Homemade sauerkraut, in all its funky humility, is a favorite food in our home – particularly in wintertime when fresh, local produce is a rare treat and we rely on what we’ve put by over the summer and autumn months. For us, this means lots of fermented foods and sauerkraut in particular.
We grow cabbage in our tiny plot in the community garden, and I’ve a preference for the more whimsical heirloom varieties – Wakefield cabbages with their conical heads and Shoshudori cabbages with their wide and flat ones. I love the crinkled Savoys and the brilliant hue of Mammoth Red Rocks. Cabbages are lovely things, indeed. While these varieties aren’t found in most garden supply centers, you can typically can find them from seed saving enthusiasts or specialty seed houses. They grow well at high altitude where frost lingers until mid-June and begins to threaten gardens again in late August.
So, when the time comes, we harvest ours and peel back the rough outer leaves that blanket the tender heads, core them, shred them fine, salt them and let them sour on the countertop for weeks and sometimes months until they acquire the requisite funk that only true fermented foods enthusiasts love, and that – cabbage, salt and time – is all you need for a truly wonderful homemade sauerkraut. We serve our sauerkraut throughout winter, with sausages and preserved meats in choucroute garnie, on its own or dropped by the spoonful into bowls of steaming lentil stew – welcome nourishment for cold and dark days. Of course, planning for homemade sauerkraut takes time – it’s something you start now in late summer and in autumn that will nourish your family until spring.
Homemade Sauerkraut: Optimal Nourishment for Dark Days
Homemade sauerkraut takes time – a week for the impatient and months for those who love their sauerkraut with the same fervor that an oenophile devotes to wine. Originally, the production of sauerkraut served the primary purpose of preserving the harvest into the winter when food was scarce and hunger a true threat. Sauerkraut is a peasant food, humble, disparaged, but truly lovely when produced with tenderness and the passion only a true real food lover can provide.
So while European peasants preserved their cabbage with salt in an effort to keep hunger away during the dark months, their method of preservation fulfilled another need: that of optimal nourishment. The process of lactic acid fermentation used to transform salt and cabbage into sauerkraut increases vitamins, particularly vitamin C and B vitamins, and food enzymes. Moreover, homemade sauerkraut is also extraordinarily rich in beneficial bacteria – friendly microorganisms which help to colonize the gut, train the immune system and manufacture vitamins in the digestive tract. In winter, when colds and flus make their rounds, homemade fermented foods which provide plenty of vitamins, food enzymes and beneficial bacteria coupled with cod liver oil (see sources).
Finding the Right Crock for Your Homemade Sauerkraut
If you’re like me, you began fermenting foods like homemade sauerkraut in mason jars for want of something better – and while mason jars work fine for small quantities of fermented foods, they’re not optimally suited to fermentation. Fermentation is an anaerobic process and when fermented foods are exposed to air, as they often are when fermented in open crocks and mason jars, they run a very real risk of being contaminated by stray microbes, yeasts and molds. Creating a true anaerobic environment by using the right crock or fermentation device results in better sauerkraut, less contamination and fewer failed batches. So if you’re committed to preparing fermented foods for your family: either as a method of old-world food preservation or for their health benefits, investing in a good crock is essential.
You can typically find fermentation crocks online (see sources) – some are glass jars fitted with airlocks (like this one) which helps to maintain that anaerobic environment essential to proper fermentation; others are traditional ceramic or stoneware crocks equipped with a heavy weight (to keep fermenting foods completely submerged in brine, thus creating an anaerobic environment) and a lid. Both function well though the traditional ceramic and stoneware crocks typically have a larger capacity than glass fermenting jars equipped with airlocks.
A simple recipe to make traditional, lacto-fermented, homemade sauerkraut using only cabbage, salt and time.
- 2 medium cabbage heads (about 4 to 5 total pounds, cored and finely shredded)
- 2 tablespoons sea salt (find unrefined sea salt here)
- Toss cabbage and salt together in a large mixing bowl and begin to squeeze the cabbage and salt together with your hands, kneading it thoroughly to break up the cellular structure of the shredded cabbage.
- When the cabbage has become limp and releases its juice, transfer it to a sauerkraut crock or vegetable fermenter (available here). Pack the salted cabbage into the crock or fermenter as tightly as you can, eliminating air bubbles. A kraut pounder (available here) is particularly helpful in packing the cabbage tight within the crock.
- Continue packing the cabbage into the container until the cabbage is completely submerged by liquid. Cover loosely and allow it to sit at room temperature, undisturbed, for at least 1 month and up to 6 months, testing the sauerkraut every few days until it is done to your liking. Transfer to the refrigerator or other cold storage where it should keep for at least 6 months and up to 1 year.
If scum appears floating in the brine of your homemade sauerkraut, simply spoon it off. You wonâ€™t be able to remove it all, but spoon of what you can and donâ€™t worry about. The real key to preparing homemade sauerkraut, and any fermented food, is that the solid materials rest below the liquid. Fermentation is an anaerobic process and to expose your ferments to air increases the likelihood that theyâ€™ll become contaminated by stray microbes, yeasts and molds which is why crocks designed specifically for fermentation (like this one) can help to eliminate the risk of microbial contamination and increase the reliability and consistency of your ferments.