How to make sauerkraut and cultured vegetables at home
Posted on 12 February 2012
Recently we’ve tried making our own sauerkraut. It’s so incredibly easy and healthy that it seemed silly not to try and of course, share it with you! This post shares two methods – with salt and with whey. The kefir whey version is quicker to ferment and ready for eating.
What is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut literally means ‘sour cabbage’ in German – it is naturally fermented thinly sliced cabbage. It has a distinctive tangy flavour and is often used on hot dogs, as a condiment to meals but also much more… as an ingredient in soups, salads and sandwiches too, for example.
Its flavour and preservation is a result of lactic acid that forms when the bacteria, the cabbage’s natural flora, ferment the sugars in the juice that is extracted from the cabbage by adding salt. You may remember the lactic acid explanation when we fermented butter too!
There are many types of lactic acid bacteria produced in the process, but here are a few I’ve read: Leuconostoc, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. Because of this process, don’t confuse it with pickled products, which simply get their acidic taste from vinegar. Sauerkraut is a live-culture probiotic food, like our homemade kefir and yoghurt. These beneficial bacteria improve the functioning of the digestive tract. Sauerkraut contains large quantities of choline, which lowers blood pressure. It also contain acetylcholine, which reduces blood pressure, slows the rate of the heartbeat and promotes calmness and good sleep. Acetylcholine also has a beneficial effect on the peristaltic movements of the intestine.
Sauerkraut came to Europe via Asia and because of its high vitamin C content it was used to prevent scurvy and survive the long winter months when no fresh food was available. It also is a good source of fiber and essential nutrients, including iron, vitamins K and B6, managanese and folate. According to some of my reading, recent research indicates that when eaten by women during pregnancy, it can prevent babies from developing certain types of childhood cancer. I also read that older studies have indicated that sauerkraut is effective in preventing cancer of the breast. Despite its health benefits, if you are on a low salt diet you should probably avoid this food.
How to make sauerkraut/cultured vegetables with salt
Making sauerkraut is extremely easy! The only ingredients are cabbage and non-iodised salt. You will need between a 0.6% and 2% salt concentration, which equals 1 1/2 to 4 teaspoons of salt per kilogram of prepared cabbage.
First, choose your cabbage. Your cabbage head should be fully matured, large, compact, heavy and with tender green leaves and a solid white interior. Make sure there is no damage or insects and check that the leaves at the bottom of the cabbage are not beginning to separate from the stem which indicates it is old. The amount of natural sugars varies for different varieties and also depends on the conditions of its growth. For example, the larger the head, the sweeter it is.
Next, shred or slice your cabbage, and put in a non-metallic bowl. This produces more surface area for the salt to draw the sugars out of the cabbage.
Now you add a few tablespoons of salt, and mix thoroughly, massaging the salt into the cabbage. Make sure you use non-iodised salt because iodine will prevent the bacterial fermentation necessary to change cabbage into sauerkraut. We simply use good quality sea salt so we get all the great minerals too. As mentioned earlier, salt draws out the cabbage juice so it can be fermented. It also favours the lactic acid-producing bacteria whilst inhibiting undesirable competitors. In this way it acts as a preservative. If you use too little salt you will notice the cabbage soften and it will lack flavour. However, too much salt will delay the natural fermentation and if you really use too much salt it may cause a sharp, bitter taste or it will be dark in colour or you may see pink yeasts growing. For more information on different types of salt, have a read of this link.
Pack firmly until salt draws juices from cabbage. We massaged our cabbage and pounded it with our hands but you can use a utensil if it is easier.
Fill jars firmly with kraut and cover with juices, leaving a centimeter or 2 of headspace. We used glass jars but you can use an earthenware crock or food-grade plastic pails. You should not use metal containers or nonfood grade plastic containers. If juice does not cover cabbage, add boiled and cooled brine (1-1/2 tablespoons of salt per litre of water). You will see in the below photos that we added carrot to half of our batch. We also put in ginger, coriander and cumin to see what it will taste like. 🙂
Seal your jars. It is very important to make it air tight because the fermentation process requires anaerobic conditions.
Keep the jars at room temperature (20-22°C) until the bubbling stops. This is usually 2-3 weeks. Check the jars regularly. During the fermentation, film yeasts or moulds may form on the liquid’s surface. If they appear skim them off. If any discolouration appears within the top inch of kraut, remove it. This isn’t harmful so don’t worry if you can’t get all of it. Just make sure the kraut is below the liquid by repacking it if necessary. If you need to top it up do so with weak brine (1-1/2 tablespoons of salt per litre of boiled and cooled water). Reseal and store in the refrigerator or a very cool place until you use it up.
Some notes about temperatures: At higher temperatures, fermentation will occur faster and it will be ready sooner. But.. if you keep it at temperatures lower than 20°C fermentation will be slow and may be incomplete if it drops below 15°C. If it is kept above 24°C during fermentation the kraut may become soft.
Storing sauerkraut/cultured vegetables
Once the sauerkraut is fermented, simply store it in airtight containers below 15°C (or refrigerate) and use within 2-3 months (I’ve read that if it is tightly packed it can keep for 6 months or more in the fridge!).
You could always can your kraut but this will make it similar nutritionally to the type you buy in the supermarket because you are essentially pasteurizing it which may kill several good bacteria. The store bought sauerkraut is also often pickled in vinegar and sugar and maybe even some preservatives. The whole point of fermented foods is that it is ALIVE so in order to gain the health benefits of fermentation and maintain the live culture we simply put ours in the fridge!
How to make sauerkraut with whey
You might remember from our post about how to make kefir cheese, that we were left with kefir whey as a by-product? So, we decided to test it out for experience with a different cultured vegetables method. When you use whey the amount of salt can be reduced or even eliminated because it is rich in lactic acid and lactic-acid-producing bacteria and therefore acts as an inoculant. This method of fermentation is much quicker than the salt method above. During the first few days of fermentation, the vegetables are kept at room temperature and then afterwards placed in a cool dark place for long term preservation (or the fridge).
For a sauerkraut recipe using whey, simply repeat the process above (bruising the vegetables to release the liquid) but use 1 cabbage (cored and shredded), 1 tablespoon of sea salt and 4 tablespoons of whey (as an example of proportions). Keep it at room temperature (covered tightly) for 3 days and then transfer to cold storage. You can eat it immediately but it gets better with age.
Experiment with other vegetables and seasoning too… I did a batch of cabbage, carrot, seaweed and fennel seeds which was delicious!!
Eating sauerkraut/cultured vegetables
You can eat it raw or cooked, as a relish with meat dishes, mixed with oil and onions as a salad, heated with bacon, caraway and apples, heated with brown sugar, apple and onion or simply added to stews… and more.
You can try pureeing the sauerkraut and mixing it in equal amounts with plain yoghurt or mayonnaise to make a delicious topping for vegetables!
We are planning on trying to make bigos for Jean’s family. It is also knows as Hunter’s Stew and is a traditional meat stew of Polish cuisine. The recipes vary wildly so we’ll take inspiration from Jean’s mum and the internet – it will probably include white cabbage, sauerkraut, various cuts of meat and sausages, puréed tomatoes, honey and mushrooms, juniper berries and more!!! The interesting thing about this dish is that it is reheated again and again (sometimes it is kept going for over a week!) which is said to intensify the flavour.
Since writing this article, I read this post about why over at Delicious Obsessions they have stopped using whey in their vegetable ferments. It’s certainly food for thought. Please have a read and let us know what you think about it.
Since Update 1, we have been having a little discussion about using whey in vegetable ferments on our Facebook page. It was really helpful to engage in conversation to make sense of things together. The main question we had was:
If we use whey, will the bacteria from the vegetables not grow at all? Will only the bacteria from the whey grow? Is it possible that the bacteria from both the vegetables and the whey survive?
Thanks to Sybil, who sent her questions to cultures for health and got this reply:
“The whey and the natural bacteria on the veggies both multiply, the whey does not inhibit the vegetable bacteria growth.“
For further information… Lactic acid bacteria consume glucose – glucose is a component of lactose and a product of photosynthesis which is why it is present in cabbage leaves. All my ferments have turned out beautifully so far so the main difference I can see with the article is that I’m using kefir whey and the post refers to yoghurt whey. We use raw milk when we can and farmers pasteurised milk when we can’t get raw milk which means the whey would be very rich in lactic bacteria. I’ve never tried using our homemade yoghurt but maybe it wouldn’t have the full range of bacteria needed – yoghurt bacteria grow at a higher temperatures than room temperature (we incubate our yoghurt at around 43°C as opposed to the 20-23°C used to ferment at room temperature). However, Sybil shared that she indeed uses yoghurt whey for her fermented vegetables and it works very well for her. She uses yoghurt that has organic cream on top so perhaps it is all the quality of the whey!
So, in summary my feeling is that if you inoculate vegetables with a range of lactic acid bacteria that grow at room temperature, they should be able to grow on the glucose in the vegetables. I think both methods have worked well for me, taste great and now I feel more confident that they are both just as healthy too! Enjoy your fermenting! 🙂