Lots of questions surround sauerkraut - What do you eat with sauerkraut? What does sauerkraut taste like? How do you make it?
But first, let's start with the basics - what exactly is sauerkraut? Sauerkraut is a traditional side dish of fermented cabbage. A favourite across eastern Europe, sauerkraut has many health benefits and is a fantastic partner to smoked meats and fish, or hearty stews and soups. It’s also a staple component in the renowned toasted Reuben sandwich, along with sliced pastrami and Swiss cheese.
Sauerkraut should be crunchy with a delicate tang, and is made by encouraging desirable natural flora in cabbage to develop. There is no vinegar used in the preserving method. The cabbage in sauerkraut is finely shredded – you should be able to pick up a generous tangle with a spoon. It is traditionally flavoured with only a few spices and herbs (often caraway), and this limited ingredient list also keeps the white cabbage’s pale creamy colour.
You can modify the ingredients to make red cabbage sauerkraut. Eat the sauerkraut raw, or use it as a base for sauerkraut soup.
1. Getting prepared
It doesn't take long to make homemade sauerkraut. Make sure all your equipment and hands are clean before starting. You’ll need a fermenting crock pot with weight, a knife or mandoline to slice the cabbage, and weighing scales.
2. What about the ingredients?
- The Cabbage - Your final sauerkraut will be as good as the ingredients you use, so use good quality fresh cabbage.
- The Salt - Smaller crystals are better as they are easier to rub into the cabbage. Historically people have been warned away from using iodized salt, however more recent academic research has shown iodized salt is fine to use. However, do check your salt doesn’t contain chemical anti-caking agents which might affect the fermentation. Try fine sea salt, or Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.
- The Spices - spices are used for flavour, and they can also help to slow mould growth. Caraway seeds are popular in traditional Polish sauerkraut making.
3. How much salt should I use?
In sauerkraut making, salt is often expressed as a percentage of the total weight of cabbage and other vegetables in the recipe. The most widely used ratio of 2.00%–2.25% weight of salt to weight of cabbage gives the best results.This means you add 2g to 2.25g of salt for every 100g of finely sliced cabbage in your recipe.
Salting ‘to your taste’ is sometimes written in vegetable fermentation, and some vegetable ferments can even use no salt (Katz 2012). However, with traditional cooking and preservation methods, it is best to follow the best understood variation of the recipe — in this case 2% salt.
Fermentation happens because lactic acid bacteria develops in the cabbage, which both preserves it and gives sauerkraut its distinctive sour flavour. Salt encourages these desirable bacteria and discourages undesirable bacteria.
4. Can I measure my salt in tablespoons or handfuls?
Yes and no. Different salts have different crystal sizes, and so the weight of one tablespoon of salt will differ depending on the brand and crystal size of salt used. As mentioned about salting above, some people will salt to taste and won’t measure it at all. Therefore, if you see recipes measured in tablespoons don’t worry.
However, as we recommend using the standard 2% salt ratio for sauerkraut making, it is best to get out the weighing scales. This also means your recipe will be more repeatable.
5. Why is submerging the cabbage in liquid important?
Lactic acid bacteria, which turn the cabbage into sauerkraut, are anaerobic – that means they prefer air-free environments. And so keeping the cabbage submerged means the fermentation will happen. Mould is also more likely to form on cabbage that is in the presence of air, which you don’t want. That is another good reason to make sure the cabbage stays submerged in the liquid.
Kneading the cabbage together with the salt should draw out enough liquid, particularly if you pack the cabbage tightly in the jar and place the weights on top.
However, if that isn’t enough ‘cabbage juice’ to cover the cabbage, pour over a 2% salt brine until the cabbage is just covered. To make 500ml of brine, dissolve 10g salt in 500ml filtered water. Keep an eye on your sauerkraut as liquid could evaporate over time. If that happens, top it up with brine to ensure the cabbage remains submerged.
6. Where should I keep the sauerkraut and how long will it take to make?
Warmer temperatures make sauerkraut ferment faster, and cooler temperatures slow down that fermentation. Because different types of lactic acid bacteria grow at different temperatures, the flavour of fast-fermented and slow-fermented sauerkraut will differ.
The best sauerkraut flavour is thought to be slower fermented at cooler temperatures, for example in a room in the house without any heating. This might take two or more weeks at 15-18°C.
To speed things up, keep the pot at room temperature (22-25°C) for a few days before moving to cool storage. In the Art of Fermentation (2012), Sandor Katz explains vegetables that are correctly salted and acidified by fermentation can be stable for years stored in a cool spot, such as 13°C cellar. However, we suggest you use the sauerkraut within three months.
How do I know my sauerkraut is ready to eat?
A good sauerkraut is one that has fermented properly. This means:
- A good amount of salt used
- Cabbage has been kept beneath the liquid
- A slightly sour smell or taste (so you know the lactic acid bacteria have developed) – this will increase as the sauerkraut ages
- No other ‘off’ odours, no visible mould and the cabbage does not feel ‘slimy’
Why A Special Fermenting Crockpot?
Our special Polish fermenting crockpots do two good things:
- The weights inside keep the cabbage submerged
- They have a deep rim or flange at the top for the lid to rest in
As vegetables ferment, they release carbon dioxide, which – in a fully sealed container – must be released manually. Instead, in this pot, filling the flange by two-thirds with water creates a one-way seal, called the ‘water moat’ method. Air and anything in the outside environment is prevented from entering the pot, yet carbon dioxide that builds up inside the pot can escape.
If you do keep the lid closed during the first few weeks of fermentation, the environment will stay completely anaerobic as the carbon dioxide displaces the air, reducing the risk of mould growth even further. Most people, however, like to check on their ferments to see how they are progressing.
Crazy for cabbage? Check out our unique range of cabbage leaf crockery to serve your sauerkraut in.
Traditional Polish Sauerkraut Ingredients
Method for Making Sauerkraut
- Remove outer leaves from the cabbages, cut away the hard base and discard. Shred the remaining cabbage finely. Sprinkle with salt and add the remaining spices and herbs. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly.
- Place handfuls of the cabbage mixture into the pot. Press down hard after each handful, kneading the cabbage as you go to release its juices. Enough juice should be released to cover the cabbage. You can also ‘stamp’ or ‘pound’ the cabbage with the solid end of a clean rolling pin to help this. Place the weights on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged.
- Pour water into the flange at the top of the pot, taking care not to pour any into the pot itself. This helps create an airtight seal. Cover with lid. Move pot to a cool place (an unheated area of your house) and leave to ferment. The sauerkraut is best left for 2 weeks before eating, when it will start to taste and smell sour. However, you can keep tasting as it ferments to decide the flavour profile that you prefer. Use within three months.