A couple of months ago when I was harvesting the last produce from my home garden, I brought in a cabbage which weighed ten pounds after I had removed the outer leaves and cleaned it up. Since this was about the third head of cabbage that size I’d had to deal with, not to mention a half dozen heads of more normal size, I decided it was time to learn to make sauerkraut. That way I could spread out eating the cabbage over several months. As it turned out, making sauerkraut is pretty simple.
Sauerkraut is cabbage fermented in brine with lactic acid forming bacteria. Fermentation gives it the characteristic sour flavor, and it also greatly increases the shelf-life of the cabbage. It’s been a popular method for preserving cabbage for hundreds of years. Sauerkraut is rich in vitamin C and other enzymes and nutrients which studies have found work to support the immune system, help prevent some cancers, and aid in digestion. One interesting factoid I found said that Captain Cook is credited with discovering in the 1700s that feeding sauerkraut to his ship crews would prevent them from getting scurvy. At first the men wouldn’t eat it, so Cook had it served to himself and his officers. Within a week, the rest of the crew were eating so much that Cook had to ration the amounts served.
As with any fermentation process, the trick is to get the right kind of bacteria to grow. Whey can be used to innoculate the raw cabbage with the desirable Lactobacilli, but the same bacteria also usually occur naturally on cabbage leaves as they grow. If the wrong bacteria get started, the sauerkraut will develop an unpleasant fecal smell which is easy to detect. If a bad smell develops, the batch is ruined and should be discarded.
Whey can be easily obtained by lining a strainer or colander with muslin or several layers of cheesecloth and putting plain unflavored yogurt into it. Don’t use Greek-style yogurt–it won’t work. Put the strainer over a bowl and wait a few hours or overnight. The liquid which will drain into the bowl is whey. The remaining yogurt is now “yogurt cheese” and can be used as a cream cheese or sour cream substitute.
If you don’t have whey, you can use a saltier brine and wait longer for the naturally occurring bacteria to start the fermentation. Another alternative is to purchase probiotic “starter” tablets specifically for making sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut needs to ferment anaerobically–without air. The cabbage should be completely covered with brine (see recipe instructions below) and it’s best if you can prevent air from entering the container. Special kits are available for making sauerkraut which include a 1 gallon glass jar, a plastic lid with a small center hole fitted with a rubber grommet, and a three piece plastic airlock. They also include a plastic lid just slightly smaller in diameter than the jar itself to help hold the cabbage down under the liquid. The complete kit can be purchased online for about $30, including shipping, at:
If you’re handy with tools, the Community Food Co-operative usually has gallon glass jars with plastic lids available, and you can get the plastic airlocks at a local beer-making supply store. Drill a hole in the center of the jar lid, insert a rubber grommet from the hardware store to cover the hole edges, and slide the airlock through the hole. You’ll also need to find a slightly smaller plastic lid to hold the cabbage under the brine.
If you prefer, you can ferment sauerkraut in a non-reactive ceramic crock without any airlock. You can use a plate weighted down with a jar of water to hold the cabbage below the surface of the liquid. You’ll have to check the pot every day or so for mold forming around the top. As long as there’s no offensive odor, the mold doesn’t hurt anything, but it should be removed daily. Alternatively, some people fill a food grade plastic bag (such as a freezer bag) full of brine to weigh down the cabbage and completely cover the surface, blocking out air and reducing the chance of mold or unwanted bacteria.
Personally, I think the kit makes everything simpler and safer. You can also add flavoring ingredients to your sauerkraut, such as caraway seeds. For safety’s sake, I’d suggest finding a tested recipe that uses the flavors you want.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you haven’t made sauerkraut before, it’s a good idea to check first with the WSU Whatcom County Extension Office (360-676-6736) for information about food safety and sources of safe and reliable recipes.
- 10 lbs fresh green cabbage (home garden, Lummi Island)
- 4 Tbsp sea salt
- 4 Tbsp whey (if not available, double the quantity of salt or use "starter")
- 1 gallon glass jar or non-reactive ceramic container
- Airlock kit (or non-reactive weight to cover cabbage and keep it under brine)
- Remove cores from the cabbage and shred the rest. In a very large mixing bowl (preferably stainless steel so it is unbreakable), add the salt and whey and mix well. Next, pound the cabbage thoroughly with a meat hammer, potato masher, or other type of pounding tool to release the juices. Keep at this, putting some muscle into it, for at least ten minutes.
- Put the cabbage into the gallon container, juice and all. Press down through the cabbage with a wooden spoon handle to push the brine juices to the top and remove air bubbles. The cabbage itself should be about an inch from the top of the container, and should be completely covered with brine. Put the smaller plastic lid over the cabbage, push down a little to help hold the cabbage below the surface of the liquid, and pour brine up to the top of the jar. (If you're using a crock instead of a jar, use something non-reactive to hold down the cabbage below the brine, such as a ceramic plate. You may need to weight it down with a jar of water. No airtight lid is necessary.)
- Screw on the lid with the airlock apparatus in place. Use a little of the brine juice to seal the airlock. (See directions that come with the airlock.) Set the apparatus on some kind of tray or plate to catch any liquid which may leak down the side as the fermenting progresses. Set the container aside and keep at room temperature, preferably not more than 70 degrees F.
- Wait three days, and then start checking the sauerkraut. Open the jar. If mold has formed on the top of the cabbage, simply remove it. As long as the sauerkraut does not smell bad, the mold won't hurt anything. If there's an obviously bad smell, the batch is spoiled and should be discarded. After any mold has been removed, taste the cabbage to see how it is progressing. If it tastes too salty at first, don't worry. As fermentation proceeds, the salty flavor is reduced. Replace the lids and airlock after tasting to continue fermentation.
- Sauerkraut can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to ferment sufficiently. Three to four weeks is about average, but every batch is different.
- When the sauerkraut tastes as sour as you want, transfer it to clean glass jars or other non-reactive containers and refrigerate. If your containers have metal lids, put plastic wrap under the lid to keep the sauerkraut from touching the metal.
- It's ready to eat! Fermenting will continue in the refrigerator, but a lot more slowly.
Home garden, Lummi Island
Yeager’s Sporting Goods, 3101 Northwest Ave, Bellingham (Yeager’s is a good source of canning supplies, including brining salt, jars, and more at very reasonable prices. Check out the racks in their basement shopping area.)