Alternative Fermentations: How To Make Sauerkraut
Fermenting food has been done for the better part of history, both by accident and on purpose. As more science and research comes out on probiotics and other beneficial bacteria, we all look towards supplements, kombucha, and commercially fermented foods to help improve our gut health and expand our culinary horizons. The cool part about trying these ancient fermentations is that you can make it exactly how you want! You can add non-traditional ingredients, increase or decrease the sour aspect, and tweak it however you want! This week we will talk about how easy sauerkraut is to make, and talk about what it takes to tweak it to make it taste exactly how you want it to!
What You’ll Need
Traditionally, sauerkraut is made in a ‘crock’; a round, ceramic vessel with a fitted lid. These usually come with fermentation weights that mimic the size and shape of the inside of the vessel, and this is how your cabbage stays anaerobic. These fermentation weights keep the shredded cabbage under the water line, ensuring that the lactic acid bacteria (LAB) don’t get any oxygen, and therefore don’t grow anything that you don’t want them to.
These days, while fermentation crocks are still widely available, we thankfully have more options on how we ferment food. The simple equipment that we like to use for sauerkraut, probably one of the easiest ways to start fermenting food, is this:
This is all contained in our Fermenting Foods Starter Kit. Other than this simple equipment, all you’ll really need is the cabbage roll and some salt. We like to use sea salt or canning salt, but really you can use any salt that makes you happy. We generally steer away from normal, iodized salt, but have used it in a pinch (haha, pun intended!) and been just fine. As far as cabbage, the sky’s the limit. If you can get some red cabbage and/or some savoy cabbage into the fermenter to add color and texture, it’s definitely a plus. We try to hit the farmers market and to use organic produce whenever possible, but it’s not a necessity. It will ferment either way!
Salt Percentage and the Role of Salt
So when we ferment all of these amazing foods, we’re relying on the natural fauna present on the produce itself to do the actual fermentation. This natural fermentation process is what gives us the mild acidity, makes our kraut full to the brim with probiotics, and acts as a natural preservative. But LABs are not the only beasties present on our produce.
This is where the salt comes in. Although it seems counter-intuitive, adding salt actually makes the mixture too hostile for things like botulism and other nasty and literally poisonous bacterium. We want to target the proper LABs (we affectionately refer to these as bugs both in brewing and fermenting food), and that means making their living environment so uninhabitable that the only beasties that can flourish are the ones we want.
When fermenting any food, you can use a salt percentage from 1% to 10%, although 10% is a lot, and can leave everything tasting like a colorful and expensive salt lick. For sauerkraut, we almost always use a 1% solution, although a 2% solution works just fine as well.
This is measured by weight, and without the weight of your fermentation jar. Our jars weigh just over 2 pounds, so we generally add all of our cabbage and any other produce (more on that in just a minute), top up with water, and use that as our base number. I like to take the total weight of the fermentation and convert it to grams. Once I have it in grams, a little quick math makes measuring 1% salt easy, and then it just gets mixed into solution.
Putting It All Together
Our House Sauerkraut recipe looks like this:
- 2 Heads Cabbage, small to medium and preferably different colors for aesthetic value (we like pretty ferments!)
- ½ of a White Onion, or a Sweet Maui Onion
- ½ of a Purple Onion
- 1 - 2 Fresh Jalapenos
Strictly speaking, this is not a traditional kraut recipe, but over the course of a bunch of different batches, we’ve found that the little extra spice from the jalapeno and the added texture and flavor from the onions rounds the flavor out in a way that complements beer brats incredibly, and makes eating it by itself more multidimensional and flavorful.
We’ve also found that cutting the cabbage in long, thin pieces is preferable to cutting squares. This is more of a personal preference, but it seems to work better when serving with tongs, and the bigger pieces add a beautiful texture to every bite.
Before you start chopping your cabbage, make sure you weigh your jar so you know what the actual weight of your fermentation is to calculate your salt. As we chop the cabbage, we have a similar process as that to our kimchi. We pack as much into the fermentation jar as possible, as tightly as possible. This is because the fermentation is going to shrink the cabbage leaf and other veggies, so you want to try to fit as much as possible to get a full fermentation. Just to make sure it looks sharp during fermentation, we’ll generally layer the ingredients.
Once you’re packed full of veggies and you hit the rim, or about and inch below the rim of the fermentation jar, then you’re ready for water. Add your water slowly because it takes a minute to get into and through all of the veggies. Once you get just above the top veggies, it’s time to weigh your fermentation and add your salt to make the final brine. Remember, 1 - 2% by weight is perfect. You can calculate it however you want, but for me, it’s easiest to convert to grams since the salt portion is generally such a small measurement. 70 grams seems easier to weigh than 2.469 oz.
Increasing or Decreasing the Sauer
If this is your first time making kraut, try our simple, house recipe as your baseline. This will give you a clean, crisp and moderately sour finished product. It will taste fresh, but will not be super sour like a lot of the available store bought stuff. It also won’t be super mushy, which a win in my book!
If you try it and you want more sour out if it, don’t worry. This recipe is infinitely customizable! We simply add an extra 2 oz of sugar for the LABs to feed on if we want some extra sour. Since you’re doing about the same thing that you’d do with any beer or wine fermentation, more sugar will equal more food for the bugs, which will translate into more lactic acid production.
One thing to remember if you are adding extra sugar is that you may consider a 2% salt solution, just to make sure that that easy to eat, ready to go food you just added gets eaten only by who you want eating it!
The Waiting Game
Once the whole thing is packed, the brine is set, it’s a waiting game, just like your favorite liquid fermentations. Set your fermentation jar out of direct sunlight on the counter at room temperature, preferably in a medium tupperware or bowl, just in case. You will see over the course of the first 3 days that carbon dioxide will be released throughout solution and out of the airlock, and sometimes you’ll see an even more vigorous fermentation, which will push liquid out of the lid. Don’t fret, just let it happen! This is proof positive that all of our little LABs are hard at work making us some delicious kraut!
We usually let fermentation last 2 - 3 weeks, but you’ll have to find your sweet spot. After the initial 3 days as things start up, you’ll notice a plateau on days 4 -8, then noticeably less action after that. The whole jar will get cloudy, and you’ll lose about 20% vegetable mass in this time. All of your veggies will float to the top, and you’ll have a cool, probiotic laden slurry of bugs at the bottom.
Since we like our kraut a little crisp, we tend to pull it inside of that 2 - 3 week mark, but if you want a little bit more mush, you can leave it longer. You can even transfer it to masons and leave it out until you’ve hit the texture that you like.
Shelf life in the fridge, and in the juice, is usually about 6 months, although half of the magic of these fermented foods is that all of the bugs that may spoil them have already been either killed off by the salt or out-competed by the probiotic bugs, so spoilage is quite a bit harder than with an unfermented head of cabbage! Keep it sealed and as airtight as possible, and keep it in the fridge to deter any other bacterium from munching on it, and you can safely eat it every day of that 6 months.
Also remember that just like kimchi, of which there are thousands of different types, once you start fermenting sauerkraut, the options are limitless! Try adding in some caraway seeds for some extra dimension, and different types of cabbage, onions, or whatever else sounds good! You can tailor your kraut to fit the food that you want to eat it with, or tailor it to be a delicious and multi-dimensional snack to get you through the work day and keep your natural probiotics up with a clean, homemade probiotic food!
Thank you all for reading! Tell us about your favorite Sauerkraut recipe, or download our House Sauerkraut and make your own! We’d love to hear how you make yours in the comments below!
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