Ferment Nation: It’s Sauerkraut Time!


Summer’s winding down and the first hints of cooler weather are in the air. That means I’m getting antsy to stew and braise and make big, bubbling pots of goodness that fill the house with their savory aroma all day long. Unfortunately it’s only slightly less hot than the Hinges of Hell here, which is not quite cool enough for standing next to a steamy meat cauldron all day. What does one do then, to prepare for fall cooking? Ferment. That’s what.

With just a little bit of prep and a whole lot of waiting, barely chewable raw cabbage is turned into that salty, sour delight we call sauerkraut. Setting out jars on the counter now will allow for braised pork steaks with sauerkraut, apples, and onions in about a month. Or a mound of sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, kielbasa sausage, and a little German mustard. Or pork belly (or braised ham hock or pork neck) and sauerkraut mashed potatoes. It also goes well on a sharp cheddar cheese grilled sandwich. So much sauerkraut, so little time!

Here we go (for 3 16 ounce jars):

  • 3 sterilized, quart-sized, wide mouth canning jars
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 2 medium heads of cabbage
  • quality sea salt
  • Caraway seeds to taste (I used about 1 tsp)
  • Juniper berries to taste (I used about 2 tsp)
  • Coconut oil, about 6 TBSP, gently melted (olive oil may be substituted)
  • Sterilize canning jars by submerging in boiling water for 10 minutes. Or, cheat like I do and put them in the bottom of the dishwasher and run the sanitize cycle.
  • Thoroughly clean cabbage. Remove about 3-4 outer leaves from each head of cabbage.
  • Fill a pot large enough to fit one outer leaf of cabbage at a time half way with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, blanch each outer cabbage leaf for a minute or two or until soft enough to manipulate without tearing. These will serve to hold the shredded bits of cabbage under the brine. Set blanched leaves aside. Discard water.
  • Finely shred each head of cabbage using a cabbage shredder, mandolin, food processor, or chef’s knife. I really do seem to like the rustic feel when done by hand—big pieces, little pieces, and varying textures.

A sharp knife makes easy work of hand-shredding cabbage

  • Sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the bottom of a large bowl. Place a layer of shredded cabbage on top of the salt. Sprinkle that layer with salt, caraway seeds, and juniper berries and add another layer of cabbage. Continue until all of the cabbage is layered with salt, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. Mix thoroughly with very clean hands. Press firmly with the wooden spoon to encourage the cabbage to release more liquid (or squeeze firmly with those very clean hands). Allow to sit for one hour. The salt will continue to draw liquid out of the cabbage to form a brine. Do not discard this liquid as it will serve to cover the cabbage and create an oxygen-deprived state for the microorganisms to do their job.

You can start to see little beads of water forming on the cabbage: This is your cabbagy brine starting to form.

  • After the cabbage has wilted for an hour, stuff into sterilized quart jars and pack tightly (do so every few handfuls and the task is easier). After all jars are packed, tuck a blanched cabbage leaf or two over the top of the shredded cabbage. Now pour the remaining brine over the cabbage in the jars equally. If there is not enough brine to cover, add more brine made of 1 tsp. sea salt to 1 cup of non-chlorinated water (I use filtered). Make sure no cabbage is peeking above the brine level. If it is, it will serve to encourage undesirable yeasts and molds.

cabbage packed neatly into the jar and covered in brine (I’ll take care of that little piece trying to escape a bit later)


The blanched whole cabbage leaves work to hold all the bits and shredded cabbage under the brine

  • Cover each jar with two layers of cheesecloth or butter muslin and tie with kitchen twine.
  • Place the jars in a warm spot (I’ve read everything from 68-73 degrees; my house stays an even 72 in summer and fall here in the South) on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel. The mixture may produce more brine over the next day or two and spill over (hence the tray and towel).
  • When the jars stop producing more liquid (1-3 days depending on temperature), I make sure everything is tucked in and cap with coconut oil by gently melting enough coconut oil to form a 1/4 inch layer on top of each jar’s brine. Over several hours the coconut oil will harden and form a close-fitting cap. It is easily removed later and I can easily ‘smell the progress’ through the cap. I’ve also used a layer of olive oil (it can be mixed in prior to eating).

Note how the color changed from bright green to yellow and slightly translucent-this is normal

  • Sit back and enjoy the show for the next 3-4 weeks (mine usually seems to hit the spot at about 2.5 weeks with the house at 72).
  • Do watch for mold, browned cabbage, pink cabbage, or fuzz. This indicates you need to throw it away. Apparently a bit of white sludge in the bottom or on top is normal. Mine have never produced that, so I can’t say how it affects taste.
  • When it reaches the desired taste and texture (anywhere from 1 week to 6 weeks or longer), make sure all parts are still covered in brine, remove the coconut oil cover, put a lid on the jar, and place it in the fridge. It will keep for months (if you can keep it around that long!).

I don’t know if I’ll ever learn all there is to know about fermentation. It’s part science, part art, part instinct. If you’re brave, read up on the internet posts and get going-that’s how I started. Looking back, I’d have done a little more reading first. That being said, two great resources I now own and highly recommend are Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (found here http://www.wildfermentation.com/wild-fermentation/) and The Art of Fermentation (found here http://www.wildfermentation.com/the-art-of-fermentation/).