Last year I tried making sauerkraut a couple of times. Both times were less than stellar efforts. My first batch (plain sauerkraut) was not particularly flavorful and had a soft texture. My second batch (cabbage, carrots, turnips and brussel sprouts) was simply too overwhelming with flavors. The turnips and brussel sprouts are both strong-flavored vegetables and didn’t go well together. I’ve been wanting to try to make it again and a Russian friend, who learned to make sauerkraut from her mother, offered to share her ‘kraut wisdom with me. So, yesterday, we started a couple of batches–a plain cabbage batch for me and a cabbage and carrot batch for her. Now, I now have a crock of sauerkraut gurgling away in my kitchen.

It was fun. Her approach is traditional, that is, she doesn’t measure how much salt she puts into the mix, she simply tastes it to see if it tastes about right. I like that approach, but had no experience to guide me. Now I do. Since I’m a numbers guy, I did measure roughly what we used. The 2.5 to 3 pound heads of cabbage were salted with about 2 tablespoons of salt each, more than I used last year. The carrots she used in her ‘kraut provide extra sugar for the lactobacillus bacteria that make the ‘kraut, so her batch should be ready slightly sooner.

She is also traditional in that we simply put the vegetables into a wide-mouth half-gallon jar and she will weight them down under a coaster and let the brine spill over into a pan. By filling the container to the top and making sure the vegetables are covered with brine, the “scum” (or “bloom” as fermentation expert Sandor Katz calls it–see Resource 1, below) simply spills out and over the top as the vegetables ferment. This is because lacto-fermentation produces water as a by-product. Her approach is a variation on the method illustrated in Resource 1.

My crock is designed differently, with a lid that fits into a water-filled trough. Carbon dioxide is also produced as a by-product of lacto-fermentation. This bubbles up out of the brine, creating pressure that lifts the lid, causing the air in the crock to bubble out. The CO2 produced dilutes the air, reducing oxygen so that very little scum is produced in the crock. In both methods, the vegetables are weighted down to keep them under water, so they can ferment away happily in the anerobic environment necessary for fermentation. But, I digress. Right now, all I care about is that my cabbage is fermenting away, evidenced by my gurgling crock.

Besides the salt taste test, there are two other things I learned from Tamara that should make my ‘kraut better than last year’s first attempt:

  1. When mixing salt and cabbage in a bowl, squeeze it to force out cabbage juice. The salt will dissolve in the juice and speed up the osmotic process of pulling water out of the cabbage cells to create the brine. Doing this resulted in a surprising amount of brine, enough to cover the packed down cabbage from the start, requiring no additional water.
  2. Let it ferment for just a few days before checking it or slowing down the process. She will refrigerate her batch after only two days. Sandor Katz recommends starting to sample the product after just a few days. Last year I didn’t do this, and kept the crock going for a couple of weeks before refrigerating the sauerkraut. Katz’ comments (Reference 1, below) are that letting it go too long makes the texture soft and gives a poorer flavor. Both these characteristics suggest that letting it ferment too long was one of my mistakes last year.

I’ll let you know how it turns out in a few days.

A final word on how healthy homemade sauerkraut is. Our digestive system is the natural home for many species of bacteria that help us digest our food. One type of bacteria is Lactobacillus, a genus of bacteria that produce lactic acid as part of the fermentation process. These bacteria are what produce yogurt and sauerkraut, among other things, and the lactic acid produced is what gives them their sour flavors. Commercial varieties of sauerkraut from our industrial agriculture system are usually cooked to kill off the bacteria to stop the fermentation process. Thus, all the bacteria that you would eat and which would aid your digestive processes are killed off. While this may help the product’s shelf life, it doesn’t help you. When you eat live-culture sauerkraut (like you make at home), you get all the living bacteria that go with it, which improves the natural flora of your digestive system, aiding digestion.

Resources:

  1. Sandor Katz’ Wild Fermentation book excerpt on making simple sauerkraut.
  2. University of Wisconsisn Cooperative Extension’s Make Your Own Sauerkraut guide.
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