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By Popular Demand: My Step By Step Guide to Homemade, Traditional Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut!
I’ve had a number of questions and Twitter interactions when I talk about making traditional fermented sauerkraut or pickles and people have asked to see how I do it.
What, not a money thing?! There’s more to my life than finance! And there is more to yours too!
I’m hoping I can make this post really simple and easy to follow with step by step directions and photos.
Why fermented foods:
Probiotics are all the rage right? We know that there is something to be said about getting some good bacteria into our guts. Most of the probiotic supplements that you find in stores (and traditional foods like yogurt and kefir) rely and various lactobacillus sp.
Lactobacillus is the main player in producing fermented foods. Instead of pickling in acetic acid, aka vinegar, for regular store pickles we rely on lactic acid. There are some complex interactions going on where the lactic acid producing bacteria out compete the bad stuff leading to a relatively shelf (or fridge) stable product that keeps for a long time.
There are also some other organisms involved here, mostly yeasts. They aren’t what we’re looking for but they’re part of the equation. When a product turns out funky looking, it’s often due to a yeast growth issue. It can effect the flavor in a negative way, but it’s safe. The bacteria also produce some unique vitamins in the process, such as B-12.
I’ll say, that, as a a pharmacist the verdict is out on how helpful probiotics are. More and more evidence points to benefit, but it may come down to very specific bacteria and some may help more in certain situations.
But, it probably doesn’t hurt anything! I look at this from more of a “get more friendly bugs in your system” perspective than as a specific health seeking habit. We like to eat the stuff and it might be extra good for us, so that’s a bonus. But some people are really serious about how they think fermented foods have increased their health.
I’m also a big believer in the “hygiene hypothesis” in regards to many of our health issues. Week seek to sterilize our world, and, it’s doing more harm than good. Expose yourself to some wee beasties now and then! It’ll make you big and strong!
Most quick info you’ll find on hygiene hypothesis speaks to allergies, but, there is more and more evidence for the role of microbiome in inflammatory and immune modulated conditions, which, is basically like everything that goes wrong aside from physical trauma.
It’s not necessarily that “frugal”…
If you are comparing these to the “regular” items on the shelf at the grocery store, that is. But, if you’re comparing to one of the popularly available fermented sauerkraut brands, like Bubbies, IT’S WAY CHEAPER.
I tend to take a broader perspective when it comes to foods I make at home. Reduced packaging, reduced shipping, ability to buy locally grown produce are some things I think of. Taking in the whole picture, it IS frugal.
I also like the idea that I am relearning and hopefully passing on to my family a skill set that had been common knowledge for thousands of years as well as the ability to preserve the harvest. These are things we are losing and you never know when these skills will come in handy. Did I just drop my #prepper card a bit? When it comes to educating yourself and building new skills, well, that’s just priceless.
Background on fermented foods:
People have been doing this for THOUSANDS of years. The principles applied here work for most fermented foods. The difference in something like fermented sauerkraut vs. say, pickles, is that the cabbage makes it’s own brine (mostly) and with cucumber pickles you have to create the brine. Other than that, pretty similar.
A couple of take homes
- It’s not that hard
- Your extremely unlikely to do something to make yourself sick if you put just a little bit of care and attention into it (botulism is a risk for CANNED foods, not living, breathing, fermented foods).
- Recipes are quite flexible… it’s as much art as science.
- DON’T LET HUGE POSTS ONLINE INTIMIDATE YOU, JUST START!
BE PATIENT! THE HARDEST PART
- Be thoughtful of what foods you start with… Items higher in sugar (RED cabbage, carrots, beets, for example) ferment faster and can have a bit more tendency to go “bad” or mushy.
- You may want to start with something like an “italian mix” of carrots/peppers/cauliflower if you are concerned with “heaving” (read on for more info) that can occur with shredded packed vegetables like cabbage.
On To The Fermented Sauerkraut Making!
Step 1: Prep your materials
Get your materials together. Pay attention to optional accessories. You really don’t need much. I have:
- A relatively fresh cabbage. This one weighed 5 pounds whole.
- The fresher the cabbage, the less likely you will be to need to make extra brine. Older store bought cabbages tend to be kind of dry. I try to buy mine from the farmers market in the fall and my produce guy even refers to these big ones as “kraut cabbages.” You’ll be ok with store bought, but you will have to make brine.
- Sea Salt:I use Celtic Sea Salt, a natural grey colored sea salt with lots of trace minerals. I ordered a 5 pound bag off Amazon and it’s lasted forever. I like it for eating too.. good flavor, nice punch of salt and sometimes a little crunch. I’ve also use the “REAL SALT” brand, which is ancient mined sea salt from the middle of the USA.
- I suggest a natural sea salt of some kind, as do many people who ferment. The organisms seems to do a bit better with the boost of trace minerals. Additionally, they don’t contain the anti-caking agents that can give a cloudy appearance. I’ve just found mine works better with “unprocessed” sea salt of some kind
- A large bowl to put your shredded cabbage in
- I picked my lodge dutch oven because I should have made kraut two weeks earlier and it was a little dry. The dutch oven gave me plenty of surface area to “smash” the cabbage and has a lid so I don’t lose brine to evaporation.
- A large cutting board
- A large sharp knife (that can quarter a cabbage)
- OPTIONAL ACCESSORY: Kraut Pounder
- Ok, I don’t know what these things are really called. This is my first time using this tool, I usually just use my fist. Mine is from the thrift store, but you can find similar items online. You use it to both bruise and breakdown the kraut to soften and create the brine. Then you can use it to help pack it in to your fermenting vessel tightly. You can also use a wide dowel like kitchen roller… or pound with your fist and make this a stress reducing exercise too!
- OPTIONAL ACCESSORY: Box Grater/Mandolin/Food Processor
- I’ve never had good luck getting the long shreds I want with any of the above. Sometimes I use the grater (and the mandolin cutting side) if I’ve got a lot of cabbage to do. I recently bought new blades for our food processor but haven’t used it yet for this because I kind of hate to clean it. All the serious kraut makers use fancy, sharp, dangerous mandolins. ME: I USUALLY JUST FINELY CUT WITH MY KITCHEN KNIFE.
- Fermenting Vessels: In my case a 1/2 gallon “canning” jar with airlock lids.
- As LOVELY and Instagram worthy as those beautiful pottery crocks are (in all their various styles, I really find the ease of using a glass jar with an airlock to be hard to ignore. I make ceramic pottery and even made myself a small waterlock vessel, but I still use my glass jars. I really recommend them to newbies so you can keep an eye on things, plus THEY’RE CHEAP compared to investing in crockery!
- Fermenting IN THE JAR means NO PRODUCT TRANSFER WHEN FERMENTING COMPLETE! You just switch to a regular lid and pop in the fridge. Easy!
- You can buy the airlock systems online or create your own. It’s a plastic lid meant to fit a canning jar with a plastic ring underneath to help the seal plus a hole with an o-ring in it. You fit any variety of airlock easily available at brewing supply stores or online in the hole. There are much cooler tools available online that solve some problems, but, get acquainted with fermenting before you invest in a bunch of stuff. *read further to find out why I recommend airlock systems vs. open air systems.
- DON’T WANT TO BUY AN AIRLOCK? You can also just use a standard canning lid tightened, but loosely enough to allow it to push up a bit and vent. You WILL have overflow if you do this. But it’s do-able and saves you buying anything special.
- Small metal condiment cups: read on for how these are used
Step 2: Shred that cabbage!
Peel off the gross looking outer leaves… PUT THEM TO THE SIDE, we will use them later! Remember, we’re relying on bacteria to produce the kraut. So you don’t want to use parts that are obviously decaying or damaged. I remove the out leaves and cut out bad spots on inner leaves.
I was stupid and started grating the cabbage instead of using the mandolin side of the grater. I figured I’d save it to show the difference in cutting with the knife. You can do ok with the mandolin side, but, I feel I have more control over the length and width of shreds if I use the knife.
I don’t get too picky about it. There are some chunks and I just rotate the cabbage trying to get the longest sections I can for those shreds. You can finely shred some of the core. BUT do keep a few pieces of the core to use at the end step when we pack into the jars (and when it’s all fermented you can eat these big core pieces if you want).
*Tip: Use two bowls. Pre-weigh a bowl or tare your scale, then place all the shreds in it, weight when done. Then transfer to a second bowl in portions for salting.
Step 3: Ready for some salt!
Once you’ve got about half a bowl full of cabbage shredded, it’s time to begin addings some salt.
This step is easier if you have a kitchen scale:
3 tablespoons of sea salt per 5 pounds of vegetable
(This is for “shredded” packed type ferments like kraut or kimchi)
The above ratio works well for something like fermented sauerkraut and should make about 3 quarts. Alternatively you can use 1 tablespoon per 1 and 3/4 pound of veg.
This is really one of the most important steps as salt is both helps to create your brine by drawing water out of the cabbage and make the “safe” environment to ferment in.
Too much salt, and your ferment won’t proceed quickly enough, or will just taste bad. Salt is a preservative, so too much, and.. not much happens!
Too little salt, the environment will allow the bad bacteria and mold that cause spoilage to grow faster than the lactobacillus can to outcompete them, and you’re more likely to have a soft or mushy product.
Confession: I weighed my cabbage whole and calculated how much salt to add that way. It was 5 pounds even.
I SHOULD have weighed it all once it was shredded but I was being lazy. I would say, cut out the core and then weigh it, but, I like to keep the core on when shredding the cabbage to keep it all together. I’m not sure what my final weight was, but I did NOT end up with the 3 quarts I should have.. more like two. Whoops.
Sprinkle salt 1 tablespoon at a time on your shredded cabbage
I try to do this when I have about half shredded and then again at the end depending on how much salt I need.
Step 4: Massage and pound your cabbage!
Once you’ve got some salt in, you want to evenly mix it in. Give it a nice massage while you’re doing this. Add some twisting action, kind of like wringing out a rag. The goal is to break down the cabbage and get it to release some juices to start forming a brine.
Again, you can do this with your fist or with a pounder of some kind. It just helps to further breakdown the cell walls of the plant letting more juices out to form brine. After this, give it a good massage again.
Add the rest of you cabbage shreds, repeat salting until all salt needed has been added.
Repeating massaging and pounding.
Step 5: Cover with lid and let rest
How long? It’s pretty flexible and depends on how dry your cabbage is. Anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours!
Throw your cores and extra outer leaves in the covered bowl while you let it sit.
How long really?
I’ve never waited more than about an hour. That’s typically enough time for my fresher cabbage to produce plenty of brine.
One of my books says to let it sit like this overnight, or up to 24 hours! This is sure to get your maximum natural brine, but, it’s also more time to get exposed to molds, bacteria and yeasts in the air. I wonder if this may also have to do with reducing the amount of heaving on the first day?
A word on HEAVING!
Heaving is a normal part of fermented sauerkraut making. Part of the natural fermenting produces gases. When the veggies are tightly packed it can be harder for those gases to escape. It’s normal while it’s fermenting to notice bubbles developing and things looking less tightly packed together. Eventually, enough pressure will develop that the mound of veggies kind of “burps” and heaves up. This often results in some overflow and spillage of brine.
Your airlock helps to prevent this but does not eliminate it. Heaving is typically a problem in the first week when the most active fermentation is going on. You also reduce this risk by allowing enough headspace in your jar. I’ll address this more later!
Step 6: Pack into jar(s)
Once the salted cabbage has rested for “a while” and formed a brine, it’s time to pack it into the jar!
If you have one, I suggest a canning funnel to help you get more of the product into the jar vs. on to the table. I was lazy and didn’t pull mine out, so I put the jar IN the bowl and just scoop it in with my hand.
I try to reserve most of the liquid until the very end in case I need to add to a second jar, and then I can spread out the brine evenly.
When you’ve got a fair amount packed in, you can use your pounder or your fist to pack it down evenly and create room for more.
Try to not go more than about 4/5th’s full. You want to leave some space in the jar neck for the heaving I described above.
Alternatively, don’t “underpack” the jar. Don’t go less than 3/4 full. As this process is meant to take place ANAEROBICALLY, or, in the absence of oxygen, you’re going to have better results if you leave less space for oxygen in the jar. More on this in the last section!
Once you’ve evenly distributed the kraut between jar(s), add the brine from your bowl.
I have had times where I plan to use the half-gallon jar and go over by a pint or a quart. No big deal, I have those jar sizes available too and I just make a smaller batch this way.
You’ll note I didn’t add any spices! This is a personal preference. We like ours simple and versatile. BUT, if you need to make a second smaller jar, that’s a GREAT place to experiment with some flavor options. They are plenty if you do an internet search, though a small amount of caraway seed is quite common.
Step 7: Final packing prep before lidding
Remember we saved those outer leaves and the core? We’re going to use those to help create a barrier on top if the shreds.
This barrier has two purposes:
1. If any yucky scum does form, hopefully it will just be on this top layer and you can just peel it off. Sometimes this happens if your brine level drops (perhaps due to heaving) and you end up with some product that was above the level of the brine.
2. When heaving does occur, you made a nice little blanket that keeps everything contained below this barrier. Makes it a bit easier to deal with the heave.
Use one of your lids to estimate how much leaf to cut. Use one of those outer leaves (not too yucky) and cut roughly around the shape of the lid, trying to center one of the main leaf veins under the middle.
I said cut roughly- so leave a half inch or so excess around the shape of the lid.
I usually like to have FOUR of these pieces. Once you have them, arrange them in quarters and try to tuck down over the edge of the cabbage in the jar. Like a little pastry topping. Leave the spine edge of the leaf as the top/middle in the jar.
You can now also place a piece of the cabbage core we saved on TOP of all this to further help keep it pushed down and in place when the lid is on (if you put it on top of the “leaf blanket” you’re not going to want to eat the core). If you want to eat the core, pack it in to the shreds below to allow to ferment with the rest.
Step 8: Assembling and using airlock lid
I described the airlock above, but we will review again here.
- Plastic jar lid with hole and o-ring in hole
- Plastic jar seal underside of lid
- Standard airlock plastic piece (that come in various styles)
You also see a metal condiment cup… This goes UNDER the lid, under the o-ring.
In the setup above, I placed this on top of the cabbage core, and used enough cabbage core to get that little condiment cup to sit fairly stable without falling over.
If and when heaving occurs, some of that liquid first flows into the condiment cup. It can help to reduce the amount of liquid that forces up through your airlock assembly out out of the 0-ring/airlock attachment.
Here’s what the final assembly looks like:
Step 9: WAIT!
Oh yes, now is the hard part!
Ideal fermentation temperature is 65-70 degrees. Much cooler than that, and fermentation will proceed very slowly. Much warmer than that, and it can proceed too quickly, which tends to invite more of the bugs we don’t want, especially yeasts, and it’s more likely to go soft or mushy.
That being said, it’s pretty flexible. Don’t stress it too much. If your house is warm, look for a cooler spot, maybe in a dark cupboard? If your house is cold, stick it near somewhere warmer, like right next to the fridge?
Again, your kraut IS going to heave. The question is simply, how much?
So be smart, and place a container of some type under your jar to contain any spillage.
Typically, at least two weeks! I let mine ferment for 4 to 6 weeks before I move it to the fridge to develop further!
You should not need to open that jar lid for TWO WEEKS. LEAVE IT ALONE. Some sources will say to check it at a week. If you like sour coleslaw.. go ahead, but I want real fermented sauerkraut.
The waiting is the hardest part when you are learning to ferment.
But, fear not, we used a clear glass jar! You can keep an eye on things without having to open it up.
Expect to see the color change, expect to see air pockets and bubbles forming.
After about 2 weeks, feel free to open it up and sample it. Make sure you have clean hands. Peel back the blanket layer and sample the veg underneath. If you like the flavor, go ahead and eat it. At this stage, it may still have some “effervescence.”
IT’S GOING TO STINK. That’s just part of ferments. They’re stinky. Fermented sauerkraut particularly so at times. My husband says it smells like sewer gas (and I bet there’s a lot of fermentation going on down there, so that’s probably accurate).
I will typically leave mine out on the counter for 4-6 weeks until it starts to get a little soft. In my opinion, it still usually doesn’t taste like “real” fermented sauerkraut just yet.
At that point I transfer it to the fridge and let it rest for a COUPLE OF MONTHS.
You read that right! WAIT A COUPLE OF MONTHS.
Something happens when the fermentation process slows down and the more complex flavors start to develop.
How long can you use it for?
If you keep it in the fridge, easily a year! I typically make kraut once a year in the fall and we eat it until the next season. We do have a spare fridge, so this works for us.
You will notice that once it goes into the fridge it will appear that brine disappears. I’m not sure what happens, but if you let it come to room temperature much of it “reappears” so it must be being absorbed into the plant material or something.
Is it safe?
Trust your instincts. If it looks “bad” throughout or smells rancid, “when in doubt throw it out”
That being said, I can find almost no documentation of food poisoning from fermented foods. Eat too much of it with the active bacteria might give you a little diarrhea if you’re not accustomed to eating it. So, start low and go slow.
Remember, people have been fermenting for thousands of years. And in many cultures, the stinkiest, most disgusting looking fermented products are considered extreme delicacies!
A word on yeast:
I’ve mentioned a few things about yeast. It is super common to get yeast growth in ferments. It’s commonly called “kahm yeast” and looks like a pale colored velvety or “soft” layer that forms on the top of some ferments. It’s harmless, but can effect the taste.
We’ve done two things here to help prevent it:
- Used an airlock lid. As yeasts (and other nasties) are going to get into your ferment by exposure from the air (though, there are some naturally settled on and colonized on the plant surfaces), reducing the air exposure reduces contaminants.
- Made our “leaf blanket” so if we do get a contaminant, we can just remove the outer layer!
Airlock lids vs. traditional crocks
I think I’ve went over pretty well the benefits of using jars with airlock lids.
Lactic acid fermentation is an anaerobic process that occurs in the lack of oxygen. We help to speed up this process and get the most USEABLE product by putting the airlock on it.
As fermentation gases build up and produce, they will force the oxygen out through the airlock. This maintains the anaerobic environment. This is one of the reasons you want to leave that lid on for two weeks or so!
Traditional open mouth vessels are usually covered with cheesecloth. I think what was also traditional was to use something like a round of wood cut to shape as both a lid “of sorts” and as a weight to keep everything down. This did work to produce an anaerobic environment, but, not completely so.
If you’re interested in these set ups, there are plenty of education resources how to do it. Fermentation being an art as well as a science means lots of ideas and opinions!
My understanding is that in these older ferment setups, the top inch or two is often removed to get to the “better” layers underneath. That’s fine when you are doing BARRELS of fermented sauerkraut, but we’re doing much smaller batches. We would like to keep as much of our product useable as possible. So, I’ll stick to the sealed jars.
There is a third variety of fermentation vessel that I will call a “water lock crock.” These work well and can be very beautiful and expensive! Not for the novice fermenter.
Water lock crocks have a lip-well , or like a double edged lip the the lid sits in. This lip is deep enough to put water into, thereby forming a seal. Here are some beautiful handmade examples. The idea here being, a seal is formed that doesn’t allow air in. When the product needs to “burp” the lid just pops up a bit and then settles back down into the water seal, maintaining your air free environment.
Stoneware is also good at maintaining temperatures. It can both help to insulate from cold temps and keep cooler in warm temps. Likely, keeping out of light is a good thing too as some microorganisms (especially those that like air free environments) may be impacted by sunlight. I just try to keep my kraut in the pantry or a cupboard to keep it out of direct sunlight.
Well, I tried to make this short and simple! I mean it, I tried!
There is so much that I feel like I didn’t even get into here! Obviously, I’m interested and passionate about this topic.
I’m hoping I gave you enough information here to feel like you can safely (and cheaply) try your hand at making traditionally fermented sauerkraut.
Feel free to inquire with questions and I’d love to know if you make fermented sauerkraut and how it goes!
Remember, there is a WEALTH of information online. I would hardly consider myself an expert. If you think something went wrong, do a google search, I bet your answer is out there.