Try Out Homemade Fermented Food

Making Sauerkraut


Bjorn Bergman, photos by Shana Meshbesher

Making Fermented Food with Bjorn Bergman
Making Fermented Food with Bjorn Bergman

For those of you looking to start off the new year with a resolution aimed at preparing more food from scratch and eating healthier, making sauerkraut at home is for you! Sauerkraut (salted and naturally fermented cabbage) is high in probiotics, full of nutrients and super tasty on eggs, sandwiches and bratwurst.

I know what you might be thinking: “Making sauerkraut at home? That sounds scary.” I totally understand your hesitation. My first foray into vegetable fermentation didn’t go so well. I followed a recipe for traditional kim chi (naturally fermented cabbage, carrots, radish, onions, garlic, ginger, and hot peppers) and I was freaked out. My suburbanite sensibilities were challenged by the process of cutting up veggies, salting them, packing them in a jar and letting them ferment on the kitchen counter for a week or two. How can something that sits at room temperature, bubbles and smells bad be okay to eat? My fears overtook my dedication, and I conveniently forgot about the jars of kim chi in a back corner of my basement. When I finally came to terms with taking care of them (i.e. dumping them in my compost pile), I discovered the kim chi was still good. In fact, it was delicious! I was hooked!  

Since my first experience with vegetable fermentation, I’ve read a lot of books, took classes, and made quite a few batches of fermented veggies at home with a great deal of success (and a few failures thrown in). I feel confident that I can ferment just about any veggie. And I know you can, too!   

If you’d like to get into making sauerkraut, kim chi, and curtido at home, I recommend starting with my easy Basic Sauerkraut recipe. Once you’ve mastered basic sauerkraut, begin experimenting. Spice up your kraut by adding any herbs and spices. Some great combinations with cabbage include caraway seed, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, and/or hot peppers. Get ready to fall in love with making and eating sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables!  

Sauerkraut FAQs  

How is Sauerkraut fermented?

Sauerkraut is made by the natural and traditional process of lacto-fermentation. Lactobacillus are one of many bacteria that are naturally present on the surface of all vegetables, including cabbage. When these bacteria are put in the optimal environment for their growth (i.e. with salt, under a liquid brine) they break down the sugars in the vegetables and produce lactic acid, which naturally pickles them. Thus, sauerkraut is a lacto-fermented food.  

How do I know my sauerkraut won’t kill me? Memorize this fermentation mantra: “If it is underneath the brine, you’ll be fine.” According to USDA Microbiologist Fred Breidt Jr., there is not a single documented case of food poisoning from people eating properly fermented vegetables.* The key word here is “properly.” The key is to keep them under the brine and Lactobacillus bacteria will thrive. This bacterium produces so much lactic acid as it breaks down the carbohydrates in the veggies that harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and botulinum, can’t grow because the environment is too acidic. However, sometimes things can go wrong. Maybe you didn’t check your sauerkraut often enough and the cabbage was above the brine and started to mold. Use your judgement and your senses. If something seems off, just be safe and toss the batch.  

Do I need a crock (large ceramic fermenting vessel) to make sauerkraut? No. The best way to get your feet wet in the world of vegetable fermentation is small-batch fermenting. All you need are wide-mouth quart mason jars as your fermentation vessels and regular mouth half-pint mason jars as your weight, and you are in business.  

Where can I learn more? Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz are fantastic guides and resources in the world of fermentation. For a hands-on experience, try a class from the local nonprofit Driftless Folk School. They have a variety of instructors who teach classes on basic vegetable fermentation. Check out their offerings in their class catalog when it comes out in early spring 2018.

Basic Sauerkraut Recipe

Prep time: 30 minutes +5 to 20 days fermenting at room temperature

Makes: about 1.5 quarts  

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium (3 lb.) green cabbage
  • 3 to 5 tsp sea salt  

Equipment:

  • 1 half-gallon or 2 one-quart wide-mouth Mason jars
  • 1 or 2 half-pint Mason jars  

Directions: 

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage. Cut it in half and remove the core, then slice the cabbage thinly.  

In a stainless-steel bowl, thoroughly mix sliced cabbage and 3 teaspoons sea salt. Let mixture sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes. The salt will draw liquid out of cabbage to create a brine. If short on time, massage mixture vigorously with your hands to form the brine in 5 to 10 minutes. 

Taste cabbage. It should taste salty, but not salty like the ocean. If saltier sauerkraut is preferred, add another teaspoon of sea salt, mix well, and repeat tasting. If saltiness is to your preference, move on to the next step.  

Once a layer of brine forms in the bottom of the bowl and saltiness is to your preference, use your hands or tongs to tightly pack cabbage into one half-gallon (or two 1-quart wide-mouth) Mason jars. Pour remaining brine from the bowl into the jar.  

Once mixture is in the jar, some brine should be present on the surface. Fill the half-pint Mason jar with water and place it in the larger jar to weigh down the cabbage and keep it covered in brine.   

Place Mason jar in a bowl or pan to catch any brine that might overflow as fermentation progresses. The fermenting cabbage (aka “the ferment”) should sit out of direct sunlight on the kitchen counter for 5 to 7 days. Check sauerkraut every day and press down on the Mason jar weight to remove air bubbles and keep all veggies under brine.  

After 5 to 7 days, remove Mason jar weight and sample your ferment using a clean fork.

Ask yourself: 

How does it taste? Do I like the level of sourness and the texture of the veggies? Is the cabbage crunchy or soft? 

If you like the flavor and texture, put a lid on the jar(s), place in the refrigerator and consume within one year. If a more sour and less crunchy ferment is preferred, put the jar weight back and let it ferment for a few more days. Repeat taste testing until it is to your preferred sourness and crunchiness.  

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2017 Viroqua Food Co-op newsletter.  

*Beecher, Cookson. “Fermenting Veggies at Home: Follow Food Safety ABCs.” Food Safety News. 11 Mar. 2014. www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/03/fermenting-veggies-at-home-follow-food-safety-abcs