How to Make Sauerkraut
and get comfortable with fermented foods
By Michelle Branco
If you’re used to the careful packaging of most processed foods, the idea
of eating something where bacterial growth is actually encouraged requires a
certain amount of faith. Even if you’ve dabbled in canning, or maybe
especially so, replacing the destruction of bacteria with its careful
nurturing is something of a leap. But this article will reassure you of the
safety of fermented foods and provide information about how to make
sauerkraut in your home kitchen.
Despite what you could consider a natural wariness, fermented foods
exist in virtually every traditional diet – whether as vegetables, dairy, or
grains. Even without the level of hygiene in our modern kitchens,
lacto-fermentation in particular is effective at long-term preservation
because the lacto-bacteria are extremely effective at killing off other
bacteria and the acid environment they create is inhospitable (but tasty!).
Effective as a method of preserving the harvest, fermented foods are also
nutritional powerhouses, maximizing the availability of nutrients and
nurturing the healthy bacterial flora of the eater. Fermentation breaks down
compounds that are indigestible, making foods edible that might otherwise be
hard to digest. At the same time, research summarized in a 1995 WHO/FAO
report on fermented foods shows that by changing the ph levels in foods,
nutrients that would have been poorly absorbed can be used effectively by
the body – namely, calcium, iron, and zinc. At the same time, vitamin C is
unaffected by fermentation, which further increases the availability of iron
in the food.
The live bacteria does more than just alter the food – when consumed, it
changes the body as well. In a 2004 review of current evidence, a
researchers group noted several animal studies that indicate that the
consumption of lacto-bacteria in common foods improves the body’s ability to
respond to both infection and inflammation quite dramatically. As we
increase our understanding of the connection between diet, gut health, and
the immune system, it seems increasingly clear that science is figuring out
what peasants have known for generations: Sometimes a little “sour” is just
what the body needs.
While I’m willing to embrace the idea of fermented foods, it does pose
something of a problem to the modern cook. By their nature, live fermented
foods are unpredictable and sensitive to their environment – distribution
through grocery store supply chains is understandably problematic.
Of course, scale becomes a problem in the other direction when the home cook
considers setting up a nurturing environment for some countertop
fermentation. Recipes that have yields in the gallons and usually include
buckets are probably very close to the original, but may not be realistic
given the size of today’s families and kitchens.
Take heart – it’s possible to make your own sauerkraut or cheese in a tiny
kitchen in a quantity that will not see your family eating nothing but your
experiment for a month! Once you try it, you may soon find a row of bubbling
jars along your countertop. On purpose.
Here is a recipe for small batch sauerkraut. In future articles, I’ll
discuss making ginger beer, salt-risen bread, and cheese.
Making Sauerkraut in Your Home Kitchen
Very often, sauerkraut in grocery aisles is pasteurized or heavily
refrigerated. While this lets the sauerkraut keep on the shelf almost
indefinitely, it also means that the health benefits of the live bacteria
that transformed that cabbage are lost. Fermentation needs a nurturing hand
– and the large-scale manufacturer doesn’t have one.
Making your own small batches of sauerkraut at home means that you can take
advantage of a little extra cabbage and still have it in a quantity that can
be stored without having to can it.
The process for making sauerkraut is almost ridiculously simple – just
shred, salt, and submerge. The lacto-bacteria present in the cabbage do the
1 head green cabbage
2 to 3 tbsp. table salt
2 L crock or jar, with an air-tight lid
Sterilize crock or jar and utensils in hot boiling water for 10 minutes
and dry thoroughly.
Remove outer cabbage leaves, quarter and cut out tough core. Rinse
cabbage and dry well. Using very sharp knife or slicer, finely shred cabbage
and set aside.
Variations on a Theme
Once you have a batch under your belt, start experimenting with
these additions (alone or in combination):
- Substitute different cabbage for green cabbage
- 1 tsp. crushed red pepper, caraway, mustard, or celery seeds
- 2 large raw carrots, grated
- 4 small raw beets, peeled and grated
- 2 whole garlic cloves
Layer 2 to 3 centimeters (1 inch) of cabbage, sprinkle with a teaspoon.
of salt – repeat until cabbage is finished. As you work, press down firm- ly
on each new layer to remove as much air as possible, as the salt draws out
the brine from the cabbage – a potato masher (sterilized) can work well.
Once you are finished with your cabbage, you should have enough brine to
cover the cabbage by several centimeters. If you do not, let it sit for a
few hours – if still not enough, you can mix up some extra brine with one
teaspoon of salt to each cup of water to cover.
Lacto-fermentation takes place without air – you need to protect the
cabbage from being exposed to air during the process to avoid spoilage. Take
a small plate (or any flat non-metal object like a plastic lid) and place on
top of the cabbage. To weigh the plate down, fill a plastic sandwich bag
with brine, pie weights, or even some clean stones – just be sure that you
leave nothing metal in contact with the brine.
Close the jar or crock. Then, find a warm spot where your jar will be
safe from curious hands and jostling, and wait. If you’re using a jar, you
should also keep it in a fairly dark place.
Within a day or so, you’ll probably notice some bubbles beginning – one
advantage to using a clear jar is that you can watch the magic happen. Every
day, you can gently push down the plate to release any carbon dioxide
bubbles. I’ve never found that mold grows in my kitchen – maybe because of
the small batches. If some mold does grow, just skim it off. After a week or
so, you can try giving it a taste – using a very clean wooden spoon scoop a
few tablespoons out.
The sauerkraut can be eaten as soon as it is to your taste – the earlier
in the process it is, the crunchier and spicier it is. This makes a tasty
salad without any further preparation.
The fermentation is completely finished when new bubbles stop forming –
usually about three weeks at room temperature. At that point, it may begin
to go soft on the countertop – you can refrigerate it or can it in a hot
water bath for longer storage if you have any left over.
Once the cabbage is eaten, the leftover brine can be used as a stock base
for soups or dressings – some sour-lovers even drink it as a digestive tonic,
mixed with water.
Food Safety & Fermentation
Unlike traditional preserving, you won’t be using high heat & hermetic
seals to keep food from spoiling, so you need to take special care not to
introduce pathogenic bacteria while you nurture the healthy bacteria.
- Sterilize all utensils, jars, and crocks before using.
- Wash hands and cutting surfaces thoroughly.
- Use healthy, peak-of-ripeness produce, preferably organic.
- This is not a time to skimp on salt – a minimum level of salt and acidity
is needed to inhibit the growth of dangerous bacteria.
- Wash and dry all produce well.
- During fermentation, keep little (and big) fingers out of crocks and away
from excessive heat or cold that might disturb the process.
- Refrigerate or can for longer-term storage.
- “Sour” does not mean rotten; discard food that has turned color, smells
foul, or has become mushy.
Michelle Branco is a freelance writer and
blogger about mothering, breastfeeding, product safety
and, of course, food. Her much-put-upon family serves as lab assistants,
taste testers, and clean-up crew. She is also an International Board
Certified Lactation Consultant and when she’s not at the keyboard or
experimenting in the kitchen, she runs a private lactation consultant
practice called Latch Lactation.
word graphic © Kheng Guan Toh/Shutterstock
Images; sauerkraut photo © Hallgerd/Shutterstock Images