Fermentation Basics – Sauerkraut (and a variation)

Fermentation Basics – Sauerkraut (and a variation)

Sometimes cabbage looks like leather.  This is my leathery cabbage pet.
Sometimes cabbage looks like leather. This is my leathery cabbage pet.

Sauerkraut is undoubtedly one of the simplest and best known ferments in America, especially if your family is a Polish/Ukranian/Austrian/northern French hodgepodge like mine is.  I also think sauerkraut is a gateway ferment.  People think they’ll try to make it once as a lark, or maybe they give in to peer pressure.  Then they realize how simple and delicious, how fun it is and they go to town.  Before too long has passed they’re making kimchi in the bathtub, finding themselves passed out in a pool of their own vinegar, stashing flasks of kombucha in that old pair of boots in the back of the closet and sneaking out of bed to make mead and miso by moonlight. I’ve seen it happen. (No, I haven’t.)

Sauerkraut isn’t something I make every week.  I really like it, but it tends to be a seasonal treat for me.  Its salty tang inevitably brings delicious memories of Christmas Eve eve (yes, two eves) to mind: watching my dad prepare the kielbasa and sauerkraut before sitting down to roll an imperial amount of gumpke (stuffed cabbage) over the course of an evening.

As with every ferment I make regularly, I like to tweak the recipe whenever I make it.  With sauerkraut, I usually prefer caraway over juniper and I generally use mustard seeds if I have them on hand.

Remove the swanky outer leaves before you start.  They'll come in very handy later in the process.
Remove the swanky outer leaves before you start. They’ll come in very handy later in the process.

When I heard Sandorkraut speak at the Free Library in June, he mentioned talking to someone who included mashed potatoes in her sauerkraut.  Neat, right?  Never done it before.  I’m more of a sweet potato person than a potato person, so that’s what I used when I made this batch.  As always, use your discretion.  Too salty?  Add less salt!  Not enough “rye bread” taste?  Double the caraway.   Like it to remind of you of gin?  Add a few juniper berries.  Feeling funky?  Add some sliced or pureed ginger or a load of garlic!  The only essentials are cabbage and salt* so make it your own!

Salting.  Use good salt if you can! Fermentation will give you all those good minerals.
Salting. Use good salt if you can! Fermentation will give you all those good minerals.


Note: This recipe is for one quart jar.  My usual quantity is about 8 lbs of cabbage (other ingredients adjusted proportionally), which makes a gallon. You can find the sweet potato variation below the basic recipe.

1 head/ 2 lbs cabbage per quart you want to make

4 t salt (adjust to taste)

1 T caraway seeds (optional)

2 t mustard seeds (optional)

1.  Cut out the core (or not) and rinse your cabbage well.  Remove 1 or more yucky outer leaves.  Reserve one, if you want. (see step 7)

Red cabbage tends to be tightly packed and have harder, crisper leaves.  It generally takes a bit longer to ferment than green cabbage.
Red cabbage tends to be tightly packed and have harder, crisper leaves. It generally takes a bit longer to ferment than green cabbage.

2. Slice cabbage according to your preference.  Smaller pieces will require less time to release their liquid, larger pieces will take a bit longer and need more massaging.  I sometimes slice by hand, sometimes with the grater blade of my beloved Cuisinart and sometimes with the slicer blade.  This is completely a question of preference.

3.  Put the sliced cabbage into a large bowl.  Mix in salt.

Salted cabbage, releasing its liquid.
Salted cabbage, releasing its liquid.

4.  Massage the hell out of your cabbage.  You want it to release its liquid and change texture a bit.  If you have weak or arthritic hands or are just a lazy person, you can let your salted cabbage sit for 10 minutes.  That will get the cabbage to start releasing its juices, and make your squeezing efforts easier.

5.  When your cabbage feels a bit softer, and you have a decent amount of liquid in the bottom of your container, toss in your seeds, berries or other seasonings.

You want to see A LOT of liquid before you pack your kraut into its fermenting vessel
You want to see A LOT of liquid before you pack your kraut into its fermenting vessel

6.  Get your clean wide-mouthed jar and a wooden spoon and start packing!  Push that kraut in there as much as you can.  You want to end up with an inch of space at the top of your container.  You want your cabbage to be completely covered in its own juice.

7. (optional) Use the skanky outer leaf (especially the hard rib) to hold the cabbage beneath the surface of the liquid.  Just press a large piece of leaf into the jar until it fits above the kraut and below the jar ridge.  The leaf can be composted after fermentation has transformed your kraut.  The cool trick is that if there is surface mold, it will be on the leaf you’re going to toss anyway.  Preservation bonus!  You can also add a tiny bit of liquid from another, healthy ferment (older sauerkraut, kimchi, ginger beer starter, etc) to get things bubbling.  This is especially helpful in the winter when your space might be chillier than usual, but it is in no way necessary.

8.  Use a jar filled with water, a boiled rock, a plastic bag filled with leftover kraut juice or some other weight to keep your kraut below the surface of the liquid.  Set your jar aside in a place outside of direct sunlight.  If you don’t want to deal with weighting it, you can look in every couple days and push everything back down below the surface.  Be aware that if you forget to do this you will likely get mold.  It’s okay.  You can totally skim it and toss it, but it does freak some people out.

9.  Wait four weeks to a couple months.  Feel free to taste along the way and find your perfect acidity level and texture.  Mark it down for next time.

See how my top layer is sweet potato? Not good. Make sure your top SP layer is a good ways down so it doesn’t mix to the top. Sweet potatoes are much harder to submerge than cabbage!


Yes, the taters need cooking.  Raw potatoes are unsafe to eat, even fermented.


2 small/medium sweet potatoes


1.  Prepare kraut as above, through step 5.

2.  While cabbage is dropping its water weight, make your mashed sweet potatoes.

3.  I make mine by microwaving (egads) for 10 minutes or until very tender, flipping once, but you can boil or bake them if you’d like.  I also removed the skins once they’ve been microed, but that’s up to you too.

4.  Puree or mash sweet potatoes.

5.  Now start filling your jar.  This amount of sweet potatoes will give you enough for two layers, so I start with kraut, then a thick layer of sweet potatoes, then kraut, then potatoes then kraut.  You want to make sure you have a very good thick layer of kraut on top, so that when you push down to bring up the juices, the kraut and potato don’t mix (like mine did).  Alternatively, you could mix it all together before packing it into your jar

6.  Make sure that cabbage liquid covers the jar contents and go back to steps 7-9 above to finish it off.

I’m always happy to help with troubleshooting!

*salt may be optional

Purple Mustard Kraut, all jarred up and ready to ferment.
Purple Mustard Kraut, all jarred up and ready to ferment.
Basics Ferment Probiotic Sandor Katz Vegan Vegetarian


  1. narf7 says:

    These basic fermentation posts are very exciting. I love the variations that accompany them and will be trying both sauerkraut and the sweet potato variation in the near future…cheers for being so generous with sharing how to ferment, it really REALLY helps :)

    • Amanda says:

      Thank you so much, narf7! That is really nice of you to say! I am really happy if anything I post helps. So many others have helped and inspired me and I do want to pass on what I’ve learned.
      If you have any tips or variations on anything, feel free to post them in the comments! I’m always glad to learn from other fermenters.

      • Ann bailey says:

        Hi my names ann I’m from the uk and my son gave me lots of cabbage and carrots so I’m giving this a go , I’ve also got quite a few courgettes can I preserve these ? Thanks again

        • Amanda says:

          Hi Ann,

          You can definitely do courgettes! You can grate them in to the cabbage carrot mix (if that’s what you’re doing) or do them on their own. On their own, you want to take a bit of extra care to end up with the tastiest product. You can follow the same “rules” that I shared in my post about cucumber pickles. I hope that helps! http://phickle.com/index.php/we-can-phickle-that-tricky-pickle-edition/

          Oh, and one word to the wise: don’t grate the carrots if you’ll be fermenting them alone (if you’re putting them in the kraut, it’s fine to grate them). That can give you a bit too much sugar and a very unpleasant texture in your finished ferment!

  2. Paul M. Carroll says:

    Hello! Thank you for the post on ‘kraut. I’m trying my first batch today.

    Question, have you tried adding a jalapeño to a jar? Or some horseradish? Or should I just wait until it is ready to eat and then get creative?

    Thanks again,


    • Amanda says:

      Hi Paul,

      Either of those things would make fantastic additions. I say go for it, but I will give you one suggestion that I usually give to my students: start simple and adapt from there. If you haven’t made kraut before, you won’t necessarily know what’s “normal” (quotes necessary) for your environment. The more variables you add in the first couple batches, the harder it will be to figure out what worked or didn’t work. It’s great to have a good basic understanding to work from in future batches.

      Having said that, I so often do not follow this advice, and I recommend that you make it the way you think will taste good. Since both of those are strong flavors, I would start with small amounts, and make sure you use gloves when mixing with your hands! Hot peppers can really rough up your hands. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  3. Jeff Navarro says:

    Thanks for the recipe! I’m going to try it with some red cabbage I got this morning from the farmer’s market.

    One question…why should I keep the sauerkraut away from my other ferments?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Jeff,

      So although this post only went up a year or so ago, I wrote it a few years ago, when I held a commonly held misconception about ferments that they could kind of “cross-fertilize.” There are many people that still believe this but from my own experience and what I’ve read, this isn’t a real risk. So disregard that part and thanks for reminding me to delete it! Enjoy your kraut. I find that red cabbage takes a bit longer to ferment than green cabbage, generally speaking, but just stop it when it tastes right to you!


  4. Laura says:

    Hi, I just made my first batch last weekend. I checked it after a few days and it was fine. I checked it today and the brine level was about 1/3 way down (I have a little jar full of water holding things down and I had a cloth rubber banded around the whole thing. The cloth was damp and there was a ring going halfway around the top of the jar (in between the 2 jars)of what looked like crystals or the bubbles from the ocean that are kind of creamy looking. Does that make any sense? Any idea what is going on? Can I save this?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Laura,

      So it sounds to me like your jar bubbled over. It’s okay and totally salvageable. Add some brine so that your kraut is covered, and push your top jar down to make sure everything is packed. Remember you want some headspace at the top so it doesn’t bubble over again. Then I would leave it alone, peeking at your brine level every so often and adding more if pushing your “weight” jar down doesn’t bring enough brine to the surface. That should do the trick! Let me know if that’s not clear.

      Good luck!


  5. Kate says:

    Hi Amanda,

    Thank you so much for your website! I tried this recipe for the first time, and it came out fantastically. And I was surprised at how easy it was.

    Have one question- my second batch’s brine is getting a bit cloudy. Is this something to worry about? It smells fine.

    Thanks again!

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Kate,

      So glad to hear that your first batch went off without a hitch! Cloudy brine is definitely nothing to worry about. It is totally natural for ferments to have cloudy brine! In fact it’s a good sign that those lactic acid bacteria are propagating themselves. I hope you’re just as happy with your second batch as you were with your first!


  6. Jessica G says:

    Hello! I started a few quart jars of sauerkraut a few days ago following these instructions. We have a local sauerkraut company that makes a beet flavor, so inspired by that I added some shredded beets to one jar. Today the other three jars look totally fine and right, but the liquid in the beet jar has become very viscous, almost slimy, and the jar bubbled over overnight. I skimmed off a layer of foam and underneath it smells completely fine – pleasant and beet-y. Is something going terribly wrong here?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Jessica,

      First, just checking, you didn’t use whey or another starter, right? Second, it’s probably the beets. Why it didn’t happen in all of your jars, I’m not sure, but using very sweet vegetables (like carrots and beets) in small, shredded pieces, can definitely free up too many sugars. When that happens, a little bit of yeast fermentation gets going and you end up with something a little slimy and sometimes a little boozy in scent. It’s completely fine to skim the top stuff and eat the goodies underneath.

      If only one jar was impacted, I’m guessing either a bit more beet got in that jar, or maybe it was in a slightly warmer inch of counterspace. Sometimes these things are a mystery, but what you describe isn’t uncommon with smaller pieces of sweeter veg. It’s fine to use them, it’s just a matter of trial and error to find the right amount. You can get away with more in the winter when your kraut will ferment at cooler temperatures.

      I hope that helps!

      • Jessica G says:

        Oh, only one jar had beets in it – I did each jar a bit differently to see how different things turn out. I might have not expressed that clearly enough in my first post! I added some new brine to the beet jar to replace all the liquid that had bubbled over and been skimmed off. It’s still going pretty vigorously. I tasted them all today and while the other three still taste like salty cabbage, the beet jar has a pretty sour tang already.

        It’s interesting that you mention carrots, because one of my other jars has shredded carrots, and it’s behaving just like the cabbage-only jars. Also one has mustard seeds and I think a few of them have sprouted in there?!

        Anyway, I’m enjoying this process so much and I wanted to thank you for putting all this information out there (with pictures!) and being so quick to answer questions. I picked up Wild Fermentation at the library a few months ago on a whim and I was intrigued by it, but I’m the type of person that has to research things to death before I feel comfortable starting them, especially things that I’m slightly afraid will poison my family or explode. I made some sour pickles and kimchi earlier in the summer, but I’ve just worked up the courage to start a long ferment like sauerkraut, or something unfamiliar like beet kvass, or something potentially explodey like ginger beer. (Those things are both going well, btw) And I’ve got Art of Fermentation waiting for me on the library holds shelf for further reading. I’ve literally never commented on a blog before this one except to enter a giveaway, and I feel vaguely awkward, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and clear passion for the subject.

  7. FREDERIQUE says:


    I have just started fermenting veggies in my kitchen. Although I have always loved the taste of sauerkraut, I have only started to make it versus buy it because I want to try and heal my microbiota deficient gut and store bought fermented veg is basically sterile. I would make yogurt, but am severely lactose intolerant, which means there isn’t much probiotics in my diet for now. I read fermented cabbage can need anywhere from 5 days to 6 months to be ready. The site I read saying it needed to ferment 5 days said that was all that was needed to get it full of bacteria and producing enzymes that would help digestion. The sites saying it needed 12 weeks minimum all the way to 6 months talked about some bad amino acid needing to be degraded. The countertop fermentation was done one week on the counter and the other 11 in the fridge. I tried the 5 days on the counter and then straight into ma belly method and found it to be both the fantastic tang and texture of coleslaw. It was gone in week, but I have to admit that it DID get better every single day it lasted. So what’s the scoop? Should I really wait that long? If I’m eating it mainly for probiotics and actually enjoy the crispness, is it blasphemous or unhealthy? Should I make a huge batch and date eat jar and see for myself what the 12 week jar has to offer? I love the taste and don’t mind the work, but if I’m not getting the probiotics I may have to just go back to buying, or take the advice and wait longer.

    • Amanda says:

      30 days is the standard for sauerkraut fermentation. You will have different types of bacteria by the end of fermentation than you’ll have at 5 days, and lots more flavor. After the first several (3-5) days of room temperature fermentation which are essential for food safety, it’s a matter of taste preference. Completely up to you! For first timers, I recommend making enough to pack 3-4 jars. Try the first jar after 5 days, make note of how you like it and how it makes you feel. Try the next jar at 2 weeks, the next at 3 and the final at 4-5. That should give you an idea of what you enjoy most and then next time, you can make your entire batch that way.

      There is never a reason to ferment sauerkraut in the refrigerator.

  8. Frederique says:

    Right! so when you say 4-5 weeks, you actually mean 4-5 weeks at room temperature? And longer means a more varied bacterial community versus a larger population right? I guess its a little like probiotic pills versus gut flora. The pill may have a gazillion bacteria in it, but if its only a few types it won’t necessarily help. If longer fermentation means more diversity, im all in for the waiting! Just means I will have to explore shorter fermentation time veggies to keep me from dipping into the saurkraut in my cupboard!

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Frederique,

      Longer does not necessarily mean more strains of bacteria, it just means different strains. To my knowledge, we don’t know a lot about the specific health benefits of the each specific strain most commonly associated with vegetable fermentation (leuconostocs at the start of fermentation, l. plantarum and other lactobacilli at the end and throughout). If you want the broadest diversity, you may want to try eating from jars throughout the fermentation period.

      You may want to check out the “Getting Started” section of Phickle where a pickle primer lives. That may give you the answers to some of these questions.

      Thanks for reading!

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