If you’re a sauerkraut lover, then you really need to learn how to make your own. It’s actually quite easy to do. And canned or bagged supermarket versions can’t hold a candle to a homemade (hausgemacht) batch of this Central European staple.
“Kraut” is a catch-all German word for cabbage, cabbage-like vegetables and even fresh herbs. But put the word “sauer” on the front, and you have the famous German preserved cabbage dish, commonly served with pork, sausages and potatoes or dumplings.
But Germans aren’t alone in loading their larder with sauerkraut. Austrians and the Swiss love it too. The Alsace French call it choucroute and serve it in a dolled-up dish called choucroute garni. For Czechs — they call it zelí — sauerkraut is one-third of their national meal, vepřo knedlo zelo, along with roast pork and hearty dumplings.
Farther east, Poles stuff kiszona kapusta into pierogi or stir it into bigos stew. The Russians serve kvashenaya kapusta as a cold salad or add it to shchi cabbage soup. In Transylvania, savanyú káposzta is layered with pork, rice and sour cream in a rich, smoky casserole dish called erdelyi rakott kaposzta.
German, Jewish and Slavic immigrants carried their crocks and sauerkraut-making traditions to North America. In the United States, its sour punch is used to top hot dogs or gets layered into giant reuben sandwiches. Pork and sauerkraut is the traditional New Year’s Day meal for many families in the state of Pennsylvania.
To make sauerkraut, finely shredded cabbage is tossed with a bit of salt and packed tightly into a clean crock. It is then covered with a plate, weight or brine-filled bag to minimize its contact with the air and stored in a cool place to slow ferment for two or three weeks. Once this pickling process is complete, sauerkraut can be kept for several months in the refrigerator. Or it can be boiling water canned to store for a year or two at room temperature.
When making any fermented pickle, it’s important to have all your equipment spotlessly clean. Do not use aluminum containers or utensils, as these may react with the salt and with the acid that is produced during the malo-lactic fermentation. Also, use only canning, pickling or kosher salt. Regular iodized table salt will suppress the fermentation, and sea salt may contain impurities that will cloud your brine and discolor your kraut.
Sauerkraut is high in fiber and vitamin C and is a popular probiotic. Some people even enjoy an occasional small glass of sauerkraut juice to support digestive health. Do be aware however that canning sauerkraut in a boiling water canner will kill the beneficial bacteria that give sauerkraut its probiotic power. But then again, so does cooking it with sausages!
Makes about 3 quarts
- Green cabbage — 5 pounds (about 2 medium heads)
- Canning, pickling or kosher salt — 3 tablespoons
- Make sure all of your utensils and containers are very clean. Wash the cabbage and discard the outer layer of leaves. Cut off any browned or bruised spots. Quarter each head and cut out the core. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, shred the cabbage as thinly as you can.
- Add the shredded cabbage to a large plastic or stainless steel bowl and toss with the salt. Set aside for 15 to 25 minutes.
- Pack the cabbage firmly into a large crock or plastic container. Press it down with a clean fist to encourage the formation of a brine and to remove any air bubbles. Cover the cabbage with a layer of plastic wrap, pressed down to form a barrier against any air. Top with fermentation weights or a plate small enough to fit inside your fermenting container. This weight will help keep the cabbage below the brine and away from the air. Alternatively, you can use the brine bag method described below.
- Cover the fermenting container loosely with a lid, and place it in a cool, dark place, somewhere between 60°F and 75°F for anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. Check it from time to time, and skim or scoop off any scum that may form at the top. The scum is harmless and is a natural part of the pickling process, but removing it keeps your sauerkraut clear and bright.
- Once the sauerkraut is sufficiently pickled for your taste, transfer it to smaller containers and store it the refrigerator for up to 6 months. You can also process it in a boiling water canner to stay fresh for a year or two.
- Types of cabbage for sauerkraut: Green or Savoy cabbage are the varieties most commonly used to make sauerkraut, but red cabbage can be pickled this way too. The best cabbage for kraut is found in the late fall, when the heads are heavy and a couple of frosts have sweetened their flavor.
- Other additions: Lots of things can be packed with the cabbage to give it extra color and flavor. Germans and Austrians favor juniper berries, caraway seeds and a bit of grated apple. In Eastern Europe, you will often see shredded carrots in sauerkraut. Other common additions include dill seed, bay leaf, dried cranberries (these act act as a preservative), julienne bell peppers and shredded beets.
- Extra brine: If your cabbage doesn’t produce enough of it’s own brine to cover the cabbage after you salt it, you can make your own to add. Mix 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt with 1 quart of water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, allow to cool, and use to top off your crock.
- Brine-filled bag weight: Using a brine-filled bag is an easy way to weigh down your kraut without having to find the proper-sized weight or plate for whatever container you use. The plastic bag adjusts itself to fit any container and nicely seals your cabbage off from unwanted air. If the bag accidentally unzips, the premade brine won’t spoil your batch. Simply fill a large plastic zip-top bag with a mixture of 1 1/2 tablespoons of canning, pickling or kosher salt and 1 quart of water. Zip closed and add to the crock over the layer of plastic wrap.
- Signs your sauerkraut may have gone wrong: You’ll know it if it happens. Sauerkraut that puts off a rotting odor and/or looks grey, soft and slimy has gone bad and should be thrown out. Things that can make sauerkraut go bad include dirty equipment, excessive contact with air during fermentation, brine not salty enough, brine too salty and temperatures too high. Avoid these no-nos and you should be fine.