You know all about the health benefits of lactofermented foods like sauerkraut–how it aids digestion, replenishes essential gut flora, boosts the immune system–but maybe you’re nervous about leaving food out on the counter for several days or maybe you’ve tried making sauerkraut or pickles before and not gotten the results you expected. In my classes and on various email lists, I frequently hear tales of sauerkraut woe. Moldy, soggy, stinky (in the wrong way), sad kraut. The thing is, I’ve been making it for years and even early on, I’ve never had a kraut go wrong. I doubt I’m some sort of mad kraut genius, but I have a feeling that there is something about the combination of ingredients and method I use that’s making a difference. I’m not sure which of these are key, but here are some possible reasons for my kraut success:
- I always add seeds in my kraut. Usually juniper berries and caraway, but sometimes celery seeds, cumin, or dill seed seeds. Seeds contain enzymes that protect the kraut from putrefying microorganisms. According to Wild Fermentation author Sandor Katz (who is a mad kraut genius), you can even make a low-salt kraut with lots of seeds.
- I also always add fresh minced ginger. Ginger makes the kraut extra refreshing, but it also has anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties and has traditionally been used to help preserve foods.
- One key to good ferments is having plenty of liquid on top. The salty brine provides a barrier to putrefying bacteria. Keep the baddies out by pressing down hard when packing the kraut into a jar or crock, which forces the expressed water to the top. The cabbage will reabsorb this salty brine during the fermentation. Pressing the kraut during the initial fermentation period can get enough liquid to rise to the top again, but if not, add salted water to cover (1 tablespoon dissolved in a pint of water).
- I cover my kraut with a lid to keep out airborne molds and yeast. I’ve read suggestions to only cover the kraut with a cheesecloth or a towel during fermentation, but that strikes me as an invitation to bad guys. The explanation for this practice, I understand, is to allow the ferment to expel gases. So, when fermenting in a glass jar, I cover the jar with a loosely tightened lid, or when fermenting in crocks, I cover the crock with a plate. Gases can still escape, but the ferment is less vulnerable to intruders.
- I ferment on the counter in my kitchen, which is typically 65F to 68F, and check on my kraut’s progress daily. In summer, when my kitchen is warmer, I keep a closer eye on things and do the counter-top ferment for three days instead of four.
With all that in mind, here’s how I recently began a large batch of sauerkraut.
- When preparing a small batch of sauerkraut I pack it in a half-gallon canning jar, but here I’m making a 3 gallon batch, so I pulled out one of my Pacific Stoneware crocks (made in Portland, probably in the 1940s).
- For the initial mixing and pounding, I find it easier to work in a vessel that’s even larger than my fermentation vessel, so that’s why I’ve also got my 18-quart stainless steel stock pot. Its flat bottom makes it easier to pound the kraut. Bowls can be harder to work in. By the way, while I am mixing and pounding the cabbage in stainless, don’t ferment in stainless steel (acids can etch it over time)–only glass or stoneware. Some folks ferment in plastic, but I would suggest not doing that as even food grade plastic can leach when in contact with acidic food.
- The wooden tool there is a kraut pounder, which is handy for pressing kraut, but as you’ll see in a bit, also for grinding spices.
- I’ve weighed the cabbage and measured my ingredients according to how much cabbage I have.
- While a cabbage shredder might be handy, I make do without one but I do sharpen my chef’s knife before getting started. I’ve used my food processor on occasion, but I find that since I have to chop the cabbage into chunks that are small enough for the feeder tube anyway that it’s actually more efficient to chop by hand. But that’s me.
- Another indispensable tool in my kitchen is my Microplane. I use it to mince ginger here, but it comes out daily to mince garlic, grate hard cheeses and spices like nutmeg. It makes such short work of mincing even a big chunk of ginger that again, it’s not worth pulling out and washing my food processor. Poor neglected food processor.
Makes about 3 gallons
3 tablespoons juniper berries
3 tablespoons finely minced ginger
3 tablespoons chopped baby dill
3 tablespoons caraway seeds
9 tablespoons sea salt
15 pounds green cabbage
Using a mortar and pestle (or, in this case, mortar and short end of a kraut pounder), lightly crush the juniper berries.
Chop the cabbage as coarsely or finely as you like. I like some big pieces in mine.
Place half of one chopped cabbage in a large, flat bottomed vessel. Sprinkle 1-1/2 teaspoons each of juniper berries, caraway, ginger, and dill and a scant tablespoon of salt over the cabbage. You could also mix the seeds, ginger, dill and salt together and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the mixture over each layer.
Repeat with each cabbage half. By the time you are finished, there should be an accumulation of brine in the kraut-to-be.
You can walk away for an hour or so while more brine accumulates, or you can start packing the cabbage into your fermenting vessel now. Press down hard as you pack layers of cabbage into a jar or crock. To keep the cabbage covered with brine, weigh it with something that just fits inside your vessel. Short, narrow-mouth half-pint jam jars fit well inside wide-mouth canning jars or find a plate or bowl to nestle inside your crock. Fill the jar or bowl with water as needed to keep it from floating. Below, I have put a shallow bowl inside the crock and let the brine partially fill the bowl, though I may pour that back into the crock as the cabbage re-absorbed the brine.
Cover the crock with a plate (if you’re lucky enough to have a crock that still has its lid, use that of course) or loosely tighten a lid on the jar if that’s what you’re using.
This time of year, I let sauerkraut ferment on my counter for four days, checking it daily to see that the cabbage is still covered with brine. I then place the fermented cabbage in canning jars, again pressing it well as I pack it, and store the jars in the fridge. Kraut continues to ferment in the fridge and develops more complex flavors over time. I like to let mine sit for a couple weeks in the fridge. Some folks swear kraut isn’t worth eating ’til it’s at least six months old. It will keep for months and I’ve even experimentally left jars in my fridge for over a year to find still crunchy, delicious kraut.
As you finish a jar, be sure to get a new one started. Once you’ve gotten used to having homemade kraut around, you won’t want to be without it!
Some ways to use your kraut:
- Heat up some broth, add some cooked meat or an egg yolk, remove from heat and add some kraut. Even better, make lactofermented borscht.
- Saute some onions, add peeled apple chunks, sauerkraut, and sausages (bratwurst, weisswurst, Polish or Hungarian sausages are our faves). Cover and steam for a few minutes, ’til everything’s warmed through.
- Add to soup. Practically any soup is improved with sauerkraut, except those improved with kimchi or preserved lemons. Okay, even those taste good mit kraut.
- As a part of your healthy breakfast.