Okay. So let me just say that I never thought I'd get into home fermenting. But after reading a little bit of The Art of Fermentation and doing a little bit of internet research, it didn't sound nearly as daunting as I thought. In fact, making sauerkraut sounded downright simple. And guess what. It is! I really wanted to try it, because try as I might, I cannot find a jar of sauerkraut around that I really like - just cabbage, salt and water with a nice, crisp texture that's not drowning in brine. And it's not like sauerkraut is in short supply in Wisconsin either! Trader Joe's version is close to what I was searching for, but I don't like the pickles they add to it.
Making my own turned out to be just what I wanted. It ends up way different than the jarred version you buy off the shelf. Those are often limp and stringy with an overpowering vinegar flavor. Homemade versions end up much more crisp, and depending on how long you let it ferment for, the flavor can be as mild or sour as you want (the longer it sits, the more sour it gets). The other good thing about homemade 'kraut is the probiotics it provides. Any fermented food contains probiotics, those healthy gut bacteria that our body uses for many things, and sauerkraut is no exception. Unlike storebought versions, this type is never heated for the canning process, so those probiotics don't get killed off.
Making sauerkraut at home is pretty much as hands off as you can get. You do need to do a bit of work to get it started, but it shouldn't take more than 20 minutes or so. You start with a whole cabbage. Remove the outer leaves and core and thinly slice the cabbage to achieve a shredded texture.
Next comes the salting. Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage and massage it in thoroughly. The cabbage will wilt slightly and begin to lose water. I massaged my cabbage for a good 3-5 minutes or so for this to happen. Notice the subtle difference between the above and below photos?
Next comes storing the cabbage. The only piece of special equipment you need for this job is a large jar. One that's saved from a previous jar of storebought pickles or 'kraut will be perfect. Mine was from kimchi. Just make sure it's really clean, preferably through the dishwasher to make sure there are no other lingering bacteria that will hijack the fermentation process. Really pack that cabbage in there, and pour any accumulated liquid in. Use a couple of the outer leaves to lay over top of the cabbage to hold it in place and use a smaller jar or container to keep it all held down.
After a day, check the liquid level and if it's not completely covered, add some more saltwater to submerge the cabbage. Now you wait. Sure you need to keep pressing it down once or twice a day, but the real work is over...
Until tasting time. You will notice that the cabbage will soon begin to lose it's green color and start to turn yellowish to whitish. Start tasting after 3 days. At this time it will probably have a very mild sour flavor, but the fermentation may go more quickly if your kitchen is warm. It could take up to 10 days to get a real sour flavor. The good news is you can stop the fermentation at any point when the sauerkraut tastes good to you. When you decide it's done, remove the weight and outer leaves and put the lid on the jar. Store it in the fridge for up to 2 months.
Now that I know the basics of sauerkraut making, there are so many variations I want to try - purple cabbage - will it stay bright purple? Layered purple and green cabbage - will the colors stay in their layers, or will the whole thing turn pink? But #1 is making whole sour cabbage leaves for making Ukrainian sour cabbage rolls. Will it work? Who knows, but at well under $1 for a head of cabbage, there's not much to lose!
Homemade Fermented Sauerkraut
- 1 medium cabbage
- 1 ½ tablespoon kosher salt
- Remove outer leaves from cabbage, saving one or two. Cut cabbage in quarters and remove the core from each quarter. Thinly slice cabbage so that it is shredded. Place into a large bowl.
- Sprinkle salt evenly over cabbage. Thoroughly toss the salt into the cabbage and massage it in until the cabbage begins to wilt and starts losing water.
- Firmly pack the cabbage into a large jar using your hands or a spoon. Pour in any liquid that has formed. Place the reserved cabbage leave(s) on the top of the shredded cabbage to prevent any from floating up. Place a weight (a small jar or glass container, filled with rocks or other weights if needed) on top to keep the cabbage weighed down into the liquid. Cover jar with a clean cloth, paper towel or coffee filter secured with a rubber band or twine to prevent any dust or bugs from entering. Let the jar sit at room temperature, away from direct sunlight.
- For the first 24 hours, press the cabbage down into any liquid every few hours (don't worry about this overnight). After 24 hours has passed, check the level of liquid. If the cabbage is not completely submerged (it likely will not be), dissolve 1 teaspoon kosher salt into 1 cup water and pour enough in to cover the cabbage.
- After the first 24 hours, continue to press the cabbage into the liquid to keep it submerged a couple of times a day. Foam forming on top of the cabbage is normal, and does not need to be skimmed. If any mold forms, remove it, and the top layer of cabbage immediately.
- After 3 days has passed, taste the sauerkraut. From this point on, taste it once to twice a day to determine when it is done. "Doneness" will depend on your taste (the longer it sits, the more sour it will become) as well as the temperature of the room. It may take up to 10 days to be fully fermented.
- Once you have determined that your sauerkraut is done, remove the weight and outer cabbage leaves and place the lid on the jar and store in the fridge. It can safely be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.