It’s Christmas week (already!!!), and I’m here with my homemade sauerkraut recipe. Yes, I know, it seems like a terribly stodgy gift, but my gut tells me that you are either reading this because you need a time-honored and delicious German kraut recipe to go with an equally delicious German sausage for dinner this week, or you are here because you are looking for ways to balance the natural flora in your gut and heal your body from the inside out. Either way, this kraut’s got you covered.
Many of us know sauerkraut as something from a can that smacks of vinegar and is usually served with kielbasa or on a Reuben sandwich. That may make great PMS/hangover food, but it isn’t doing much for your body. Traditionally, sauerkraut was made as a way to preserve cabbage through the lean winter months via an anaerobic process called lacto-fermentation or lactic acid fermentation; basically, you take a bunch of vegetables and a hefty amount of salt, put them in a jar, make sure they’re covered in brine, and store them somewhere cool. This method of preservation works based on the happy fact that harmful bacteria can’t handle much salt, but the wee beasties that benefit us tolerate it quite well. Not only has this historically provided vegetables for families when fresh produce was scarce, but the fermentation process transforms already good-for-you vegetables into something better: they contain high amounts of lactobacilli, our bacterial friend that promotes healthy gut flora and a healthy immune system. When I say “promotes healthy gut flora,” that’s putting it lightly. This stuff is a probiotic powerhouse, and it’s so easy and inexpensive to make that I can’t think of a reason for this to not be a mainstay in most homes. Because the idea of home fermentation is terrifying for many who have grown up in a pasteurized world, I’ve got some pointers and and steps to help you get through your first time doing this; for those of you who just want the recipe, scroll to the bottom for the recipe link.
In its most basic form, sauerkraut is made with just cabbage and salt; this is my favorite iteration of it, though it is fun to play around with different herbs and spices for variety. You can use pretty much any kind of cabbage, depending on your desired result. Plain green cabbage will give you more crunch, depending on how thinly you slice it; purple cabbage creates a gorgeous jewel-hued kraut; Napa cabbage will be a bit more silken and smooth. For salt, a basic kosher or sea salt works well.
There are two camps here: one says use what you have, and the other says you need to purchase a kraut crock and weight built specifically for anaerobic fermentation* . While I am a firm believer in having the right equipment to do the job, I don’t have the counter or cabinet space for a crock, and a clean glass jar does a fine job. That said, I still make my kraut and other lacto-fermented vegetables in small batches; if you plan to do large batches, a crock would be a good investment for you. I’m thinking of picking up an airlock to use with my mason jars, because the current setup I use (I’ll get to that in a minute) is a bit precarious with small kiddos in the kitchen.
Most homemade sauerkraut recipes read about the same: shred cabbage, mix with salt and massage the cabbage to let the salt help release juices and create a brine, pack into fermenting vessel, wait for a really long time. There’s not much to change about it, but I have a few tweaks. First, especially if you are doing this because you are battling an autoimmune disease and either have severe joint pain or are horrendously low on energy, DON’T MASSAGE THE CABBAGE AND SALT RIGHT AWAY. The first time I did this, before my official diagnosis and while I was in the middle of a bad flareup, I followed the traditional massage-right-away method. That’s pretty much all I did for a few days- fifteen painful, exhausting minutes of massaging cabbage. This step isn’t necessary, and it can be the determining factor that discourages someone with limited energy and mobility from doing this more than once. Don’t let that happen- all you need to do is briefly mix the salt and cabbage, then let it sit for 15 or 20 minutes. The salt will do a fantastic job of releasing some of the juices all by itself, and then you’ll only need a few minutes of massaging to further break down the cell walls and coax more liquid from the cabbage.
Once the cabbage has lost a good amount of liquid and you’ve packed it into your jars (and I mean PACKED it), you may notice that you don’t have quite enough brine to cover the kraut. This is where some home-krauters fail: you MUST keep the cabbage submerged, or it will rot. This is also where some recipes fail and tell you that you have to dump the kraut back into the bowl and keep massaging it until you coax enough liquid from it. While it’s good to get as much of the brine from the cabbage as you can, you can also make a brine from filtered water and salt and use that to top off the kraut.
To keep your kraut in its happy anaerobic environment, you’ll need something to keep it submerged in the brine. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. I generally pack my kraut into a large mason jar (or, if I’m making a larger batch, a glass storage jar) and use a smaller jar, filled with a bit of water, as the weight. The smaller jar needs to be slightly narrower than the larger so it can slide inside, rest on the kraut, and press it down under the brine. To make sure no stray strands of sauerkraut escape and float to the top, I like to set a piece or two of cabbage leaf (usually an outer leaf pulled off the head of cabbage before shredding the rest of it) on top of the kraut before setting the weight on top. I cover this whole setup with a cloth bag to make sure nothing weird drops into the kraut, then set it in a kitchen corner to do its thing for about a month (like I said above, an airlock might be a good option for me soon). If you’re using a super wide-mouthed storage jar, you can set a plate in the jar on top of the kraut and then weigh it down with something clean and heavy. I’ve seen people use a layer of olive oil on top of the kraut to keep oxygen out, but I’ve never done this myself.
The Waiting Game
Your only job now is to wait. While you can totally eat this after just a few days of sitting, it’s best to let it go for a month if you want the probiotic benefits. It needs that time to allow the bacteria to proliferate. Remember, this is a preservation process- if your jar is doing its job and you are maintaining an anaerobic environment, you don’t have to worry about spoilage. The longer it ferments, the stronger the flavor gets, so keep that in mind as you decide how long to let it sit.
How to Tell if your Sauerkraut is Spoiled
This is where people get freaked out about home fermentation, but if it’s spoiled, you will be able to tell. Watch out for any yeasty smell, slime, discolored cabbage (usually pink or brown), or mold. If any of that appears, toss it. Don’t be tempted to just discard any slimy or moldy bits- if you can see any, it’s already proliferated through the whole batch.
One Last Thing…
If you are making lacto-fermented sauerkraut for strictly culinary reasons, use it however you’d like; but, if you are doing this for health reasons, keep in mind that heating the kraut can kill off all of those friendly bacteria you’ve spent the last month cultivating. Keep it as a side item and not cooked into things.
If it’s your first time making kraut, this all might seem like a lot to consider just to get a jar of sauerkraut to turn out right. Once you’ve done it a few times, though, it is a quick and pleasant process, and it’s a useful skill that can be used for other vegetables to make delicious condiments. And just in case you need a condensed version of all of this, I’ll leave you with a recipe link below. Happy fermenting, all!
Get the Homemade Sauerkraut Recipe Here
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