour:
This rock has weathered many storms. It belonged to my grandmother and was used as a weight to hold down cabbage leaves which were layered on top of the 10 gallon jar when she was making sauerkraut. Having been raised by my grandmother, Sarah Jane Noland, I and two other girls left [without mothers] shared the tasks. Among them was the job of going to the cellar to dip out enough kraut for a meal. It has sentimental value.
Grandma's mother died of tuberculosis when she was five years old. Her father left Grandma in the care of Sarah Jane so he could find better work. This is the only picture we have of Grandma's parents together.
Grandma Marr was a phenomenal cook, and I only imagine she learned much of that from my great-great Grandmother Noland. I think of the two of them and that rock every time I make sauerkraut.
Here are simple directions for making sauerkraut. Start with two to three heads of cabbage. Weigh the cabbage. Peel off outer leaves and set aside. Quarter each head and cut quarters into thin ribbons. Place in a large bowl. Add about 2 teaspoons of salt per pound of cabbage. Massage the cabbage to mix in the salt and start to draw out water. Place in a clean crock.
Cover with cabbage leaves. Weight with pickling weights or a plate.
Cover crock with a lid. Check 24 hours later. If there is not enough water to submerge the cabbage, add salt water (1 tsp per cup of water). Place the crock in a cool area and let ferment at least two weeks. We ferment in the basement. Check every few days and add salt water, as needed. If any surface scum forms, remove with a spoon.
Test the sauerkraut and when you're satisfied with the flavor and texture, ladle sauerkraut and liquid into jars and refrigerate. Fermentation will continue in the 'fridge, but at a slower rate.
Naturally present lactobacillus bacteria are responsible for cabbage fermenting into sauerkraut. Lactobacillus metabolize sugar and produce lactic acid. The lactic acid decreases the pH of the brine, which, along with the salt, helps preserve the cabbage. Lactic acid bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they thrive in an environment void of oxygen.
These are my tips for making sauerkraut:
- Start with good fresh cabbage. I have made sauerkraut with both store-bought cabbage and farmers market cabbage. Either will do, but I prefer the farmers market cabbage, because my experience has been that the cabbage is fresher and has a higher water content.
- Shred cabbage by hand or with a food processor, depending on how much time you're willing to invest. Hand-sliced yields a crunchier result than food-processed due to less surface area.
- Use uniodized salt. Iodine can cause off colors and flavors when fermenting. Morton's and Ball both sell pickling and canning salt, which is free of iodine.
- Keep the cabbage submerged. Anaerobic lactobacillus won't grow on the surface exposed to air, but mold will.
- If you need to add water, boil for 10 minutes and let cool before adding to the crock. That will help dissipate added chlorine, which may interfere with microbial growth needed for fermentation.
- Consider using clamp-top jars to avoid metal degradation of reusable screw-top lids. You can replace the rubber gaskets as needed.
You can flavor sauerkraut by adding caraway or fennel seeds before fermenting. I prefer to keep our household stash straightforward, so we can expand meal uses. Homemade sauerkraut certainly ups the game with brats!