Fermented Foods: Homemade Sauerkraut
The microbiome. The gut flora. “Good” bacteria versus “bad” bacteria. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the bacteria living in our gut. Gut health is all the rage in the world of functional medicine and nutrition, and for good reason. Increasing numbers of health conditions seem to hinge on the health and diversity of the bacteria living in your intestinal tract. It sounds otherworldly to think that tiny organisms within us might control our health, but it’s true. To foster the balance and health of our little buddies inside, we must feed them well. Luckily, homemade sauerkraut and other fermented foods are just what the microbiota wants. Let’s take a look at how we can easily make this at home, and why it’s so beneficial to our health.
All About Balance
Our society loves to pit the good guys versus the bad guys, but let’s drop that notion for a minute. In the realm of gut health, everything hinges on balance. We have a mix of bacteria living within us that either thrives on the food we feed it, or is killed off by our medications, pollutants or diet choices. When one strain of bacteria is reduced in population, other strains will grow to fill the void. This can cause an imbalance in the types of microorganism populations we have within, and recent science is linking these imbalances with a myriad of health conditions from yeast (Candida) overgrowth to obesity, depression and more. This is a vast topic that we could discuss for years, with emerging science on related health risks and the healthy microbiome breaking everyday.
For the purposes of this homemade sauerkraut post, let’s focus on the fact that our gut bacteria remain diverse as long as we feed them properly. Avoiding processed foods, sugars, artificial sweeteners, and toxins present in some conventionally-raised meat, unfiltered water, and our personal care products will help to protect the diversity within. Eating whole foods and probiotic-rich foods, such as fermented sauerkraut, also nourishes the microorganisms that do so much for our health.
Preparing for Kraut
The first step in making sauerkraut is procuring ingredients and materials. Ingredients are simple: raw cabbages, salt, and filtered water. Materials include a cutting board and knife, mason jars, lids, a funnel (I use half-gallon sized wide-mouth jars with plastic lids and a rubber funnel for ease of filling), large plastic or glass mixing bowls, something to tamp down the kraut once it’s in the jars (I use the tamper from my Vitamix), and some weights or rocks to set inside the tops of the jars. You’ll also want some boiling water to sterilize everything before you begin cutting the cabbages. It sounds like a lot, but once you’ve been through the process once you’ll see just how easy this is.
First, sterilize everything from your cutting board to your weights. It is important to begin with a sterile environment so that the proper microorganisms will multiply during the fermentation process. Avoiding contamination is the hardest part about making homemade fermented foods.
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and rinse the remaining ball well. First, chop off the stem end, then quarter the cabbages. To quickly remove the core, I place the quarter on the cutting board and cut the bottom of the wedge at a 45-degree angle (shown to the right). Bonus: this is a super-quick way to core apples as well!
After coring the cabbage, slice the wedge into long strips from 1/4 – 1/8 of an inch. In my experience, the thicker the strips, the crunchier the ‘kraut. This takes two steps – slicing the wedge once, then stacking it up again and slicing it again to get thin strips of cabbage. As pictured below, place the cabbage strips into your sterilized mixing bowls and repeat with any remaining cabbages until the bowls are full.
Salt, Chemistry, and Manual Labor
This is where real change takes place and where the recipe gets very specific according to some sauerkraut aficionados. There is great debate in the world of homemade sauerkraut over the proper amount of salt to use to achieve ‘kraut perfection. The recipe I learned from in Katherine Green’s book entitled Home Fermentation (which I now follow loosely) calls for 4 teaspoons of pickling salt per 2 pounds of cabbage. This post from the Fermented Food Lab calls for less weighing and more tasting to get the salt content right – a method I approve of as a fairly nonchalant type of cook. Whether you prefer the specificity of weighing and measurement or something more spontaneous, at this point in the preparation you need to divvy up your salt and sprinkle it over the sliced cabbage.
Gently massage the salt into the cabbage for a couple minutes. The cabbage will start to feel slippery and softer, as the salt breaks it down. At this point you can leave the cabbage covered for about an hour to let the salt do its work, or you can continue to massage the cabbage strips until they are soft and you have liquid in the bottom of the mixing bowl. If you choose the path of manual labor, prepare to settle in for the long haul (I have been known to turn on Netflix or listen to podcasts) because you’ll not want to multitask and risk introducing contamination into the bowls. You will, however, earn some fantastically-sculpted forearms! If you opt to let the concoction rest and let the salt do its job, you’ll find that the cabbage softens on its own and will require minimal effort.
At this point it’s time to set up the funnel and put the cabbage into jars. As you add the cabbage, tamp it down using whatever tamper (or wooden spoon) you have on hand. It is important to get as much air out of the jar as possible, since sauerkraut fermentation is an anaerobic process. You will fit much more cabbage into the jar than you first realize, since you’re continually tamping it down to cram all of the air out. During this process, you’ll note that the liquid level within the jar will rise. Ideally, you want the liquid to cover all of the cabbage and to reveal any hidden air bubbles hiding in the mixture (for you to tamp out).
Once you have all of the cabbage into its jars and all of the air tamped out, you will need to assess the liquid levels. If liquid is covering all of your cabbage, you can go on to the next step. If some of your cabbage is still
exposed to air because the liquid levels are low, then you’ll need to create a brine. Mix 1 cup of water with 1.25 teaspoons of salt. Pour this into your jars until all of the cabbage is mixed, and check again to purge air bubbles.
Place your sterilized rocks or weights right on top of the cabbage inside each jar. Again, this is an anaerobic process so your goal is to get all of the cabbage under water. The weights or rocks simple how the cabbage down so that it doesn’t pop up into the air as fermentation progresses.
To store, place a plastic lid on your jars. I find that these lids are not airtight, so the ferment is allowed to breathe. I do not tighten my lids all the way for this reason. Alternatively, you could cover the jars in cheesecloth with an elastic band. Store in a cool, dark location – ideally 50-75ºF. The fermentation process will take from 2-6 weeks, depending on the temperature of your storage location. Check the jars 24 hours after you fill them to be sure the cabbage is still covered in water, then check them again every 1-2 days throughout the process. If you need more liquid, simply make another batch of brine and add it to the jars as needed.
You will note bubbles forming and coming to the surface during the fermentation process. At some point during the 2-6 week time window, the bubbles will stop forming. This signals the end of fermentation and the product should be refrigerated for storage and use. As the fermentation period carries on, the flavor of the sauerkraut will change and strengthen. You may taste it at any time (using a clean utensil to avoid contamination) after 2 weeks and stop fermentation by refrigerating the jars when the flavor suits your tastes.
The Power of Observation
You may note foam or scum forming on the top of your jars at some point during this process. This is caused by yeast and is completely normal, though it should be removed each time you see it. If there is mold on top, it may be removed and the rest of the ferment is still usable. In both circumstances, check to be sure the kraut is covered in brine.
Dark or pink kraut may occur on the top of the jar as well. These are caused by exposure to oxygen and yeast, respectively. In both circumstances the colored cabbage can be safely removed and the rest of the jar kept safely. Again, check the storage conditions for enough brine and proper temperatures.
Kraut that is slimy, smells putrid or rotten, or tastes bad should be discarded immediately and not ingested. These are signs of spoilage and might be the result of using too little salt, high temperatures, or bacterial contamination. In general, use your senses to determine whether a kraut has gone wrong. This is something you will worry about the first couple times you ferment foods, but you’ll quickly develop confidence and intuition with practice.