About five years ago, I had a conversation about the difference between sauerkraut and pickles. I thought sauerkraut was pickled cabbage. A friend thought that it was fermented, but was unsure how that was done. We were all lost on how it compared to kim chee. So when I picked up Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, a little glowing pickle appeared over my head as I belatedly realized that pickling IS fermenting! Even though pickles are now often produced with vinegar, traditional pickles are the product of lactobacillus bacteria in brined vegetables producing lactic acid, a process essentially the same as the one that creates cured meat.

The process of making sauerkraut is actually quite simple: chopped cabbage is layered with salt, packed tightly and left to age. Salt inhibits the growth of spoilage bacteria and Lactobacillus thrives, creating the lactic acid that preserves the sauerkraut and gives it its tang. After a few days, the distinctive flavor of sauerkraut begins to emerge.

To make it at home, you need a wide-mouthed non-metal container and a plate or smaller container that will fit inside it, plus cabbage and salt. Spices, such as caraway, dill, or juniper berries, are optional, but delicious. Just cut the cabbage however you would like it (I used my mandoline to get 1/3" strips.) and place a few handfuls in your container. Sprinkle this layer with some salt (Katz recommends 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of cabbage) and spices if you would like. I used a roughly equal amount of salt and a spice mix, composed of caraway, coriander and juniper berries. Don't worry too much about distributing the salt evenly. You want it throughout the container, but the whole thing will fill with water, so you don't need to be precise.

After you have filled the container with all of your cabbage and salt, pound the whole thing down. I used my fist to do this, which resulted in red, cold, salty knuckles, but otherwise worked very well. If you have a kitchen mallet, I would recommend that. You want the cabbage to be pretty tightly packed, so be persistent. When your knuckles can't take it anymore, place your plate or container on top of the packed cabbage and weight it. I used a set of glass jars, with the smaller one, full of water, as the weight. Press down on the weight to get it settled in there, and then cover the whole shebang with a cloth or plate to keep mold and debris out. Then give the cabbage some time to give off its water. Press down on the weight firmly a few times over the next day. Within 24 hours, the water released should cover the cabbage, but if it doesn't, add water to cover.

The cabbage will begin to become sauerkraut within the next couple days. You can taste it as it goes along, and it will continue to improve, the speed of the fermentation depending on the conditions in your location. When it tastes as you like it, you can refrigerate or can it.

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Variable. You could probably do this in a quart or half-gallon jar, but a sizeable crock or food-grade bucket is probably better. You can keep it anywhere, however, as long as it isn't sweltering hot, like under a table or in a cabinet.
  • How much time does it take?
    About 20-40 minutes to cut, layer, and pound down the cabbage, depending on how much cabbage you use. In the first 24 hours, it needs a little attention, maybe another 10 minutes, total. Then you're home-free.
  • Does it smell?
    Only when taking the sauerkraut out of the crock, when it can smell pretty strongly of, well, sauerkraut.
  • Does it look grody?
    A little. Scum and bubbles can form on the surface of the water. This is not dangerous, and you can clean it off, but it still looks like a big jar of bubbly sauerkraut with a cloth over it.
  • Does it need special equipment?
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    If you love sauerkraut, it is more than worth it.

That last photo is surprisingly beautiful--

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