For something that’s made of cabbage and salt, sauerkraut is complex. Its history, culinary possibilities, and even biology can fill volumes.
Same goes for making sauerkraut from scratch. It’s simple in theory: combine shredded cabbage and salt, then wait.
But if you, like me, set out to ferment your own kraut and failed multiple times, never fear! I learned the secrets the hard way, and now I’m going to share them with you. Outside of 2 quart jars, you don’t need any special equipment–only an engaged, curious mindset.
Sauerkraut Is Fermented and Alive
I grew up with my parents cooking sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for good luck, and I hated that stinky smell. As an adult, I now covet Mom’s kraut cooked with pork roast and carrots.
But the sauerkraut that I eat most often is very different: it’s straight from the jar, raw. I love its flavor, and it’s packed with gut-healthy probiotics.
When you ferment your sauerkraut, you collaborate with a living thing that has a will of its own. Every batch is its own adventure, with its own arc of give and take. The successful mindset is engaged and curious. Technically, it’s wild bacteria and yeast that actually “makes” the kraut; you’re simply creating the most beneficial set of conditions.
Time and Temperature Are the Secret Ingredients
Here’s what it took me ages to figure out: time and temperature are vital. They are the unspoken third and fourth ingredients in your sauerkraut, just as important as cabbage and salt.
Temperature: The ambient temperature of your kitchen plays a huge role in a successful ferment. The ideal range is between 60 and 70°F. In the winter, my kitchen hovers around 67°F, and it takes days longer for my sauerkraut to get to the stage I like than it does in the summer, when my kitchen is a balmy 78 to 80°F. However, I prefer the flavor of my slow-fermented winter kraut, which is cleaner yet more complex.
Time: You cannot rush sauerkraut. It’s done when it’s done. Sometimes I leave it for only 4 days; sometimes nearly 2 weeks. It depends on the temperature (see above), but also your personal preference. Some like their fresh kraut springy and crunchy, but I like mine good-funky, a quality I call “stonky” (as opposed to bad-funky, which is stanky). Taste and smell as it progresses. Sauerkraut is done when you decide it’s done.
One Cabbage at a Time
I make sauerkraut all year long, one small batch at a time. I get a head of cabbage, 2 quart jars, my favorite salt, and set to work. The yield depends on the size, the weight of the cabbage itself, the cabbage’s moisture content, and how tightly you pack the jars.
If you’re a beginner, stick to one medium-sized cabbage (about 3 pounds) at a time until you master the alchemy of fermentation in your own kitchen. Once you know the ropes, scale up, get a big crock, and go to town with lotsa cabbage.
Use your homemade sauerkraut to top hot dogs, sausages, sandwiches, salads, and more. While you can use this kraut in heated recipes, it does negate the probiotic health benefits.
How Much Salt to Use
When I salt my chopped cabbage, I just eyeball it, sprinkling it over layers of cabbage as I add it to my bowl. By now I can do it by feel and get a consistent result.
For people just starting out, weighing the cabbage and salt is a more trustworthy route. The ratio I like is 1 pound of unprepped cabbage to 5 grams of salt. Let’s say we’re starting with a whole head of cabbage that weighs 4 pounds. You’d use a total of 20 grams of salt.
Use salt that’s free of iodine, which can impede the fermentation process. Pickling salt, sea salt, and kosher salt all work well.
Some people make low-or no- sodium sauerkraut, and it is possible, but I prefer the flavor of kraut that’s on the salty side. It just tastes more like kraut to me, plus the salt is part of what helps keep mold and bad bacteria away.
I rarely make plain old kraut. As long as you keep the ratio of salt the same (1 pound of unprepped vegetables to 5 grams of salt), you can create all kinds of colorful sauerkraut variations. Nearly any root vegetable excels in these ferments. Fruit that oxidizes, such as apple and pear, doesn’t hold up as well. Try one of these.
- Purple cabbage, grated or matchstick raw beets, many smashed cloves of garlic, and a small handful of caraway seeds
- White cabbage, grated raw carrot, purslane or foraged garlic mustard leaves and stems, grated raw horseradish root
- White or savoy cabbage, sliced hot peppers of your choice, thinly sliced scallion, thinly sliced garlic, matchstick carrots, and a generous pinch of smoked paprika
- Thinly sliced raw fennel bulb, a handful of chopped fennel fronds, coarsely crushed fennel seeds, and good old white cabbage
Thank you to The Castle in Marietta, Ohio, for hosting us for this photo shoot.
More DIY Kitchen Projects
How to Make Sauerkraut
The fermentation time ranges from 4 to 14 days.
Smooth stones make excellent fermentation weights, and they’re free. Be on the lookout for ones that’ll fit in your jars. Wash them well, then boil them hard for 10 minutes to sterilize them. After that, they’ll be ready for fermentation projects. This tip comes from wildcrafter Pacal Baduar, who’s worth a follow.
A sauerkraut stomper is not necessary, but if you find you make kraut a lot, it’s a worthy investment.
1 medium head cabbage (about 3 pounds/1.36kg)
15 grams non-iodized salt, plus more if needed (kosher salt, pickling salt, and sea salt all work well)
- 2 wide-mouth quart canning jars with lids
- Potato masher or wooden sauerkraut stomper (optional but very handy)
Gather the equipment:
Get out the biggest bowl you have to hold the cabbage and have your salt handy. You want 5 grams of salt for every pound of cabbage (before shredding).
Prep the cabbage:
Remove the outermost 2 or 3 leaves of the cabbage; discard.
Remove the next 2 or 3 leaves, trying your best to leave them intact (some tearing is fine). With a paring knife, cut out the thickest part of the rib in the center of the leaves and discard. You’ll use these leaves to form a cap over the shredded kraut. Set them aside.
Shred the cabbage:
Finely shred the cabbage. Some people prefer a food processor fitted with a slicing blade. Others use a mandoline slicer. If using either of these tools, cut as many usable parts off the cabbage and discard the tough inner core.
I prefer a chef’s knife and a big cutting board. I use the core as a holder to keep the cabbage leaves intact and rotate the cabbage as I shred it. How many cups you end up with does not matter much. Just shred away.
Salt the cabbage, then bash it:
Put a layer of shredded cabbage in the bowl, and sprinkle some of the salt over it generously. Massage it in with your (freshly washed) hands, or bash at it with a wooden sauerkraut stomper. For a small batch of kraut, your hands will work fine, but for larger batches, I find all that massaging bothersome, so I prefer the stomper.
Probably you don’t have a kraut stomper. A potato masher works equally well.
Continue adding new layers of cabbage and salt in the bowl, massaging or bashing each layer as you go. Don’t be delicate! Really get into it. The more you bruise the cabbage, the more moisture it will release, which is what you want.
This task is a lot easier if you do it in stages, which is why we’re not adding all of the cabbage and salt to the bowl at once.
If your tap water is chlorinated, get about 1 cup and set it aside, uncovered. It will naturally dechlorinate as the salted cabbage rests. This water is your backup later on in case you need to top off the jars with more brine.
Chlorine is an enemy of fermentation, so we’re letting this water dechlorinate naturally to ensure the success of our fermenting kraut.
Now go do something else for about 30 minutes. Wash some dishes, tidy your inbox. As the cabbage sits, it will release juice–this is the brine, and you want enough to submerge the kraut once it’s in the jars.
Stomp/bash/massage the cabbage more. You will likely notice the mix is now a lot wetter. Give it another 30 minutes, then come back and repeat.
I make sauerkraut at the same time I prep or cook other recipes. Then I’m right in the kitchen and can easily toggle my attention back and forth between the sauerkraut and whatever else I’m doing. You can let the salted cabbage rest in the bowl up to 4 hours this way.
As the bashed and salted cabbage sits, it will change from opaque white and more of a translucent pale green.
Pack the sauerkraut into jars:
Taste some of the cabbage. It should be on the salty side; if it seems bland, work in a little more salt. If it’s too salty, you can fix that later.
Wash your hands, then pack the sauerkraut into the first jar (a canning funnel might be helpful). I add a bit at a time and bash it down with my stomper, but you can press it in with whatever tool is handy. Cram it in there, because you want to avoid pockets of air lingering in the kraut.
If you have one around, grab a wooden cocktail muddler. It’s fantastic for packing the kraut into the jar.
Leave about 2 inches between the top of the sauerkraut and the rim of the jar (if you don’t leave room for the bubbles of CO2 that will form during fermentation, the brine can seep out of an overfilled jar).
Depending on the size and moisture level of your cabbage, you may get just 1 quart, or 2 scant quarts. It’s okay if the jars are only partially filled. Jars overfilled? Grab whatever smaller, clean jar you have handy to hold the excess.
Weigh down the sauerkraut:
Exposure to air will make the top layer of your kraut look and taste the bad kind of funky. Take the clean cabbage leaves you set aside earlier and tuck one in each jar to “seal” off the surface of the sauerkraut. If you have a fermentation weight (either glass or a clean, smooth stone), plop it on top of the cabbage leaf.
Make sure the cabbage in each jar is fully submerged in brine. If you need to, add a little of your dechlorinated water. Give everything in the jar a final press to get out extra air.
If messing around with cabbage leaves and weights is too finicky for you, partially fill a heavy-duty zip-top bag with water and rest that on the surface of the cabbage, leaving the lids off during fermentation.
Cover and label:
Screw the lids on the jars.
Write the date on each jar, or mark it on your calendar. Put the jars in an out-of-the-way spot on the counter that has an ambient temperature between 60 and 70°F. A few degrees more or less is fine.
Sometimes the bubbling brine seeps over the rim of the jar as it ferments. Leave your jars on a plate or old towel to prevent potential messes on the counter.
Ferment and monitor:
After 1 day, open the jars and investigate your sauerkraut. Smell it, look at it, taste it. Observe the changes. Likely not much will be different, but each batch follows its own trajectory.
Check in on the kraut every day, opening the jars to “burp” them and let out any gasses. Your kitchen is now a laboratory, and you are the scientist assessing the kraut. It’s your job to poke and prod it.
After a few days, you may see a ring of small bubbles forming in the brine at the top of the jar. This is promising! It’s a sign that the fermentation has begun. You can also get your ear in close to the open jar and listen for bubbles. Some batches get so active, you can see the bubbles rising to the top and fizzing.
In a kitchen that’s between 76 and 79°F, I’ve had kraut ready in about 3 days. In the winter when my kitchen’s ambient temp is 65°F, it can take longer than 1 week for the kraut to taste the way I like. Be patient.
See white mold form? Or a top layer of light brown cabbage that’s slightly oxidized? No big deal. Remove and discard the compromised cabbage, pack the remaining kraut down well, replace the weights, then keep on fermenting. Black mold, however, is bad. Discard the whole batch if you see black mold.
Taste, label, and date:
When the kraut tastes right to you, it’s ready. I label it with the date it’s finished so I know for reference how many days it took to ferment.
Kraut too salty? Add some water to the jar to dilute the brine and refrigerate it for a few days. The salinity of the cabbage and brine will reach an equilibrium and your kraut will be less salty. Not salty enough? Add salt to the jar, swish it around, refrigerate it a few days, and you’ll be all set.
Remove the fermentation weights, if you used them. If they are supple, leave the whole cabbage leaves in the jar; you can chop them up and eat them later.
Refrigerate the jars for up to 3 months (I’ve done up to 4 with no problem, but I usually finish off a jar in a few weeks). Traditionally sauerkraut was not refrigerated, but kept in a cool root cellar or spring house. Who has either of those these days? In our time, the fridge is really the easiest place to have a few jars knocking around.
This recipe does not yield enough to bother with canning, but if you like this fermentation method, you can use it to make a larger batch and water bath can it using directions from the Nation Center for Home Food Preservation.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 5g||2%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||6%|
|Total Sugars 2g|
|Vitamin C 32mg||159%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|