- Cabbage* (see amounts based on desired yield below)
- Pickling or canning salt (may substitute kosher or sea salt that is free of iodine or other additives**)
Clean everything: When fermenting anything, it’s best to give the good, beneficial bacteria every chance of succeeding by starting off with a clean an environment. Wash and rinse the jars of all soap residue and make sure your hands and work surface are clean.
Slice the cabbage: Discard the wilted, limp outer leaves of the cabbage. Quarter the cabbage and cut out the core. Slice each wedge into thin ribbons. (I slice my ribbons a touch thicker than the typical sauerkraut for a little more crunch and texture.)
Salt the cabbage: Place the cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with the salt. This may not seem like a whole lot of salt at first, but it will give you a 2½ percent solution, the ideal strength for fermentation. Toss the cabbage with your clean hands for a minute or two, massaging/squeezing it lightly to allow the cabbage to start releasing water.
Pack the jar: Pack the cabbage in the jar, tamping as you go with a wooden spoon, crab mallet or potato masher to eliminate air pockets. (It’s okay to put some elbow into it to make it fit in the jar.) At first it should seem like there’s too much cabbage for the jar, but keep tamping. It will fit.
Weigh down the cabbage: Once all the cabbage is packed into the jar, place a rolled up cabbage leaf, a clean stone or other weight on top to help keep the cabbage weighed down, and by the second day, fully submerged beneath its liquid. If using a crock with a wider opening, you can use a plate with a weight on top. You could even use a small, clean jar or a zip-top bag filled with water.
Cover the jar: Cover the mouth of the jar with a clean cloth and secure it with a rubber band or string. This allows for some airflow in and out of the jar but prevents dust or insects from getting into the jar.
Press the cabbage: Over the next 24 hours, press down on the cabbage every so often with your tamper. As the cabbage releases its liquid, it will soften and become more compact and the liquid will rise over the top of the cabbage. (See “Troubleshooting,” below, if you don’t have sufficient brine.)
Ferment the cabbage for 3 to 14 days: During this time, keep the sauerkraut away from direct sunlight and at a cool room temperature (ideally 65°F to 75°F). Check it daily, pressing down if the cabbage is floating above the brine. Note that small batches will ferment more quickly than larger batches. Start tasting after 3 days, and when the sauerkraut tastes good to you, remove the extra cabbage leaf or weight, put the lid on the jar, and refrigerate. Refrigeration will stop the fermentation process. (If you used a crock for the fermentation process, you can transfer the sauerkraut, including the brine, to clean glass jars.) If you prefer a more pungent flavor, you can allow the sauerkraut to continue fermenting for longer than 14 days. There’s no set rule for when the sauerkraut is “done.” Just make sure it is always covered with brine and then let your taste buds decide!
Storage: Fermentation creates a natural preservative effect, so the sauerkraut will keep in the fridge for 6 months to a year. If you have a cellar where the temperature is between 40°F to 50°F, you can store it there. Optionally, you could pack it in jars and process it – heat the sauerkraut just to simmering, pack in canning jars, seal, and process in a water bath 20 minutes for quarts, 15 minutes for pints. Do note that the heat will kill the beneficial bacteria created during the fermentation process.
*Green cabbage is typical but any variety, including red and Napa, may be used.
*The correct amount of cabbage is key to achieving the proper ratio of salt to cabbage. Weight is the most accurate way to measure the cabbage in this recipe. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use the scale at the store, making sure to start with a 1/4 to 1/2 pound more than you need to account for the core wilted and exterior layers that you will peel away and discard. For each of the jar sizes, it should feel challenging to pack all the cabbage in at first.
**If you substitute salt: Teaspoon for teaspoon, the difference between fine grain canning salt and coarser kosher salt equates to roughly 1/4 teaspoon. To see how important the type of salt is, I tested this recipe with similar measurements of kosher salt and slightly less canning salt. All batches were successful and the difference in taste was fairly small. (My only batch that failed was one where the cabbage was not particularly fresh and did not produce much natural brine.) Tip: If you taste your sauerkraut and it seems too salty, it likely needs to ferment longer.
•If you used fresh and tender cabbage, by the second day you should have enough brine to cover the cabbage. If you don’t, make more brine by stirring 1 teaspoon of salt into 1 cup of water and add enough of this solution to cover the cabbage.
•During the fermentation process, you may see bubbles or white scum on the top. These are signs of normal fermentation. Skim off any scum as you see it or prior to refrigerating. If you happen to see mold, get rid of it right away. You’ll want to discard any moldy cabbage near the surface, but the rest of the sauerkraut will be fine to eat.
•Ideally you shouldn’t see mold, but as mentioned, a little on the top is okay if promptly removed. If you should see excessive mold and/or notice a really strong odor, these are signs that undesirable bacteria were able to thrive due to dirt or the presence of something unwanted in the jar. (The sauerkraut should smell pleasantly of…well…sauerkraut when you take a whiff but shouldn’t grab your attention with an off-putting aroma as you enter the room.)
•Red, Napa, and other cabbages make fine sauerkraut, too, so you could experiment with different varieties or even mix them. I enjoy the barebones kraut, but you could play around with various pickling spices, peppercorns, etc.
•Any quantity can be made. Simply follow the same guidelines and maintain the stated ratio of pickling salt to cabbage.
•If you have an old crock you want to use, don’t use it if there is a white film on the inside that disappears when wet and reappears upon drying. That crock has been used for waterglassing (preserving) eggs; there is no way to remove it and it will ruin your sauerkraut. (Source: the Farmer’s Almanac)
•Keep your hands and any metal object out of the crock. Use wooden spoons and mashers and glass or crockery for dipping and weighting.