There are so many things that our great-grandparents knew how to do that we as a culture no longer remember. Things like how to can soup, bake bread, craft a poultice, split firewood, butcher a hen, or make kraut (off the top of my head).
Somewhere along the way, we traded our collective domestic wisdom for the lure of convenience. And what a loss that truly was! To our families, our health, our budgets, and the earth.
I say it’s time to bring that knowledge back.
One person, one family, one step-outside-of-your-comfort-zone at a time, let’s start to remember. We can regain what was lost, and take back some of the simple skills that have been commoditized in our modern world.
When I posted a photo on Instagram and Facebook last week of a batch of cabbage kraut in the making, I didn’t anticipate such a flurry of earnest questions regarding procedure, safety, equipment, and more:
“Do you have any advice for someone new to fermenting? I am honestly so terrified of doing it ‘wrong’ and making my family sick…growing up in the era of all-bacteria-in-food-is-potentially-deadly. Natural mold=bad. Bubbly ferments=good. Hard to wrap my head around how it all works and when good ferments can lead to poison for our bodies…and how to know a bad ferment. […] I need to get over this hurdle of fear!”
“Inspired to finally try this, as i keep feeling the tug of ‘what if it doesn’t turn out?’ holding me back.”
“I’ve been wishing I had the bravery to try to make my own recently… but I get scared about not knowing if it’s spoiled on the counter while it’s curing… and do I need those glass weights or special water or other gear?”
The questions above really to to the heart of the matter, don’t they? Without learning these skills from our ancestors, they became cloaked in mystery, anxiety, and fear–and we fret that if we do it wrong we’re sure to kill someone.
Let me assuage your fears.
Sandor Katz, my live fermentation hero (whose books I reference below), said at a recent talk that he’s never heard of anyone dying–ever–from fermented foods. Yes, he’s made bad ferments that he’s spat out before, but no, he’s never gotten sick, nor has anyone he knows. I’m going to back him up here.
Because it’s all about the science.
Lactofermentation (or live-fermentation) uses the naturally occurring good bacteria (Lactobacillus) found in raw veggies to preserve. The bad bacteria (the kind that could make you sick and/or poison your peeps) can’t handle the salt, and so are killed in the kraut-making process.
This is why you won’t give anyone food poisoning with your ferment. Because it’s, well, fermented.
In short, it works like this: We salt our veggies which kills the bad bacteria; then the good bacteria have a party to celebrate. Bubbles form in your ferment, the brine rises up and out of your jar, and everyone is happy. (Sour, but happy.) It’s nearly fool-proof.
Best of all, it doesn’t take any special equipment. You don’t need weights and silicone lids; pickle crocks or razor-sharp mandolines. While in years past I’ve used all of these gadgets and more, you really don’t need them, and I’ve come full-circle, back to the basics. Knife, jar, plate.
And I realized this week that after nearly 10 years of blogging and kraut-making, I have given you a proper sauerkraut tutorial! Forgive me.
So I made another batch, photographing and documenting every step of the way. Think of me as your virtual, younger than I should be great-grandmother. Or something. And with a bit of courage and knife work from you, you can join me here in the simple, sustainable, health-giving act of making your own sauerkraut.
Ready? Let’s get our kraut on.
Lacto-fermented Sauerkraut Tutorial & Recipe
- 1 cabbage, approximately 2 lbs.
- 1 tbsp good quality sea salt
- Sharp knife
- Mixing bowl
- Screw-top mason jar with a tight fitting lid
- plate or bowl with an adequate diameter to hold your jar
1. Peel the shabby, outer leaves off of your cabbage and compost them.
2. Peel off a full-sized, not-so-shabby cabbage leaf. Do not slice, but set aside whole.
3. Cut your cabbage in nearly in half, slicing at an angle just beside the core. Repeat on the other side, creating a wedge with the core in the center. Cut off the edges of the wedge that aren’t core. Don’t fiddle with it too much, just whack off the excess.
Set the core aside for use in a bit.
4. Grab your sharp knife (or, if you prefer, a box grater or electric food processor), and thinly slice your cabbage. My method is to cut the cabbage halves into wedges that are approximately 2″ across, then slice the 2″ chunks as thinly as you wish, as pictured. Continue slicing until your whole cabbage is in thin shreds.
5. Using your box grater, grate the core beginning with the inside, and holding onto the stem. Grate just until where it stops looking appealing, then discard the stem end.
If everything went according to plan, your bowl should look something like this:
Your pile of sliced and grated cabbage may be smaller than mine, as I was working with 3 cabbages instead of just 1, but honestly, do whatever size batch you wish. (When we were recently traveling, I made tiny 1/4 to 1/2 cabbage-sized batches in an empty peanut butter jar, just big enough to fit in the cooler.)
6. Now it’s time for the magic. Add approximately 1 tbsp. of high quality sea salt for every 2 lbs. of cabbage you used. (An average smallish/medium cabbage normally runs around that size.) Sprinkle the salt over the grated and sliced cabbage, and stir to combine with your hands. Give it a little massage to work some salt into the cabbage. Work it for just a minute or two, until thoroughly combined.
7. (And this is the hard one…) Walk away.
Really. Walk away. You can go and grab your grandma’s kraut pounder (like the one pictured above), and expend 1,200 calories beating those vegetables into juicy submission, or you could just… walk away. I suggest the latter, and only pulled out my kraut pounder to tell you you don’t need one.
Come back in 10 to 20 minutes, and see what you’ve got.
8. Rewash your hands, and head back to your kraut bowl. If the salt has already started working on the cabbage, the veggies will have a slightly translucent appearance, and feel a bit wet. That’s a good sign! Use your hands to gently massage the kraut, further softening the vegetable and breaking down the cell walls. Do this for as long as you want (1 minute, 5 minutes, it honestly doesn’t matter), then walk away again, giving it another 5 to 15 minutes to continue to release its juices and soften.
When you return, your cabbage should have started to release even more liquid. Using clean hands, stir it well, then grab a handful and give it a squeeze. If your cabbage was really fresh, you’ll probably have brine running down your elbows.
If your cabbage wasn’t as fresh and juicy, repeat step 8 one or two more times.
9. Taste the brine. It should be nice and salty, but not like licking a salt lamp. If you still have very little brine and tastes like cabbagy water with little or no salty flavor, add more salt. If it’s unpleasantly salty and has you running for the sink to rinse your tongue, you can add 1/2 c of water, stir, and taste again.
10. Let’s review. You’ve chopped up your cabbage, given it a relaxing salt massage, and now you’re swimming in soft, briney cabbage. Great! Now it’s time to pack it in a jar for fermenting.
Most average sized cabbages will make around a quart of kraut, I made a gallon using 3 large cabbages. Using your (clean) hands, a widemouth canning jar, and canning funnel (if you have one), place a couple of handfuls of cabbage in the jar. if your hands fit in jar, make a fist and press the kraut firmly in, using your knuckles. (If your hand doesn’t fit, use a sturdy spoon to mush it in there as best as you can.)
11. Keep filling and pressing, filling and pressing, until the jar is full to the shoulders or and your cabbage is all used up. At first you won’t see any brine at all, but as you add more layers and press in the veggies, the brine will begin to release. By the time you’ve loaded your jar, you should be left with a bowl with brine pooled in the bottom. Pour this over the cabbage now.
Your jar should look something like this: cabbage firmly packed at the bottom, topped with juicy brine. (If you don’t have this much brine, taste again to make sure it’s plenty salty and add more salt if needed stir it a bit with a fork, press again, and/or wait another 20 minutes or so. It will release more. I promise!)
12. Remember that reserved cabbage leaf? Go and get it. Press the leaf into the top of the jar, holding your cabbage beneath the brine, and preventing oxygen from getting to your kraut and making it taste less amazing. Tuck the leaf around the edges, pushing until it stays beneath the brine as well. (Anything above the brine can develop mold, but it will not effect the kraut beneath the brine. Just remove and discard if this happens and all will be well. Really! Because: science.)
Use your fingers to swipe around the neck of the jar to remove any cabbage bits you may have missed.
13. Add additional brine if needed to fill your jar right to the neck, so that it looks something like the picture below (adding approximately 1/2 cup of water to 1 tsp of salt).
14. Tightly lid your jar with a regular canning jar lid, and set on a rimmed plate or bowl in a cool, out-of-the-way corner of your kitchen, out of direct sunlight.
After 1 to 3 days, your brine will rise up and out of the jar (thus the plate or bowl)!
Edited to clarify: as long as you are “burping” your jar after day 3, and daily going forward, the jar should not build up enough pressure to break. A friend who makes kraut professionally told me that she has never had a jar break using this method, and I concur. Though you’re tightly sealing it, it’s not pressure-canner tight, so a drizzle of brine will be able to seep up and out by the pressure generated from fermentation. For this reason, I don’t recommend fermenting in latch lid jars, as they seal up too tightly and don’t let any air escape, causing a breakage risk.
If you’re concerned about breakage, simply “burp” your jar daily from the start by loosening, then retightening the lid.
Pour off any liquid that pools on the plate, and wipe down the jar if desired.
15. After four or five days, it’s time for a taste! Using clean hands, remove the lid and cabbage leaf, and set aside on a clean plate. Scoop out a bite of kraut on a fork, and taste. It should be just beginning to taste sour, and the cabbage will be softer than when you jarred it up.
Unless your kitchen is quite warm, your kraut won’t be ready for a few more days, but I think daily tasting to get a feel for how it changes it’s a great habit to get into. Consider it kraut-bonding.
After each taste test, press the kraut back under the brine with clean hands, and top with your cabbage leaf. Double check that everything is below the bring before twisting on the lid.
16. When you are pleased with the taste (normally after 1 to 2 weeks, depending on your flavor preference and the temperature of your kitchen), pop it into the fridge. You can remove the cabbage leaf and compost it at this stage, then push the kraut beneath the brine. Serve with every meal, and be sure to push the kraut back under the brine after each serving.
Look at you, making your own kraut!
Your great grandma would be proud.
P.S. There are a thousand ways you can embellish your next batch of kraut once you’ve mastered making a basic batch. Add a some caraway seeds, a teaspoon of dill, or some thinly sliced hot peppers. Throw in sesame seeds and kelp, or an assortment of other grated veggies.
The sky’s the limit, and–aside from adding salt and keeping the veggies beneath the brine–there are no rules.
P.P.S. Want a book on the subject? Here are a few of my faves. Buy them at your local bookshop! (If you choose to buy online, some afflinks are below.)