First Attempts at Fermenting Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is yet another fermented goodie you can make at home.  And the chances are very good you have everything right at home.

So here’s what you’ll need:

  • cabbage
  • salt
  • spices (optional)
  • a cylindrical container
  • a clean weight

The entire process involves cutting the cabbage into shreds, packing it into the container with layers of salt and any spices you might want to add, and placing the weight on top. The easiest way to chop the cabbage is to discard the outer leaf, quarter the head, remove the hard stem material, and chop the rest into thin (1-2 mm) slices.  The salt will draw out the moisture from the cabbage and create a brine which should completely cover the cabbage after leaving overnight or so (you may need to top it up the next morning if this isn’t the case).  Then you simply wait for the lactic acid producing microbes naturally present on the cabbage leaves to do their thing- it should take one to six weeks depending on temperature, the initial population of microbes on your particular cabbage, and how sour you like your sauerkraut.

sauerkraut

Sauerkraut and the fermentation crock.

The weight should hold all of the cabbage under the surface of the water.  This is a safe environment for the lactic acid producing bacteria, where the salt and lack of oxygen will keep other spoiler microbes away.  If any cabbage floats to the surface, it will likely mold after a while- just skim this off every so often and you’ll be good to go.

For a gallon/ 4 L sized container, you’ll need a bit less than two average heads of cabbage.  Use 1-2% salt by weight to ensure the proper strength brine (a tsp of standard table salt weighs almost exactly 6 g/ 0.21 oz).  Ferment at 64-76F/ 18-24C, preferably somewhere the smell can be contained without upsetting your significant other (who is likely only tolerating your fermentation antics at this point).  Its not an especially bad smell, but not one you want around the main living areas of your home.

Spices such as fennel seed,  peppercorn, and even juniper berry among others, have historically been added to sauerkraut.  Just keep in mind that there is a very long contact time, so you won’t need very much (a tablespoon each of peppercorn and fennel seed added to my first batch was too much).  Also, these spices can always be added to your dish later, so you might consider just waiting.

My personal experience with making sauerkraut thus far has yielded less than stellar (though improving) results.  The first batch, likely hindered by an early cold snap while fermenting in my garage, never really soured and sat too long without fermenting before I threw it out.  The second batch did result in sauerkraut that was reasonably good, but the ferment was still very sluggish.  Even after six weeks (at which time I moved it to jars and into the fridge), it was still not sour to my liking.  That said, I do like my sauerkraut very sour.  I think tossed with a bit of vinegar- which for reasons unknown I have yet to try- it would be quite good (this will also add a bit of acetic bite to the more mellow lactic acid of the ‘kraut).

I think my primary problem is not having a good starting microbe population.  I accidentally left the left-0ver half head of cabbage in my vegetable crisper for months, and it had not yet begun to brown.  This says to me that there are not many microbes to start with.  A starter culture would be very useful in this case, though at a minimum I could try sourcing my cabbage elsewhere, as others do not seem to have this issue.  Also, using some saran wrap directly on the surface of the liquid after adding the weight would probably also help improve the environment for the good microbes.  Temperature control is also likely an issue for me.  Ideally it should be kept at a pretty constant temperature, but I have no choice but to leave it in the garage and expose it to the temperature swings of the day.

I have yet to attempt a batch of kimchi, but it is a very similar dish to sauerkraut in its preparation.  Basically, you simply add chilies, garlic, other vegetables, and fish sauce to the cabbage, use more salt (3% by weight), and ferment cooler (41-57F/ 5-14C) for one to three weeks.  The cooler temperature  and additional salt allows a different fermentation profile, as different microbe species tend to dominate in these conditions.

(Specific information on times, temperatures, and weights in this post came primarily from McGee’s On Food and Cooking.)

– Dennis
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

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