Homemade: Sauerkraut

Have you been reading up lately on the health benefits of "enlisting trillions of microscopic allies in your fight for survival" with lacto-fermented foods (like sauerkraut, yogurt, pickles, kimchi)?  One enthusiast says that not only do cultured and fermented foods strengthen the immune system, soothe the nervous system and help regulate weight and appetite, they are beneficial in "alleviating intestinal disorders and creating a healthier digestive system by supplying beneficial flora and bacteria (also called probiotics).  As Dr. Joseph Mercola puts it, fermented veggies form 'a living shield' that covers the small intestine's inner lining." And, "Fermentation is a process by which foods are pre-digested by friendly enzymes, fungi, and good bacteria..this makes fermented or cultured foods easier to digest, releases nutrients and increases the enzyme levels."  

A popular "survival" blog says: "Lacto-fermentation is the intentional culture of lactic acid loving bacteria to preserve and flavor food. Lacto-fermentation is not an alcohol producing process. Rather it creates an acidic environment which is not favorable to the growth of spoilage causing organisms. Lacto-fermented foods contain large amounts of enzymes and beneficial bacterial, preserve temperature sensitive vitamins, and have a delightful tangy taste. Many people with digestive problems find that eating lacto-fermented foods frequently will provide relief. A further benefit of lacto-fermented vegetables is that when eaten on a regular basis they help to prevent diarrhea. Using lacto-fermentation yogurt, cheese, pickles, fermented vegetables and sauerkraut can all be made from materials readily available on the homestead. Foods produced by lacto-fermentation will keep for extended periods of time in a cave, root cellar, spring house, evaporative cooler or, if one is available, in the refrigerator." 
Gargantuan government bailouts this week and economic crises notwithstanding, I'm not in survivalist mode yet.  But this era of ubiquitous convenience and concomitant de-skilling makes it seem like a good idea to know how to preserve food with few or no energy inputs and to have at least some of the kitchen mojo my Grandma had.  So a few weeks ago, when my friend Vivienne offered her hands-on sauerkraut-making tutorial and a generous donation of her own cabbage, it was an offer too good to refuse. 

I should mention, also, that it was fun and much easier than I imagined. Though as I was wrangling one recalcitrant specimen, Vivienne noted that some cabbages have "an attitude." Making sauerkraut as a joint project was a good idea. Now that I have my own crock and know where to borrow a krauthobel, I think it could be come a yearly tradition. 

The steps in making Homemade Sauerkraut

1. Pick and clean cabbage. Vivienne recommends making sauerkraut from very fresh cabbage, because part of the fermentation process depends on the growth of good bacteria that live on the cabbage leaves. 
2. Shred cabbage heads very fine. A wooden box cabbage slicer or "krauthobel" is the perfect tool for this. Like a mandoline on steroids, this is a piece of equipment to use with extreme caution - no finger guards came with the one I borrowed from Richard. Vivienne is particular about getting the shreds very fine and consistent. She doesn't use any leafy or chunky bits.
3. Measure 5 pounds of shredded cabbage and mix together with 3 T. of (un-iodized) pickling salt. (Regular table salt used when canning makes pickles cloudy and limp.) 
4. After each 5 pound increment of cabbage is added, use the kraut stomper to mash the leaves and release the cabbage juice. This starts the fermentation process. 
5. After you've added all the cabbage (we had 20 pounds total, divided into 2 crocks), stomper it again with vigor. You want a layer of brine to cover the cabbage by at least 1/2". 
6. If you don't get enough brine by stompering, make additional brine by boiling 1 quart of water with 1 1/2 T. pickling salt. Then cool before putting it on the cabbage. 
7. Once cabbage is properly brined and submerged, weight it with a close fitting plate, or wooden sauerkraut board or, (as I did) the glass top of a round pyrex dish, with 2 quart jars filled with water on top. 
8. Cover with a tea towel, then a bath towel to keep dust and flying things out.
9. Keep in a cool, dry place between 65º - 75º for approximately 3-4 weeks. The basement is ok if it is dry, but not if it is damp because mold will grow. 
10. Foam will form in the first week or two. This is ok. If mold or a yeasty skin develops, remove it. 
11. Sauerkraut is ready when it starts to smell like sauerkraut. Mine took almost 4 weeks. Taste test to confirm. 
12. I decided to keep my kraut in the fridge because the heat from the canning process would destroy the beneficial bacterial, vitamin and enzymatic action.  Although I understand you can keep it in a cool place for months in the crock. And this is, in fact, the traditional method. 

The ten pounds I took home is a lot of sauerkraut. I'm planning to give some to friends and to make a large and festive choucroute garnie sometime when the weather gets a little colder.  Oh, and the taste of fresh sauerkraut? It's wonderful - the cabbage is still crunchy and it's just mildly tart. I think my husband said "this is the best thing you've ever made." Hmm, it is good, but what about that peach cream pie? 


"The salting of the cabbage serves two major purposes. First, it causes an osmotic imbalance which results in the release of water and nutrients from the cabbage leaves. The fluid expelled is an excellent growth medium for the microorganisms involved in the fermentation. It is rich in sugar and growth factors. Second, the salt concentration used inhibits the growth of many spoilage organisms and pathogens. It does not, obviously, inhibit the desired floral succession. As cabbage is approximately 90% water and the salt is dissolved entirely in the water, the actual salt concentration (brine strength) experienced by the microorganisms in their aquatic milieu is around 2.8%. Thorough and even distribution of the salt is critical. Pockets of low or high salt concentration would result in spoilage and/or lack of the desired fermentation.

Throughout the fermentation, it is critical that oxygen be excluded. The presence of oxygen would permit the growth of some spoilage organisms, particularly the acid-loving molds and yeasts.

As no starter cultures are added to the system, this is referred to as a wild fermentation. The normal flora of the cabbage leaves is relied upon to include the organisms responsible for a desirable fermentation, one that will enhance preservation and organoleptic acceptability. The floral succession is governed mainly by the pH of the growth medium.

Initially, a coliform starts the fermentation. Coliforms which have contributed to our lab-made sauerkraut in recent years have included Klebsiella pneumoniae, K. oxytoca and Enterobacter cloacae. As acid is produced, an environment more favorable forLeuconostoc is quickly formed. The coliform population declines as the population of a strain of Leuconostoc builds. As Leuconostoc is a heterofermentative lactic acid bacterium, much gas (carbon dioxide) accompanies the acid production during this stage. The pH continues to drop, and a strain of Lactobacillus succeeds the Leuconostoc. (On occasion a strain of Pediococcusarises instead of Lactobacillus.) The complete fermentation, then, involves a succession of three major groups or genera of bacteria, a succession governed by the decreasing pH."

Wikipedia on Sauerkraut and Lacto-fermentation

"No special culture of lactic acid bacteria is needed because these bacteria already are present on raw cabbage. Yeasts also are present, and may yield soft sauerkraut of poor flavor when the fermentation temperature is too high. The fermentation process has three phases. In the first phase, anaerobic bacteria such as Klebsiella and Enterobacter lead the fermentation, and begin producing an acid environment that favours later bacteria. The second phase starts as the acid levels become too high for many bacteria, and Leuconostoc mesenteroides and other Leuconostoc spp. take dominance. In the third phase, various Lactobacillus species including L. brevis and L. plantarum ferment any remaining sugars, further lowering the pH."

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