For centuries people have been using the process of fermentation to preserve foods. Various versions of sauerkraut appeared in China some two thousand years ago, and early Roman writings mention preserving cabbage and turnips with salt. It is believed that sauerkraut as we know it was introduced to the Tartans in Russia by Genghis Khan after his plundering of China. From there kraut made its way into Europe, where it took a strong hold mainly in Eastern European and Germanic cuisines, but also in France.
Sauerkraut has long been considered a peasant food, humble and disparaged. Originally, the production of sauerkraut served the primary purpose of preserving the harvest into the winter when food was scarce and hunger a true threat. So while country folk preserved their cabbage with salt in an effort to keep hunger away during the dark months, their method of preservation also provided added benefits essential for optimal nourishment. The process of lactic acid fermentation used to transform salt and cabbage into sauerkraut increases the presence of vitamins C and B, and important food enzymes. Homemade sauerkraut is extraordinarily rich in beneficial bacteria which help to maintain overall digestive health and strengthen the immune system.
Homemade sauerkraut takes time, but the reward for patience is great. Unlike the can or jar of kraut found in the store, this process requires no cooking or vinegar, just salt and cabbage, resulting in a completely different flavor and texture than what comes to mind for most people.
Choosing a fermentation container:
Grandma and Grandpa used an old crock to make their sauerkraut, and you can too if you have one. Depending on how much kraut you intend to make (many of the old crocks are quite large and make it is difficult to successfully produce a smaller quantity) you also can use a 5 gallon plastic bucket. What ever container you intend to use, you will also need a flat disc such as a plate that will fit down into the container, and a weight, like a large smooth stone or a plastic gallon jug filled with water.
Scrub the container, disc, and weight with warm soapy water and dry completely. Rinse all parts with a light solution of bleach water and place them on a clean towel to completely dry.
To prepare Homemade Sauerkraut:
(This recipe will yield about 2 quarts. Sauerkraut can be made in larger quantities just be sure to keep the cabbage to salt ratio the same).
- 2 large cabbage heads (about 5 to 6 total pounds, cored and finely shredded)
- 3 tbsp kosher salt
Toss cabbage and salt together in a large mixing bowl (I worked directly into my fermentation bucket, however I am tall and have a large wingspan. You might find it easier to work in a bowl and then transfer to your bucket). Allow mixture to stand for about 15 minutes to allow the water to begin to release from the cabbage.
Squeeze the cabbage and salt together with your hands (like wringing out a wash cloth), kneading it thoroughly to break up the cellular structure of the shredded cabbage and to release the water (It is important to work over the bowl and save all of the water that is released from the cabbage. This is the only liquid that will be added for fermentation). When the cabbage has become limp and released its juice, transfer it to a crock or food service bucket.
Pack the cabbage tightly down into the container using your fist, forcing it below the liquid. Add the disc and weight to keep the cabbage underwater.
Important: The real key to preparing homemade sauerkraut, or any fermented food, is that the solid materials must rest below the liquid. Fermentation is an anaerobic process and to expose your ferments to air increases the likelihood that they will become contaminated by stray microbes, yeasts and molds, spoiling your batch.
Cover the fermentation bucket with a clean tea towel or pillow case and place in a cool environment ideally around 60° F. Now comes the waiting. Check the kraut once a week to make sure that the cabbage is submerged. If scum appears floating in the brine of your homemade sauerkraut, simply spoon it off. You won’t be able to remove it all, but spoon of what you can and don’t worry about the rest.
Taste your kraut to check for texture and flavor. Making sauerkraut is like making a fine wine. Some people prefer a young innocent variety while others desire a more deep flavor. Typically after two weeks, you can choose to use your kraut at what ever stage you like. I find that I personally like the results from about four weeks of fermentation.
Sauerkraut can be held in the refrigerator for up to four months, or packed into jars and sealed in a hot water bath for non-refrigerated storage (refer to your canning guide for proper procedure).
Give it a try, and have some fun. I think my next fermentation project is going to include some hot peppers, carrots, and cauliflower, or maybe I will try to make my own kimchi.