I love sauerkraut. I love it on hot dogs. I love to cook pork chops in it. I can get other people to eat it if I make reuben sandwiches and pile on lots of kraut. But I don’t like the crap from the store. Sometimes I wonder if that store-bought “sauerkraut” is just leftover cole slaw from the deli department. Yuck! Gotta make my own!
Cabbages are ripe in the fall. Cabbages have soaked in the sun all summer and storing sugar and becoming delicious. Time to chop some up and save for snowy days. I learned how to sour cabbages for preservation from my Irish-German father. He always took such delight in making and eating sauerkraut. I don’t know how much raw cabbage he ate while he was making sauerkraut, but he said it was important to get the salt levels just right. I have to follow tradition. I will eat my fill of cabbage doing this!
Your farmer’s market or supermarket should give you some nice big cabbages this time of year. I like the ones that are fairly large and firm and heavy for their size. I don’t wash them but I do remove the outer few leaves and anything that is brown or bruised or I don’t want in my crock. Cut out the cores. I cut the head in quarters and then the core is easy to remove in one slice. Load up the shuttle and start slicing. Keep your hands outta’ there! If your blades are sharp, you shouldn’t have to push down on the cabbages at all. Just keep up the back and forth on the shuttle.
Speaking of salt levels, you’re shooting for 2-3% salt in your final brine. I usually start with 15 pounds of cabbages because that’s what it takes to fill my 3 gallon crock. Between the outer leaves and the cores, I lose a couple pounds, so I use about 3 to 6 ounces of salt or about 1/2 a cup. The salt just gets sprinkled in as you’re shredding–maybe a tablespoon every time I put another cabbage head in the shuttle.
Once you’ve got the crock mostly full, start mashing. A potato masher works. Something with some weight to it is good, so it does some of the work for you on the downswing. Too heavy and your arm is going to get tired. I use a clean wine bottle. Use a little caution that you don’t bring the bottle down on the edge of the crock. I aim for the middle of the cabbage and let the slaw on the bottom come up around the sides. Push the sides down into the center and keep pounding. This circular motion is good to mix in the salt and makes sure all the leaves are equally bruised. The aim here is to drive some of the water out of the leaves and make the brine. It also opens up the cells of the cabbage leaves so that the fermentation action can get in and ferment all the way through the leaves. Finally, mashing the cabbage down this way, just makes more fit in the crock.
Once you’re getting close, you should have a nice clear liquid coming up. If you’ve been tasting your cabbage this whole time, it should be just a salty as a pickle juice, which, in fact, it is! Speaking of pickle juice, that’s what I’m using to culture this batch. I have a nice batch of garlic (kosher) dills in the fridge that I just finished fermenting. That should be a delicious start to my ferment! Lacking any previous batch to “back-slop” with, you can use a little whey strained out of active yogurt. Honestly, my father never did this culturing. There should be plenty of lactobacters living on the surface of the leaves for all of this to work just fine, but I like to get it a jumpstart. The salt we’ve added will keep the bad bacteria and mold at bay while the lactobacters take the time to get established.
Final step. Find a cover. It’s important to keep the cabbage completely under water. If you have a plate that fits in your crock, you can use that. A full bottle is a great weight to hold down the plate. Lately, I’ve been using a ziptop bag full of brine. Push the cabbage down, so you have a good level of brine above the cabbage and then add your weight to keep it down there. Find someplace about 65 degrees and dark is good too. Throw a dishtowel over the whole thing to keep out dust and flying critters.
Check your progress every couple of days. Scum off any colonies of mold before they really take root. Once you get the surface cleaned off, you can pull out the weight and see what’s doing down below. Grab a little taste if you’re curious or brave – but only if your hands are really really clean!!!
Depending on, well, a lot of things, but mostly temperature, your kraut should be ready in a couple weeks. I like mine pretty sour so you might want to start tasting sooner. You can just move the crock into the coldest place you have to slow the fermentation down to a crawl. The fridge is good if you have the room. You can pack it in freezer bags for convenience or you might can it, but you’ll kill all the healthy probiotics in the stuff. It’ll still be delicious, just not as good for you!
Watch my video about making sauerkraut: Better Done Yourself Sauerkraut on YouTube