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Brine-Fermented Sauerkraut

Every autumn, there are certain things I am compelled to do. Perhaps it’s the change in the weather that drives this compulsion; the urgency of the leaves turning and falling; the weakening sunlight.

I find myself taking silent inventory of pantry provisions: 4 jars pickled beets, 10 jars apple butter, 3 jars brandied figs… I freeze and can and preserve and dry almost compulsively. I realize I am not unlike a squirrel, its cheeks full before the waning season.

Apple butter is one of my yearly preserving pursuits. I typically make several batches of the stuff through some feat of nesting fever. I have a love-hate relationship with the process: hours of stirring and splattering and sticking, pounds upon pounds of apples reduced to a few small jars, and enough chopping and straining for three people.

But again, it’s an urge strong enough to make me not mind the inevitable burns I will get on my forearms while attempting to stir the lava lake of molten apple pulp. An urge strong enough to make me forget, every time, about how I will need to scour the stovetop and the floor afterwards.

This is the same urge I yield to when I make my annual batch of sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut might be in my blood. According to family legend, one of my great aunts would make sauerkraut beneath an old oak tree, only on the full moon. Sounds a bit like witchcraft, and if you’ve ever made sauerkraut before, you know that it feels a bit magical.

Sauerkraut is one of the easiest things to make in the pickle realm. Chop cabbage, add salt, wait. Okay, so there’s a teensy bit more to the process than that, but not by much.

Sauerkraut is the gateway fermented food. It’s straightforward and simple, the materials are inexpensive, and the payoff is fairly quick. It keeps well, and it’s far more delicious than anything you can buy. You may have seen gourmet sauerkraut at your local natural foods store. It often comes in an attractive jar, and it will cost upwards of six dollars.

The ingredients? Cabbage and salt. Maybe some caraway seeds. You can make a gallon at home for six dollars. So roll up your sleeves and embark upon a fermentation journey with me.

I first made sauerkraut because of Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. As it happens, Sandor Katz referenced the Joy of Cooking when he first started to get into fermented foods. Small world.

According to both JOY and Katz, the proper ratio of cabbage to salt is 5 pounds to 3 tablespoons. Katz gives recipes for low-salt or salt-free sauerkrauts, but for our purposes, we’re going to start with the basic salted sauerkraut. Salt not only helps preserve the cabbage, but it keeps the cabbage crunchy. You may use sea salt (widely available from supermarkets of all stripes), canning salt, or kosher salt, although, as kosher salt is coarser, you will need to use slightly more (about 1 1/4 times the table salt you might normally use). The only salt I've been told to avoid is table salt (due to anti-caking agents and additives in this salt, which may turn your brine cloudy). However, I have in fact made delicious sauerkraut with iodized salt. Kraut is a very forgiving ferment--which salt you decide to use is irrelevant. What matters is that you use enough salt--3 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces) per 5 pounds vegetable matter. We tend to keep kosher salt around more than iodized--kosher is generally better for cooking, as you can add pinches of it without worrying about oversalting your food. However, table salt will work fine here.

This is a very versatile recipe. You can use any variety of cabbages—green, red, savoy, napa, or a blend of different cabbages. You can add apple, caraway or dill seeds, shredded carrots, turnips, beets, and so on. The only thing to keep in mind is the ratio of vegetables to salt: five pounds to three tablespoons.

 
Brine-Fermented Sauerkraut
Makes about 1 quart

Quarter:
     5 pounds firm, unblemished cabbage heads, outer leaves removed
Remove the cores, and thinly slice or grate the cabbage on the large holes of a box grater. I like to dice the cores and add them to the kraut as well.
Place the cabbage in a large bowl with:
     3 tablespoons canning or pickling salt, sea salt, or kosher salt (if using kosher or sea salt, weigh out 1 3/4 ounces, which is the equivalent of 3 tablespoons--do not use coarse sea salt, as the chunks are too large to dissolve properly in this application)
Massage the cabbage. You can do this with squeaky-clean hands or with another utensil, such as a spoon or even a potato masher. I like to use my hands because it enables me to better manipulate the cabbage and get it to release more water. However, do wash your hands thoroughly every time you work with a fermented product so as not to introduce harmful bacteria. As you do this, you’ll notice that the cabbage begins to release water and wilt. Continue to massage the cabbage for up to 30 minutes. This length of time is not mandatory by any means, but it won’t hurt, and if your cabbage is particularly resilient, you may need to massage it for longer.
Pack the kraut into a small stone crock or a half-gallon Mason jar. Press down firmly to submerge the cabbage beneath the brine.
Ideally, the cabbage has released enough water on its own to create a brine in which the cabbage remains fully submerged. However, some cabbages are drier than others. I find supermarket cabbages to be on the dry side, while farmer’s market cabbages release more moisture. If your cabbage does not release enough water, make a brine of:
     1 ½ tablespoons canning or pickling salt (or sea salt) per 4 cups distilled water (I prefer distilled over tap water for the simple reason that tap water may introduce contaminants--if you have faith in the quality of your tap water, it should be fine to use that)
Pour this brine over the cabbage to cover it. At this point, you need to weight the cabbage to keep it submerged. I almost always use a freezer-safe zip-top bag (freezer safe bags tend to be more durable) filled partially with brine of the same strength as you used for the cabbage, above. The bag conforms to the shape of the container you use and is easy to manipulate.
Cover the crock or vessel to keep out flies, but make sure it can breathe. I use a square of kitchen towel secured with a rubber band for this purpose.
Check the kraut once or twice a week. Within a few days, it should start to bubble—this is an indicator that fermentation has begun. Stir the kraut regularly to prevent scum from forming on top. If some scum does form, don’t worry. Simply scrape it off and discard it, then stir the kraut well.
When the bubbling stops, within 3 to 6 weeks or so, the fermentation is complete. At this point, you may pack the kraut into a quart jar and refrigerate it. Some prefer their kraut a little less sour. Feel free to taste the kraut as it matures in the crock. When it reaches the point that you like the taste, refrigerate it. Refrigeration will not stop the fermentation process, but it will slow it down significantly.
Kraut keeps indefinitely. JOY gives a shelf-life of “several months,” but I have year-old kraut in the fridge that tastes wonderful. If your kraut goes bad (in this case, it would be slimy and have a strong, disagreeable smell), discard the kraut without tasting it, and wash and bleach your fermentation vessel. A word of encouragement--I've never made a bad batch of kraut.

Comments

Debbie Jalil's picture

thanks so much for the easy-to-follow directions! I can't wait for my first batch.
Ashley Veldstra's picture

This looks cool. I didn't know you could stir the kraut to prevent scum. I have a question: Can cover the cabbage with the brine you mentioned instead of adding dry salt and massaging it? I can see needing to get the air out of the cabbage leaves, but I really like the texture of un-squashed cabbage. Thanks
meg's picture

The massaging process helps release the water in the cabbage leaves, and while this does affect the texture of the cabbage, it's the fermenting process that really changes the texture. I've never heard of making kraut by just pouring brine over the leaves. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but it's just not something I'm familiar with. Maybe instead of making kraut, you should try a quick pickle--just make a brine with vinegar and whatever spices you want, heat it, and pour it over the cabbage. This way, the texture will be crunchy but you still have something sour à la sauerkraut. Hope this helps.
Betty's picture

Thank you. Two years ago I canned shredded cabage with brine and it was great. However the recipe for the brine was from a friend of my daughter-in-laws and we both seem to have misplace the recipe. I wish I knew the exact spices and herbs we used. I know cinnamon was one of them.
katherine's picture

Can kraut be canned? and if so how
meg's picture

Yes, it can be. I never can mine simply because it lasts so long--I've kept kraut in the fridge for years without canning. May people don't like to can it because the process kills all the beneficial probiotics. But if you do want to can it, simply wait for the fermentation process to end (3-6 weeks depending on the time of year, temperature, etc.)--it will have stopped fermenting when it stops bubbling. Then, heat the cabbage and jars until hot, pack it in pints as normal and process for 15 minutes in a water bath. Fully fermented kraut will be acidic enough so this is safe.
Betty's picture

It can, I did it with a pressure canner and brine.
karen rotella's picture

I used 15# cabbage, kosher salt in correct ratio. Placed in a large crock with a weight. I put it in our walk-in cooler at work, and no fermentation has occurred yet, one week. Is it too cold in the refrig? Can I take it out and leave it in the kitchen?
meg's picture

Hi Karen, I would take it out and leave it at room temp for a while--at least until fermentation gets going. Sauerkraut will continue to ferment very, very slowly once refrigerated, but it needs a room-temp jump start at first. In fact, I leave mine at room temp until it tastes the way I want it to, then I refrigerate it. Just be wary of flies and gnats--they are the enemy. I use a piece of cloth or kitchen towel and a rubber band or twine to keep them out. Good luck!
Cari's picture

I used Savoy cabbage and after an hour it hadn't released hardly and liquid. So, I made the brine as you suggested, poured it over, weighted it, covered it and left it for a week. I just peaked at it and the brine is cloudy and thick. Do I need to throw it out? It's been in a cold basement, but not refrigerated.
meg's picture

When you say cloudy and thick, do you mean slimy? The brine shouldn't be slimy or smell rotten. If that happens, you should toss it. But the brine will get cloudy--that's normal. It's even normal for some scum to form on top. No worries--just scrape it off. Being in a cold basement will make fermentation slower. You might think about bringing it into a warmer room for a while just to jump start it. If it still isn't fermenting, you can even add a little bit of plain yogurt with live cultures or find some unpasteurized sauerkraut and inoculate your batch with some of the brine from it. Both those things contain lactic acid bacteria, which is what you want. Let me know if you have any other questions. Best of luck on your fermenting journey!
Ninu's picture

Hi, I made my first batch in a mason jar and I didn't realize that the brine didn't cover the cabbage. It's been a week now, and it looks fine on top, but I haven't opened the jar to take a close look. Should I remove those pieces that weren't submerged and then refrigerate and eat the rest? Thanks! next time I'll make a brine before letting it sit on the counter.
meg's picture

Hi Ninu! So glad you tried the sauerkraut recipe. Honestly, I think that your cabbage is probably just fine. The only time to be concerned is if the kraut develops black mold on top (even white or blue mold is harmless--just scrape it off and stir the kraut, re-submerging it in brine), or if the kraut smells rotten or is slimy. One week in kraut time is not very long, so I think it should be fine. Just make up some more brine and top off the jar or find a way to press the kraut underneath the brine.
Ninu's picture

Thank you so much! Ill do that! ;-)
Eric's picture

Hello, I'm pretty new to doing my own lacto fermentation, but what I've experienced so far is that I achieve better results when I keep my ferments in an anaerobic environment (no mold, no spoilage). I believe the reason you see white scum (mold) at the top of your kraut because you continually introduce oxygen by not keeping the environment air tight, no? I'm curious as to the reasons behind your method of making kraut. Also, I've always had thin strips of kraut (using a kraut cutter/mandolin). Is there any reason you chop yours up into bits? It seems to me this may make for inconsistent textures. I'm sure it's still far better (and healthier) than the store-bought stuff. Thanks in advance.
meg's picture

Eric, I actually don't chop mine into bits. I shred it, but there are some bits that get cut up smaller--inevitable when using a knife. By the time fermentation is done (or at the point I like it, anyway), you can't even tell there are some larger and some smaller pieces. I simple prefer to use a knife rather than a mandolin. There's actually not much of a difference between the open crock method and an "anaerobic" method. Anything that sits under the brine is in an anaerobic environment. Lactic acid bacteria are anaerobic bacteria (they can survive in aerobic conditions, though). As long as the vegetables are submerged, you're going to get plenty of good lactic acid bacteria growth. Scum is a naturally occurring thing. Besides, if you're stirring your ferment daily, it is very unlikely that you'll see any scum at all. Here's a great article on the subject by my favorite fermentation guru: http://www.wildfermentation.com/aerobic-vs-anaerobic-fermentation-controversy/ However, you should use whatever method you like. I've been really happy with my ferments using this method, but if you like a different method, that's awesome! There are multiple paths to the same end. Happy fermenting!
LUKE's picture

If you don't use anything metal in the process or for stirring, you won't get any scum. Same goes for taking pickles out of a jar. I'm not sure why this works though!
Jamie's picture

I was wondering if I can add to the saurerkraut after it has been fermenting for two-three days already. I want to make something a little more flavorful and want to add jalapeno, ginger, and daikon but am not sure if it is too late.
meg's picture

Absolutely! It's not too late at all, Jamie. I like the way you think.
Sherri's picture

After five weeks into my second batch of kraut I pulled my mason jars down and had this 2 mm thick beige scum/film on the top that came off in one piece. I see I'm still making the rookie mistake of using iodized salt. The kraut smells good, but there's always a nervousness to diving into an unknown mold/yeast/bacterium. Any idea to what I did wrong or what that plastic-ish product was on the top?
meg's picture

Hmm, I can think of a few things that might be the problem. Have you been stirring your kraut regularly and making sure it was submerged under the brine? If not, the surface makes a great environment for funky molds and yeasts. You really do have to weight the kraut down. Scum forms quite often on sauerkraut, but the important thing is to skim it off as soon as it appears so it can't grow exponentially. Another thing that might have caused this thick mold scum is excessive heat. You said you pulled your mason jars down, which makes me think you had them up high somewhere--maybe on top of your refrigerator? In any case, having them up high somewhere, especially during the summer, means they might have been too warm, which would enable mold to flourish. I don't think the iodized salt was the problem. The good news is, if your kraut smells good, it's probably okay ("bad" kraut smells like an overripe compost pile), but you are taking a risk nonetheless. I'm not sure what the scum was--if it was pink, I would say that it could be yeasts, but really it's probably just thick mold from not stirring the kraut and making sure it was submerged--sort of like how if you leave kombucha alone for a long time, the mother just gets thicker and thicker. One good trick is to put a plastic bag filled with water on top of the kraut. This prevents direct exposure to air and keeps the kraut below the brine.
Rodney's picture

Anyone know if I can add fresh cabbage to a mostly-fermented batch of sauerkraut?
meg's picture

Yes, you can do this, but only to a point. If you continue adding fresh cabbage to already fermented kraut, you might end up with some texture issues--some of the kraut is very firm and crunchy, and some is very wilted and fully fermented. Adding fresh cabbage will also affect the pH and salt content--both things are important for food safety. I don't see a problem with doing this once or twice, but I wouldn't recommend doing it consistently. One option is that once you've eaten most of your kraut, remove it from the crock, then mix up a fresh batch of cabbage and salt, pack it in the crock, and put the older, already fermented kraut on top. This will act like a starter and speed up fermentation for the new cabbage.

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