Getting Started: Sauerkraut

The first thing I ever tried to intentionally ferment was sauerkraut, and I can assure you that everything I did in that early, uninformed experiment, was, by any standard but the microbes’, completely wrong. In this Getting Started piece, I want to focus on the fundamentals that can make even shredded cabbage from a bag of pre-cut slaw mix (this is literally what I did that first time) into tasty and highly nutritive sauerkraut.

While there are countless variations on the fruits and vegetables you can add and the spice combinations you can use to flavor your kraut, I’ve decided to keep it as simple as possible for our purposes here. We’ll talk about shredding and salting the cabbage, beating the heck out of it, and keeping it submerged so it can ferment hassle-free.

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Getting Started with Sauerkraut

You need the barest of equipment to make this work – a head of cabbage, a good chopping knife, a large bowl or other vessel for mixing and massaging, salt, and a jar. Lid optional, but you want something to cover it.

Start by slicing your head of cabbage in half, then peeling away the outer leaves until you’re into firm, blemish-free cabbage territory. Reserve these outer leaves for later. I core mine, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. The core can be used later in the process though, so if you cut it out, leave it whole for now.

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Chop away. I like mine about this thick, but I’ll slice some thicker and some thinner. The thickness of the cabbage slices is entirely up to you, and in a larger vessel, I’ve fermented cabbage quarters very tastily and successfully before. In this case, it’s definitely true that size doesn’t matter (as long as your jar can hold your mighty cabbage).

Double entendre away there, friends.

I usually process a quarter or half of the head of cabbage at a time, so in this case I sliced up the half and put the ribbons into a large bowl, and then salted. Salting really deserves its own subhead, so here we go.

Salt Ratios for Sauerkraut

Hi, my name’s Stacie and I’m an improvisational kitchen adventurer, but I’ve learned over time that a lot of people really prefer having a clear set of measurements and such to start with, and then they improvise based on the results later. This makes perfect sense!

Here are two methods I interchangeably employ in making sauerkraut, depending on how fussy/accomplished I’m feeling while making it.

Method One: Estimate by the size of the head of cabbage. If it’s a medium or small head of cabbage, I might use a heaping tablespoon of salt, or even a level one if it’s genuinely a small head of cabbage. For a very large head (the one is this picture is nearly four pounds) I may use two heaping tablespoons. “Salt to taste” is also a very acceptable way to go. If there is an unpalatable amount of salt when everything is well mixed together, the kraut will likely be too salty for you as well.

Method Two: By weight. You’ll want a kitchen scale that includes grams for this one. Weigh your cabbage. This guy, before coring and peeling, was around 1700 grams. Multiply the weight of the cabbage in grams by .02 (or 2% of the weight of the cabbage). In this case, that number came out to roughly 35, which is the number of grams of salt it would take to create a 2% brine. I weighed out 30 grams of salt to use for this, which will put it in the range of 2%.

Why 2%? I don’t know. My understanding is that in Germany, the legal salt requirement for commercial fermented foods is 1%, so 2% may be a USDA requirement for fermented foods that’s trickled into home production. Maybe that’s just the sweet spot for the average American palate these days. What I do know is that kraut is generally in the 2% universe, while things like pickled peppers and even cucumber pickles typically rely on a stronger brine.

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Back to Our Kraut

And, we’re back – your shredded cabbage is in a bowl and a roughly proportional amount of salt has been sprinkled on it (for half a head of cabbage, use about half your salt). This is where you get to take out some aggression, or, if that’s not your thing, this is where you get to lovingly massage a wonderful head of cabbage that will soon deliver unto you some tasty, tangy sauerkraut. Your choice.

img_1383Personally, I’m on team Take Out My Aggression, and have a tool to do just that. But I didn’t always, and for years I would spend a good five or ten minutes squeezing, rubbing, crushing, and mashing the salted cabbage with my (clean) hands to mix the salt in, start to break down some of the cellular structure of the cabbage, and liberate the juices that will become brine and allow for effective fermentation.

This step is critical, but it also fascinating. You’ll get results very, very quickly, going from squeezing on dry cabbage to building a layer of brine at the bottom of the bowl. It’s fun, and I really do think of it as therapeutic.

The next step is to pack the damp, salted cabbage into your jar. Any jar will do, but I have a cabinet full of Mason jars, so that’s what I use. img_1384

You want to really press it in, working in layers. Move a handful of cabbage over from the bowl, then spend some time tamping it down with your hands, or use a tool like a wooden spoon, a small potato masher, or even a muddler for cocktails. Don’t be afraid to pound it. The juices will start to rise, which is what you’re looking for. Keep going until the bowl is empty

Then, repeat the process with the rest of the cabbage. You want to leave an inch or two of headspace in the jar at the end, because additional juice will rise, but pack as much of the cabbage as possible in to get to that amount. And pack it tightly.

Submerging Sauerkraut

Submerging your kraut is the last critical step to deal with. The goal is to keep the cabbage beneath the brine it creates, and prevent solids from floating at the surface, where they can serve as an outpost for mold to form. Remember those outer leaves you reserved back at the beginning? They’re really useful here. If you put your jar over one of them and cut around the edge of the jar, you’ll have a flap of cabbage that’s about the right size to tuck into the jar, over the cabbage. I like to poke some holes in mine so the liquid can escape.
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This is just a cover, not a weight, and you’ll need a weight as well. This is where that core you reserved can come in handy. A little whittling can give you a stick or two that can be tucked under the shoulders of the jar. Bamboo skewers, trimmed to fit, can also be used for this. Other improvised weights include shotglasses or smaller jars of brine, with the downside being that those typically mean the lid won’t fit and you’ll have to cover with a towel. This isn’t a problem, but it does generally provide less protection from fruit flies (they’re always looking for the weak spot in your defenses) and the extra oxygen exposure may encourage mold growth.

I have this product called Pickle Pebbles (aff) that I love and use all the time, but there’s really no need to spend any money unless you’re just into kitchen gadgets.
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Here’s the Pickle Pebble at the time this was made. Notice that it’s above the brine line, and the cabbage leaf isn’t fully submerged either. You want both of these things to be submerged, but don’t panic. Over the next 24 hours, additional juices will become liberated from cabbage.

The next day, I opened this baby kraut up and found this lovely situation:

img_1391Everything is submerged, there are some bubbles at the perimeter indicating that CO2 is escaping as the fermentation organisms come to life, and it all looks well. There’s even a little heart-shaped air bubble under the weight, so I know this kraut loves me.

I used a standard Mason jar lid, the two-piece kind. I screw it on tight, then back it off about a quarter of a turn so that gasses can escape. The early part of fermentation involves a lot of gas production, which can be dangerous, so be sure to check on these for a few days and open them up if they seem to be accumulating carbon dioxide inside. Bottle bombs are no joke.

But now, you’re really just in a waiting pattern. There’s no right or wrong on length of time to ferment. I typically make a bunch of quarts of kraut at once (see this post) and get into one of them after a week or two of fermentation. The early jars are less sour, the later ones may be extremely sour.

When the taste is where you like it, put it in the fridge! Enjoy it with everything, but especially hearty meats and starchy vegetables. Yum!

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Stacie is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She’s been fermenting for most of a decade, and is an enthusiastic maker of beer, wine, kraut, tempeh, and natto, as well as an avid keeper of bees. And dogs and cats.