This is the fourth instalment in my new series on fermented foods – and finally, I’ve got a recipe for you! Sauerkraut is one of my favourite fermented foods. Made right, and you can eat it as a salad, cook with it, or put it on a hot dog. It can be savoury or spicy, a cacophony of colour or grey, and tart or mild. There are literally thousands of recipes for kraut – from the boring and bland “wine” sauerkraut you get at the grocery store, to the traditional savoury flavour of German kraut, to spicy kimchi.
Obviously I cannot cover all of that diversity in one blog post. And I’d never waste the time & space to discuss “wine” sauerkraut (aka bland salty cabbage). So instead I’m just going to cover my families home recipe, which is a typical German sauerkraut. This is simply a starting point, but its an easy, cheap and hard to mess up recipe great for your first attempt.
Ingredients for the Sauerkraut
At its simplest, sauerkraut is made from cabbage and salt. In fact, these are the core ingredients of all kraut, with all variants starting with this “base” and adding various spices and other vegetables. The easiest kraut you can make requires nothing but those two ingredients – and that recipe goes great with a number of foods. But I prefer to add a few spices to my basic kraut, to bring in more flavour and character. For my base I core and finely chop the cabbage, adding 3% pickling salt by weight – i.e. for a 1 kg cabbage I add 30 g of salt. You can use any kind of cabbage – green, purple, napa, etc – with green cabbage being the most traditional.
While salt and cabbage is all you need, I like to add some savoury spices to add a bit more depth to my basic kraut. Per 2 kg (~4.5 lbs) of finely chopped cabbage I add:
- 2 – 4 cloves of minced garlic
- 1 tbsp of mustard seed (whole)
- 1 tbsp of caraway (whole)
This adds a nice savoury flavour, with the mustard adding a hint of heat. For a touch of colour I sometimes add a couple of coarsely grated carrots. You can even toss in pieces of cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, celery, or other similar vegetables, to add texture, colour and flavour. If adding extra vegetables, be sure the amount of salt you use is 3% by weight of the total weight of vegetables.
To prepare the cabbage, core it, weigh it, and chop it finely. Before chopping, measure out 3% salt by weight, and have it ready. For traditional sauerkraut, chop everything into fine strands. I like to leave a few larger chunks for texture, and sometimes even do a full jar of chunky kraut (great for stews or to serve as a salad). Just keep in mind that larger chunks will take longer to ferment.
As you chop the cabbage, transfer it into a non-reactive bowl (stainless steel, glass or plastic). After adding a thin layer of cabbage, sprinkle some of your salt into the bowl, so you bowl has alternating layers of salt and cabbage. If using other vegetables, try to layer them as well. Do your best to spread the salt evenly – this isn’t critical, but makes mixing easier in the later steps.
Wait & Kneed
Once all your cabbage is in the bowl, spread your spices across the top, and cap with the last of your salt. Now the waiting begins – let everything rest in the bowl for 30 to 45 minutes. Over this time the salt should dissolve and begin to draw moisture out of the cabbage.
After the first rest you want to squeeze and kneed the cabbage. Make sure you are forcing moisture out of the cabbage – but try to avoid breaking the cabbage into smaller pieces. You also want to use this step to thoroughly mix the ingredients such that all spices and extra vegetables are evenly mixed throughout. Your goal is to extract enough moisture from the cabbage to make a brine for the fermentation. For the first kneed, I kneed for only 20 or 30 seconds – enough to start drawing out moisture, but not enough to break up the cabbage. Put the bowl aside, and let rest another 30 minutes.
After the second rest, kneed the cabbage a second time. This should draw out a lot of liquid, and the cabbage should no longer be crispy. You should also have some brine starting to collect in the bowl. If you have a cabbage fresh from the garden, enough liquid will come out at this point and you can move onto the next step. Cabbages tend to dry out while stored, so an older cabbage, or one from the store, will need a third rest prior to packing it for fermentation.
If performing a third rest, be sure to kneed the cabbage a the end of the rest. If you still lack enough liquid you may need to prepare some additional brine, but we will come back to that issue later.
Packing Your Sauerkraut for Fermentation
Once your cabbage is softened it is ready to pack into a jar for fermentation. You want the cabbage to be packed in tight, saturated with bring, and without any trapped air.
Clean your fermentation container – you need roughly 1 L (1 quart) of volume per kilo (2.2. lbs) of cabbage. Transfer a handful of cabbage to the fermenter, along with some of the brine that has leached out of the cabbage, and using a wooden spoon or rod, pack the cabbage tightly. You want to push all of the air out of the cabbage, and to have a thin layer of brine on top of the compressed cabbage. Continue to add cabbage and brine to the fermenter, compressing everything tightly. If you run out of brine, make a 3% by weight brine with water – but add this sparingly as you don’t want to overly dilute the sauerkraut.
Once all of the cabbage is added you should have a full jar or crock of tightly packed cabbage, capped with a bit of brine. If you find yourself without dry cabbage on-top, make a 3% brine with water and top-up your jar. Now add a fermentation weight to keep the cabbage submerged, a lid, and let it ferment.
Place the kraut in a dark location between 15C and 22 C. The first visible signs of fermentation will be a developing cloudiness in the brine. This will be followed by the formation of gas bubbles. Depending on the temperature, fermentation can take from 2 weeks to a month. Some traditional krauts were fermented for more than 6 months to generate an intense sourness.
You have a few choices once the sauerkraut has reached the desired sourness. Transfer the kraut to a jar and store it in the fridge – this will stop fermentation, and the kraut will be stable in the fridge for several months. You can also can the kraut, using conventional canning methods. I prefer to avoid this, as canning often leads to overly soft cabbage. If you are fermenting in a traditional sauerkraut crock, simply use a clean non-reactive spoon to take out kraut as you need it. The remainder will happily continue to ferment.
If you are storing the kraut in a fridge (or canning it), you can do a few things to it post-fermentation to add flavour or to mellow it out. For a real wine sauerkraut (not that aberration they sell in grocery stores), drain the kraut and replace the liquid with an equal amount of dry white wine. This will cut the salt level and mellow the flavour, while adding some flavour and aroma from the wine. A mild vinegar – white, white wine or cider – can be added to add sourness with more bite. Add these sparingly, as it doesn’t take to much to overpower the kraut.
What to do with Sauerkraut
Most people think of kraut as something you add to hot dogs. And while this is a perfectly good use for it, it can do a lot more.
- Serve as a salad. This is best done with a chunky kraut. I often custom-make this as a salad. A key to this is to reduce the salt to ~2.5%, and a shorter ferment – 1 to 2 weeks. Made with caraway, garlic and mustard seed, this creates a savoury, mildly acidic salad. The flavour is similar to a vinegar-based coleslaw, but less tart and spicier.
- Cook with it. Sauerkraut can be cooked into soups, ribs, sausages, potatoes, and plenty of other foods. Kraut can be substituted in nearly any recipe for any cruciferous vegetable.
- As a side. Put it on braised ribs, serve with sausage, or on top of perogies. Its an easy way to add a bit of salt and spice to a meal.
Or you can eat it the way I prefer – in a bowl, with a pickle. Most of the kraut me make “disappears” in this fashion…often as a “midnight snack” alongside a pint of malty lager.