Making sauerkraut is easy

It's so easy and fun to make sauerkraut that there's really no good excuse to buy it from a store. Plus, home made sauerkraut is full of living microbes that might be good for you. (Read news reports that kimchi — spicy korean sauerkraut — could be a bird flu remedy.)

Store bought sauerkraut is often not even real sauerkraut — it's just cabbage soaked in salty vinegar. Even store bought brands of sauerkraut made from lacto-fermentation have usually been cooked to the point that they're no longer alive.

I've been making my own sauerkraut for years, based on my grandmother's "recipe" (it's hard to call it a real recipe, when the only ingredients are cabbage and salt), which is pretty much the same recipe found in the wonderful book, Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz. This book shows you how to make a wide variety of fermented foods: beer, wine, mead, miso, tempeh, sourdough bread, yogurt, cheese, and other more exotic foods. Katz, a long term HIV/AIDS survivor who lives on a queer intentional community in Tennessee, is a "fermentation fetishist." In the introduction to his book, he writes:

Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods, microbial cultures included, possess a great, unmediated life force, which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere, and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.

Wild fermentation involves creating conditions in which naturally occurring organisms thrive and proliferate. Fermentation can be low-tech. These are ancient rituals that humans have been performing for many generations. They are a powerful connection to the magic of the natural world, and to our ancestors, whose clever observations enable us to enjoy the benefits of these transformations.

Recently, I made a 3-quart batch of sauerkraut from two heads of purple cabbage, weighing about 2.5 lbs per head. Here's how I did it:

Tools and ingredients: Sharp knife, 1-gallon stoneware fermenting crock (I bought one online from Simply Natural Foods for $(removed)), wooden lid for 1-gallon crock, scrubbed and boiled rock to weigh down wooden lid, large plastic bowl, cutting board, something to mash the cabbage down into the crock (I used a 1-quart mason jar, you can use your fist if you want), 2 heads of cabbage (5 lbs), 3 tablespoons of non-iodized salt (sea or kosher).

You don't need to buy a starter culture — there are lactic acid bacteria floating around in the air ready to go to work on the cabbage. I find that amazing.

For the rest of the instructions and lots of pretty (and one gruesome) photos, click the link below.

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1. Cut the cabbage into thin slices, then break apart and put into bowl. I usually cut a few slices, break them up, put them in the bowl, sprinkle in some salt, stir it up and repeat. Here's a photo of the salted cabbage:

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2. Put the salted cabbage into the crock one handful at a time, mashing it down as you go along. It's important to pack it as tightly as you can, because that way the salt will draw out the water from the cabbage so fermentation can occur.

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3. When all the cabbage has been packed into the crock, put the wood cover on it. If you don't have a cover, try a plate that fits, or a plastic bag filled with water.

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4. Put a rock on top of the cover. The idea is to keep the sauerkraut submerged under the brine, because lacto-fermentation is anaerobic. If the cabbage is exposed to the air, scum will grow on it. Cover it with a cloth and put the crock somewhere out of the way. Once or twice a day, push on the rock to smash the cabbage down.

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5. Unicorn chaser alert! About a week into the fermentation process, I removed the rock and was treated to this delightful sight. In Wild Fermentation, Katz writes: Many books refer to this mold as "scum," but I prefer to think of it as a bloom." I skimmed the stuff off, put the rock back on the wood disk, and covered it with the cloth. [UPDATE 5/25/2013: I've heard bad things about mycotoxins since I posted this a few years ago. Today I'd never eat anything that had mold on it like this.]

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6. Another week went by, and I decided to try the sauerkraut. The wooden disc had become so waterlogged and swollen that I couldn't lift it out of the crock. I had to make hooks out of a clothes hanger, insert the hooks into the hole of the wooden disk, and tug it out. It took quite a bit of effort to get it out, but look at the pretty magenta tint it received from soaking in the brine for 2 weeks!

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7. The sauerkraut fit into three 1-quart mason jars, which I put in the refrigerator. I have some at least once a day, and frequently I have three servings a day. It lasts a long time around here because my wife and kids won't touch it. They do like pickles, however. I think I'll have to make some sour cucumber pickles using lacto-fermentation so they can join me in being a fermentation fetishist.