Easy, Homemade Sauerkraut
A step-by-step guide with helpful pickling pics!
While the process of fermenting food can seem a bit daunting, making pickles is actually a straight-forward process. Sauerkraut is one of the easiest fermented foods to make since it uses a very basic lacto-fermentation process that doesn’t require a separate brine to be made, nor any fancy equipment, and is pretty low-maintenance too. Your sauerkraut can keep you company if you’re working from home — it’s actually alive! And if you’re not, don’t worry, you only need to check on your sauerkraut every day or so as it ferments; those healthy microorganisms do all the work.
Easy, Homemade Sauerkraut
This recipe is based on a cabbage that weighs 1 kilogram or a little more, which will generally make enough sauerkraut to fill a 1-litre glass canning jar. If you have a larger cabbage, don’t worry, the recipe scales well. Expect a 2-kilogram cabbage to fill a 2-litre glass canning jar, and use 1 tablespoon of salt for every kilogram of cabbage.
Salt quality is important — never use iodized salt, and take care to use salt that has no additives. Sea salt works well, or rock salt. Watch out for the salt labelled ‘pickling salt’, it often has anti-caking agents in it which can negatively affect your fermentation. If you’re not sure, read the ingredients, there should just be one! A fine grind of salt is required for this type of pickling.
- 1 head of cabbage, about 1 kilogram
- 1 tbsp fine sea salt (not iodized salt or pickling salt)
Equipment (see notes below):
- 1- litre canning jar
- Sealable, non-reactive jar that fits in mouth of the 1-litre glass canning jar
- Large, sharp knife or mandoline
- Large cutting board
- Large bowl
A wide-mouth 1-litre glass canning jar works well for this recipe, but any size will work, and you can ferment the cabbage in any non-reactive vessel (a ceramic fermentation crock, for example). You can also use smaller or larger vessels, but keep in mind that the larger the vessel, the slower the fermentation, and conversely, the smaller the faster. If using a large fermentation vessel, you might still want to use smaller jars for storing the kraut later in the fridge.
Whatever you use to weigh down the cabbage during the fermentation process, try to use something that is almost the diameter of the mouth of the vessel you’re using to make the sauerkraut in; the goal is to keep the cabbage submerged in the brine completely. A plate that’s almost the diameter of the mouth of your vessel works well for wider vessels, on which you can place water-filled jars, or other weights. Make sure to use only non-reactive materials. You could use a clean freezer bag to contain any clean, non-reactive weight, ceramic or glass to keep the cabbage under the brine, or a clean, water-filled freezer bag as a weight.
The cutting tools, board and bowl are only used to prepare the cabbage, not during fermentation; reactivity doesn’t matter at the preparation stage, so using a stainless steel bowl, for example, during preparation is fine.
Note: Although this recipe doesn’t involve a canning process, cleanliness of ingredients, tools and hands at every stage is extremely important for making pickles that are safe to eat.
Prepare the equipment:
Always start with clean equipment. Regular soaps are preferred, for tools as well as for handwashing, as anything that is anti-bacterial can inhibit the ferment; make sure everything is rinsed well. If you like, you can sterilize your jars by boiling them in water for 15 minutes. Always wash your hands well before touching your ferment — at any stage.
Prepare the cabbage:
Discard any outer leaves that are wilted or torn. Rinse and reserve a couple of large, healthy outer leaves, which will be used to top off the cabbage later. Rinse the cabbage head in water, dry it, and cut it into quarters. Cut out the hard core/stem and discard it.
Proceed to shred the cabbage, slicing it very thinly using a knife or mandoline (safety note: always use the guard when cutting on a mandoline), and add the cabbage to the bowl.
Add the salt:
A good rule for fermenting anything by this method (where the vegetable makes its own brine and no additional brine is added) is to use about 1.5% (up to 2%) of salt by weight; so around 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt per kilogram of cabbage. Keeping the amount above 1% inhibits spoilage and maintains the texture of the pickle.
Start with around the minimum of salt, and taste to decide if more salt is needed. So if you started with a cabbage that was just over 1 kilogram, you probably have around 800 grams of shredded cabbage. Begin by adding 1 teaspoon of salt (6 grams), massage it into the cabbage with clean hands. Taste the cabbage (without contaminating your clean hands), and add more salt if needed, a half teaspoon at a time, up to about 2.5 teaspoons (15 grams). The cabbage should taste well-seasoned, a touch on the salty side, but not overly salty. The saltiness won’t diminish much in the final pickle, so do not salt to the point that you wouldn’t want to eat it.
Once the salt level is at a place you are happy with, and the cabbage is well massaged, cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and let the cabbage sit for 10-15 minutes, after which the cabbage should look wet, and you should see some brine pooling in the bottom of the bowl — around 1 - 2 tablespoons. At that point, the cabbage is ready to be packed into the jar. If it’s still too dry, work the cabbage some more with clean hands, add a touch more salt, cover again and let the cabbage sit for another 15 minutes.
Pack the cabbage into the jar:
Add the cabbage into the jar and press if down tightly, forcing the brine to cover it. A wide-mouth jar allows you to get your hand inside to push and pack the cabbage down firmly. If you are using a jar with a smaller mouth, or if you prefer to use a tool, use a clean wooden spoon, dowel-type rolling pin, a muddler or a tamper to press it down. Pack the cabbage up to around the shoulder of the jar, but leave an inch or two (depending on the size of your vessel) at the top, as the cabbage will continue to release brine as it ferments. If you are worried about over-filling, you can always fill an additional smaller jar with any extra cabbage, just be mindful of the note above — different sized batches will ferment at different rates. Once you are done packing, tip any extra brine from the bowl into the jar.
Prepare the packed jar for fermentation:
To ensure that the fermentation goes well and that the cabbage doesn’t spoil, the cabbage must stay submerged in the brine. Cut the reserved outer cabbage leaves into pieces that fit to cover the cabbage in the jar, and lay them on top. Place the clean, smaller, sealed, water-filled jar (or whatever weight you are using) on top of the cut leaves and push down to weigh the shredded cabbage down.
Keep an eye on the fermentation:
The cabbage is now ready for its long, slow fermentation. Label the jar with the date and place it in a cool spot: most importantly, out of direct sunlight, and ideally between 12C - 24C degrees. (In an environment with too much heat, it may ferment too fast and become soft.) Lay a clean tea towel over the jar and check on it daily, particularly in the beginning. You’ll find that the fermentation creates little bubbles of gas that pushes the cabbage up, and you’ll need to push it back down so it stays underneath the level of the brine, or it will spoil. Push on the top of this jar with clean hands to resubmerge cabbage without touching your ferment, and do not let the brine spill over the top as it’s needed for the fermentation. If the weight has become too heavy, replace it with something lighter.
Sometimes a little white foam or scum develops, this is harmless and you can simply remove it with a clean spoon. Mold however, while common, is unwanted. It’s likely cause is the cabbage not being kept underneath the brine. Remove all affected areas and traces of mold if they appear, and redouble efforts to keep cabbage submerged to avoid losing the entire batch. As it develops, the kraut will smell a bit cabbage-y, a little funky and a bit sour, but it should not smell bad or unpleasant. The smell is a good indication that it is doing what it’s supposed to, along with that bubbling in the first days.
Start taste-testing the sauerkraut after about a week, or even earlier if you’re worried about it being too sour. Depending on the size of your vessel the sauerkraut should be done at around two weeks, but keep it a little longer for a very sour flavour. Temperature will affect the speed of the ferment; in summer you’ll generally get a faster fermentation than in winter.
Store the fermented cabbage, sealed, in the refrigerator for up to six months. As long as the pickle is still looking, smelling and tasting good, it’s good to eat. If it starts to get really soft, smell or taste bad, it’s time to throw it out.
Yield: Makes 1 litre
There are a million ways to modify and jazz up your ‘kraut. Caraway seeds or juniper berries are traditional and delicious. Various other vegetables such as turnips, carrots and beets can be added for different flavours and textures. Garlic always pickles well and is often a nice addition, whole or minced. You can get as creative as you wish with adding spices, though start light — a little goes a long way in a fermented pickle. See these recipes for how to adapt this method with cabbage and other vegetables too, to create some show-stopping pickles.
Leila Ashtari is a food and travel photographer currently based in the Niagara region who loves telling stories about food, people and places through her work. As well as contributing to CBC Life, her work has been published in Saveur Magazine, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Lonely Planet Magazine, among others. She also likes to ferment things and always has experiments bubbling away in her basement. See more of her work at leilaashtari.com or on Instagram @ashtariphoto.