Wild and Lazy Fermentation

Fermentation Basics – Sauerkraut (and a variation)

This heirloom cabbage from Culton Organics weighed in at just over 8 lbs.

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.

SAUERKRAUT RECIPE

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!

SWEET POTATO VARIATION

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

Ingredients:

2 small/medium sweet potatoes

Process:

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.

12 Comments

  1. narf7
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    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 :)

  2. Amanda
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    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.

  3. Paul M. Carroll
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    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,

    Paul

  4. Amanda
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    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!

  5. Posted July 22, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Cabbage IS sexy! I have made kim chi and looking forward to making some sauerkraut with our beautiful Big Island cabbage! I will be sure to call upon you for help (and maybe an interview on my website…?)

    aloha, Andrea B.

  6. Jeff Navarro
    Posted October 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    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?

  7. Amanda
    Posted October 13, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    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!

    Amanda

  8. Laura
    Posted November 25, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    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?

  9. Amanda
    Posted November 25, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    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!

    Amanda

  10. Laura
    Posted November 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Amanda! The sea foam kind of freaked me out!

  11. Kate
    Posted January 2, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    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!

  12. Amanda
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    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!

    Amanda

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