Sauerkraut is a dish known in multiple countries across the globe. Its taste accompanied me since early childhood so I can’t imagine running out of it. Especially since preparing it at home is so easy.
- 1 kg of white cabbage
- 1 medium sized carrot (around 50 g; optional)
- 1 bay leaf (optional)
- 25 g salt
Slice the cabbage, grate the carrot. Add salt and mix the vegetables so that the salt covers them uniformly. Leave for 15 minutes.
Place the vegetables along with the released juices in a jar. Place the bay leaf somewhere in the middle. Pack the jar contents tightly so that the juices rise and cover the vegetables. Optionally, use a fermentation weight to keep the vegetables submerged.
Close the lid (don’t tighten it all the way) and keep the jar in room temperature for 2-3 days. After this time has elapsed, it’s good to taste the sauerkraut and assess its sourness level. The sourness will increase over time for around 2 weeks.
In order to bring further fermentation to a halt, place the sauerkraut in the fridge.
Strictly speaking, the bare minimum to make sauerkraut is just cabbage and salt, though I rarely come across such a situation. Myself, I only once made sauerkraut with no additional ingredients, and that was only because I’d run out of carrot. Carrot is possibly the most popular addition. An interesting extra ingredient could be the cranberry, as it might potentially prolong sauerkraut’s already long shelf life.
Cranberries are relatively rich in sorbic acid, which is used in food as a preservative. It inhibits certain enzymes’ activity and has fungicidal properties, limiting the growth rate of moulds and yeasts. One could call cranberries a natural preservative.
Red cabbage can be used the same way as white, but it’s worth remembering that it produces a completely different flavour. Many people will find it unacceptable (possibly due to unmet expectations in regard to sauerkraut taste), but in small quantities, such as one red cabbage leaf per kilo of white cabbage, there should be negligible or no taste change, but the sauerkraut will obtain an interesting pink colour.
The flavour of sauerkraut has accompanied me since early childhood. My grandparents used to prepare entire barrels of sauerkraut and the whole family participated in shredding, salting and crushing the vegetables, which we then consumed over the course of many months. Nowadays it’s rare to make homemade sauerkraut because it’s easily found in every grocery store, which requires no hassle, one just takes as much as is needed and that’s it. But it’s so easy to make at home!
The ingredient list is laughably short: cabbage and salt. I like to add a carrot and sometimes a few bay leaves. I don’t use any additional ingredients, but apples and caraway seeds are popular in Poland. In truth, almost anything can be added: sweet or spicy peppers, garlic, radishes, ginger, pretty much any firm vegetable or spice. An exact recipe can be found on the blog.
I start with the cabbage. I cut it into large chunks. I remove the core and weigh the rest. I’m going to need the vegetables’ mass to calculate the amount of salt.
I use a mandolin shredder, though I often just switch to a knife. I shred as finely as I can unless the cabbage is young and tender.
Then I peel and grate a carrot.
Next I salt the mix using previously measured salt and distribute it evenly by giving the vegetables a quick mix.
Any salt will do just fine, regardless whether it contains potassium iodide or an anti clumping agent. In my opinion, the perfect amount of salt is 2% of the mass of the vegetables. The written sources I’ve come across give a wider range, from 1 all the way up to 5%, but my experience indicates that anything above 2.5% makes sauerkraut that’s just too salty.
The amount of salt influences not only the sauerkraut’s taste, but also slows down the biochemical changes and exerts selective pressure on the microbes in the mix.
Many sources suggest massaging the vegetables until they release juices, but in reality it’s an unnecessary step. It’s enough to mix and wait. The osmotic pressure will extract moisture from the cabbage all by itself in just a quarter of an hour. There’s no need to put any additional work into the process.
After fifteen minutes, the vegetables are ready to be placed in a jar. There’s quite a bit of cabbage juice on the bowl’s bottom.
Sauerkraut is traditionally made in barrels or large crock pots, but in my opinion, a glass jar is ideal. Unlike plastic, it doesn’t absorb smells. Unlike metal, it doesn’t react with lactic acid. And it allows me to prepare smaller batches.
I place the vegetables in the jar. When I’m halfway through, I add a bay leaf. I press the cabbage down so that it’s covered with juice. I use a fermentation weight to keep the vegetables from floating. This ensures no mould will form on the floaties.
If the cabbage is on the dry side and hasn’t released enough juices, it’s OK to add a little brine with the same salinity as before. For instance, a kilo of 2% brine consists of 20 g of salt per 980 g of water.
It’s best not to overfill the jar since the juice level will rise during the fermentation. As usual, I ignore my own advice and face the consequences afterwards.
I protect the ferment from dust and insects, but leave the lid somewhat loose for carbon dioxide to escape freely. I leave the jar in a place away from direct sunlight. Now I simply wait and let the bacteria do their part.
Over the next two days, the environment in the jar will be almost completely dominated by bacteria of the genus Leuconostoc. They’ll produce enough lactic acid to make the sauerkraut shelf stable, preventing spoilage for a prolonged time. In the following days, the genera Lactobacillus and Lactiplantibacillus will grow, nearly eradicating other bacteria and producing even more lactic acid.
I let the sauerkraut ferment for 2-3 days only, after which I transfer the jar to the fridge, where further fermentation is considerably slowed down. The cabbage is still slightly sweet then. It can be left to ferment longer. Its flavour will keep developing for around two weeks. It’ll become more tart over time. It’s best to taste the fermenting cabbage each day and determine one’s preferred sourness level.
The appearance of ready sauerkraut isn’t too different from when it’s fresh, but the taste is unique. I eat it on its own, as a snack or as a side dish. It goes especially well with fish. From time to time, I use it as an ingredient of sauerkraut soup or hunter’s stew.