Simple Sauerkraut and Lacto-Fermentation
There are so many fermented foods and beverages we use, including sourdough bread, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, yogurt, and pickles.
It may seem intimidating to ferment in your own home, but we are going to share how simple it is to make sauerkraut and other pickled veggies! Sauerkraut is made through lacto-fermentation, which occurs when beneficial bacterial called lactobacillus converts starches and sugars in your food into lactic acid bacteria. In lacto-fermentation, we add salt to the ingredients to lower the pH and encourage these good bacteria while discouraging other bacteria that could be harmful to humans.
Human beings have been fermenting foods for thousands of years as a way of preservation. We have also learned that lacto-fermentation is really healthy for us! Fermenting food actually increases the nutritional value of the ingredients by producing b-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics during the fermentation process. They help boost your immune system, can balance your GI, reduce allergy symptoms, and even help your metabolism.
The good news is, you can lacto-ferment basically any vegetable – popular ones include cabbage (kimchi, sauerkraut), cucumbers (pickles), radishes, green beans, carrots, and peppers (in some hot sauces).
If you’re not ready to try your hand at fermenting at home yet, but you want to increase your intake of fermented foods, try shopping for foods that list ‘live cultures’ in the ingredients – if your pickles have vinegar as an ingredient, they are not lacto-fermented.
Ready to ferment at home? It’s fairly fool-proof and you don’t need any fancy equipment. Let’s get started!
Sauerkraut is the simplest lacto-fermentation recipe to start with – the ingredients are organic cabbage and salt. That’s it.
You can add other spices or vegetables, but basic kraut has only two ingredients. We recommend to start with organic vegetables for lacto-fermentation because some chemicals used in conventional agriculture are designed to kill bacteria, and in these recipes we want to encourage specific bacteria to grow.
You’ll also need a large mixing bowl and a glass jar with a lid. If you have an airlock lid, you can use that, but it is not necessary - a regular ball jar lid works with just a little more effort.
You can use any kind of cabbage, each yielding slightly different results. Purple cabbage tends to stay crunchier than green, and napa cabbage will result in the softest kraut. You can also combine a few cabbages together for a more interesting texture!
You’ll need about a 3-pound cabbage for each quart jar of sauerkraut. Once you remove the core and outer leaves, you’ll be chopping roughly 2 pounds of cabbage for a quart jar.
There are many salt options; the only one you should NOT use is iodized salt. Different types of salt will result in slightly different tastes and textures, if you have multiple types of salt at home it is worth experimenting to see which you prefer. I use Celtic sea salt.
1. Start by washing your jar and all utensils (including your hands) with warm water. You’ll want to avoid using soap since it can leave residue, so I like to spray everything with white vinegar and then rinse well. You don’t need to sterilize but you do want a clean environment to avoid contamination.
2. Remove the outer leaves and core from your cabbage. Set these aside, we will use them later. Chop the remaining cabbage however you like – traditional kraut is shredded, but you can chop it to any thickness.
3. Sprinkle the salt over your cabbage, 1 tablespoon for every 2 pounds of cabbage. Mix the salt throughout the cabbage to coat it, and then begin to massage it with your hands. You can be pretty rough with the cabbage; the idea here is to draw the water out of the cabbage. So knead, punch, mash, massage… for 1-2 minutes, and then let sit for 10 minutes. Depending on the size and shape of your bowl, this step can get a bit messy so watch for cabbage escaping over the sides.
4. After the 10 minute rest, you should see some liquid in the bottom of the bowl and the cabbage should feel softer. Give your cabbage another massage for 1-2 minutes. You should see a decrease in volume of the cabbage as the moisture is released. Let it sit another 5-10 minutes. If you are adding other ingredients, go ahead and add them now. I used ginger, turmeric, and pink peppercorns.
5. Time to pack the jar. The goal here is to pack the jar as tightly as possible, leaving no air between individual pieces of cabbage. Fill your jar about half way and then push/pound it in. I like to use my fist, but you can use the end of a rolling pin, a big spoon, or any other utensil – just make sure anything you are putting into the jar has been cleaned first (remember, use white vinegar and rinse, no soap). Continue packing the jar until the cabbage is about an inch from the top. Pour in any brine that is in the bottom of the bowl, this should be enough to cover your cabbage completely.
6. Use one of the outside cabbage leaves, or similar hardy green, as a cap to hold all of your contents under the brine. The core of a cabbage works well as a weight, or boil a rock or any other clean object into the top of the jar to hold the cabbage down. It is important that everything stays submerged below the brine – exposure to air can cause unwanted mold to form.
Note: If you are not using an airlock lid, it is normal for your cabbage to appear to dry out towards the end of a ferment, after the first 3-5 days the cabbage will begin to soak up the brine so it may look more dry. This is OKAY and will not cause mold. The thinner you shred your cabbage, the less likely it is to dry out - but drying out some after the initial ferment (a few days) is safe.
7. Screw lid onto jar and place the jar on a small tray or plate to catch any overflow of brine.
8. That’s it! Set it on a small plate or tray, as it bubbles it may overflow. If you are using a regular ball jar lid, not an airlock fermentation lid, make sure you ‘burp’ your jar every day. To ‘burp’ your jar, simply unscrew the lid to just enough to release gasses and screw the lid right back on. It should sound like opening a carbonated beverage. If you are using an airlock lid, make sure there is always water in your 'moat'. Leave it on the counter for 1-2 weeks, tasting after 7 days and see if it is as fermented as you’d like it to be. Good signs of fermentation are: Bubbles, cloudy brine, and color changes in veggies and brine.
When you like how it tastes taste, discard any weights (the core, rock, etc.) and the top cabbage leaf holding your ferment down. Move the jar to the fridge where fermentation will slow down drastically. Ferments keep for several months in the fridge. Note that your ferment may dry out further in the fridge as the cabbage soaks up brine in cold temperatures. It's still perfectly safe and delicious!
For other fermented veggies, make a brine by dissolving 1 tbsp sea salt in 2 cups of warm water (fills a quart jar). Chop your veggies to bite size pieces (or however you like them), pack into the jar with herbs and spices of your choosing, and pour brine over until everything is submerged. Follow steps 5-8.
A few of my favorite veggies to ferment in this style are: Black radishes, green beans with dill, and carrots. Experiment with any relatively crunchy vegetable that you think will taste good pickled - the sky is the limit.
When you finish eating your ferment, use the brine instead of vinegar in a salad dressing, or even drink it straight (as a 'gut shot') to get your probiotics.
Comment below to share what you've fermented!