Sauerkraut is one of the most simple fermented foods to prepare at home. Homemade sauerkraut far exceeds most commercial products. Sauerkraut recipes are very flexible—add herbs, spices or other vegetables like caraway seeds, ginger, carrots, cilantro, and hot pepper.
In this simple sauerkraut recipe I also explains how the fermenting process works. This is good to know as the same process is used to ferment most other vegetables.
Which cabbage is best
Use whatever cabbage you have on hand. Most cabbage will ferment, however, cabbage with tightly packed leaves feels crunchier. In addition, organic cabbage is cleaner and often contain more nutrients.
- Cabbage with tightly packed leaves are great
Try using both green and red cabbage. Red cabbage is packed with nutrients and adds a beautiful color to sauerkraut. I use about 20-30% red cabbage.
Avoid washing the vegetables in bleach to avoid killing the natural bacteria living on the cabbage. These organisms support fermentation.
Shredding the cabbage
A food processor is practical when preparing a bigger batch. Place the shredded cabbage in a bowl and add salt (Himalayan or sea salt). I add roughly 1 tablespoon for every two-quart jar. Others add more salt.
Adding some greens greatly increases the appeal of the mix. A few tablespoons caraway seeds, a few carrots, perhaps some coriander leaves.
Cabbage juice contains fermentable sugars and other nutrients suitable for the probiotic bacteria. Squeeze the cabbage for a few minutes to press out juice.
Try juicing celery stalks and leaves to create more brine
It’s easiest to use a starter culture. Dissolve the starter in the celery juice and leave it for 20 minutes or so. For this batch, I made around a quart (1 liter). Add the juice-starter mix to the bowl of veggies and mix thoroughly.
Pack vegetables in jars
Put the cabbage in clean jars. Pack the jars 70% full and put a whole cabbage leaf on top to keep the veggies submerged in the brine. Add more jucie to the jar if the brine does not cover the veggies completely.
Don’t screw the lids on too tight as gas will form during fermentation and pressure will build in the jars. This is most important during the first few days of fermentation.
NOTE: The vegetables should be covered in brine (like celery). After fermentation, the sauerkraut will not taste celery.
Leave jars to ferment for 7 days
Seven days is usually enough. However, in a cooler temperature, leave the jars to ferment a few days longer. And perhaps a few days shorter if you live in a warm climate. The best way to know when the sauerkraut is ready is to taste it. When you’re happy with the taste, store the jars in a cool place.
Try to keep the temperature of sauerkraut fermentation around 60-70 degrees (20-24 ºC). A few degrees more or less might not change much. But a stable temperature helps.
The temperature affects the activity of the bacteria so keep an eye on this as it will determine the quality. It if get too warm, the risk of mold and other harmful microorganisms increases.
If you live in a warm climate, you might need to use other techniques.
After 7 days, store in cool place
When fermentation is complete, you should store the jars in a cool place like a fridge or cellar. We have an extra fridge at home for this purpose. Correctly stored, the sauerkraut will stay fresh for many months. The sauerkraut is ready to be eaten right away, but will often improve with a little more time in the fridge.
The sauerkraut fermentation process
Lactic acid producing bacteria are primarily involved in sauerkraut fermentation. But besides such probiotic bacteria, there are other undesirable microorganisms present on cabbage and most other vegetables. Using a starter, will help the good bacteria to quickly take control of the process.
Therefore, the quality of the sauerkraut depends largely on how well the undesirable bacteria are controlled during fermentation. Some organisms produce unpleasant odors and flavors that spoil the sauerkraut.
Major steps in a natural (wild) fermentation process (without starter)
- The first micro-organisms to start working are the gas-producing cocci L. Mesenteroides. These microbes produce acids and when the acidity reaches 0.25 to 0.3%, they slow down and begin to die off, although their enzymes continue to function.
- Now the work is continued by the lactobacilli (as L. plantarum and L. Cucumeris) until an acidity level of 1.5 to 2% is attained. A too high salt concentration and low temperature can inhibit these bacteria to some extent.
- Finally, L. pentoaceticus continues the fermentation, bringing the acidity to 2 to 2.5% thus completing the fermentation.
Traditionally, salt has been important in making sauerkraut. Salt can make the sauerkraut firmer or crispier, which is appealing. Salt also extracts juice from the cabbage (and other vegetables). Therefore, salt creates a favorable environment for the desired bacteria. However, too much salt prevents good bacteria to grow.
Traditionally, a salt concentration of 2.0 to 2.5% is used as the lactobacilli are slightly inhibited, but cocci strains are not affected.
After a few days of fermenting, the sauerkraut will slowly turn more acidic, courtesy of the lactobacilli bacteria. The acidity helps keep the bad bacteria at bay.
A high quality culture starter can…
- speed up fermentation,
- produce sauerkraut of consistent quality,
- greatly increase the number of good bacteria.
NOTE: Be careful of using old juice from an earlier batch
The success of using old juice depends on the types of organisms present in the juice and its acidity. If the starter juice has an acidity of 0.3% or more, it might result in poor quality sauerkraut. This is because the cocci strain which normally initiates fermentation is suppressed by the high acidity. Therefore, the batch might not ferment correctly.
Often, the use of old juice produces sauerkraut which has a softer texture than normal. It’s still fine to eat though. But using a culture starter is simple and the result often better.
What does sauerkraut contain?
- large amounts of probiotic bacteria; trillions if you use a good starter culture like Body Ecology or Mercola,
- small amounts of acetic and propionic acids,
- a mixture of gasses, mostly carbon dioxide,
- a mixture of aromatic esters,
- small amounts of alcohol,
- lactic acid,
- packed with nutrients that are easy for the body to assimilate.
All these substances together contribute to the characteristic flavor of sauerkraut. The acidity contributes to a long shelf life.
The main reasons for problems in the sauerkraut process are three:
- Oxygen has entered the jars and affected the vegetables
- Too little salt
- Jars kept too warm during fermentation (very common)
Preparing sauerkraut at home is very simple. In just a week or so, you can create delicious, cheap, and healthy food that can be eaten with almost anything.