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.
Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
The fermentation of cabbage into sauerkraut preserves it, providing a ready food for the cold days of winter when fresh food was scarce. So while early peoples preserved 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 food enzymes and vitamins, particularly vitamin B vitamins. 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.
Why You Should Make Sauerkraut at Home
- Homemade sauerkraut is inexpensive to make, especially when you buy cabbage in season and in bulk. Comparatively the price for raw sauerkraut at the grocery store can often exceed $8/pint.
- You can adjust the flavor of the sauerkraut you make at home to suit your preferences, whether that’s more sour or less, or whether you include additions like garlic, dill, caraway or hot peppers.
Homemade Sauerkraut Takes Time
Good things are worth waiting for and 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. How long you allow your sauerkraut to ferment depends entirely on your preferences coupled with the quantity you’re making.
- Small batches of sauerkraut need less time and large batches need more time.
- Sauerkraut will ferment faster at warm temperatures and more slowly in cold temperatures. But don’t let your kitchen get too warm (more than 80 F) as it can make your sauerkraut mushy and introduce off-flavors, slow and low is a good rule of thumb.
- Taste your sauerkraut; some people prefer their sauerkraut sweet and barely sour, and others like their sauerkraut so sour it’s like a punch in the mouth. After about a week of fermentation, begin tasting your kraut periodically until it achieves a flavor and level of sourness you like.
How to Store Homemade Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut, and other fermented cabbage dishes like Korean kimchi and South American curtido, are naturally preserved through the time-honored method of fermentation. When foods are fermented, beneficial microbes consume their carbohydrates and release acids, like lactic acid in the case of sauerkraut, which preserve the foods much in the way vinegar does.
- Canning sauerkraut is not necessary to preserve it. As long as your sauerkraut remains submerged in its brine in a sealed jar, at a cool temperature, it will stay preserved. The high heat of the canning pot will destroy the beneficial bacteria you’ve cultivated when you make sauerkraut. If you still wish to can you’re sauerkraut, follow these guidelines.
- Cold temperatures that you find in root cellars, basements and your fridge will slow down the fermentation process almost to a halt. So, when your sauerkraut is finished, just spoon it into a mason jar, making sure it’s covered with brine and store it in the fridge, root cellar or cold basement where it will keep at least a few months and up to a year.
Pro Tip: Use the Right Equipment
Using the right equipment is essential in preparing sauerkraut and minimizing contamination by stray microbes, molds and yeasts. These special crocks and jars are designed to create an anaerobic environment, optimal for preparing fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, that keeps oxygen (and potential contaminants) out while allowing the carbon dioxide that builds up during fermentation to escape.
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- 2 medium cabbage heads, about 5 pounds
- 2 tablespoons finely ground sea salt
- Remove any bruised or damaged outer leaves from the cabbage, and then remove the cabbage's core. Slice the cabbage in long, thin shreds about ⅛-inch thick.
- Toss cabbage and salt together in a large mixing bowl and let it rest about five minutes, or until the cabbage begins to soften and release a little liquid, then squeeze the cabbage with your hands to further break up those thin shreds of vegetable and release more juice.
- When the cabbage has become limp and has released ample juice, transfer it to a sauerkraut crock or vegetable fermenter). Pack the salted cabbage into the crock or fermenter as tightly as you can, eliminating air bubbles. A kraut pounder is particularly helpful in packing the cabbage tightly within the crock.
- Continue packing the cabbage into the container until the cabbage is completely submerged by its liquid. Seal the crock 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 sour enough for your liking. Pack the sauerkraut into mason jars, and transfer to the refrigerator or other cold storage where it should keep for at least 6 months and up to 1 year.
To seal a glass jar equipped with an airlock (like this), fill the jar to its neck, place weights over the cabbage to ensure that the vegetable rests below its brine. Cover the jar with its lid, and insert the airlock. Fill the airlock with water to its fill line and snap its lid in place.
Want to know more?
The Nourished Kitchen cookbook discusses fermentation tips, safety measures and provides recipes not only for sauerkraut but for other fermented vegetables, condiments and drinks, too.
The Art of Fermentation is an extensive book covering many aspects of fermentation, including making sauerkraut and other fermented foods.
Cultures for Health is a resource for all things fermented, with an extensive blog and newsletter that provide guidance on fermentation.
Other Sauerkraut and Fermented Vegetable Recipes You Might Like
Hot Pink Jalapeño Garlic Kraut is a gorgeous vivid pink sauerkraut spiked with garlic and jalapeno. It’s easily our favorite kraut at Nourished Kitchen.
This Easy Kimchi combines cabbage, radish, carrots, garlic and hot pepper for spicy, richly flavored fermented condiment.
Traditional Moroccan Preserved Lemons are also super easy to make and great for newcomers to fermentation.
These Sour Pickles, flavored with garlic and dill, are easy to pack away into crocks during the summer time and then eat all year long.