Sauerkraut has always been a part of my life, for as long as I can remember. Growing up, Pork and Hotdogs with Sauerkraut was our traditional New Years Day meal. It was easy, yet flavorful, and served with buttery mashed potatoes, it was also hearty and comforting. I distinctly remember taking the tiniest portion of the pale shredded pickled cabbage, finding it entirely too overpowering for my young palate. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the sour sharpness that fills the nose with savory pungency.
I never really thought about where it came from until Kari and I decided to start off our podcast Feast on History with an episode on Salt. Salt is essential to cooking, but how many recipes contain a mere 2 ingredients, one of them being salt? Not too many. But salt has been used for millennia to preserve food, and sauerkraut, while often thought to be German in origin, actually dates back more than two thousand years to China and was probably brought to Europe by the plundering of Genghis Khan. Today sauerkraut can be found in nearly every supermarket, either in shelf-stable jars or bagged in your refrigerated section. It can even be purchased fresh from barrels in some delis.
I am not a microbiologist. Not remotely. However, I will give you a quick and dirty explanation of how this type of fermentation works.
- The bacteria needed to ferment the cabbage already lives on the cabbage leaves.
- The salt and cabbage, when packed into an airtight container, create the perfect anaerobic environment for these bacteria to convert the sugars in the cabbage to carbon dioxide and lactic acid, raising the pH level of the cabbage.
- The heightened acidity kills off the original bacteria, but the pH level is now perfect for better bacteria like lactobacillus.
- The lactobacillus continues the anaerobic fermentation process until the pH level of the cabbage reaches 3, which then kills off the lactobacillus. At this point the fermentation is complete and the sauerkraut is formed.
Homemade sauerkraut is less a recipe about ingredients than it is about method. You only need two ingredients: cabbage and kosher salt. You do, however, need to use a simple formula for how much salt you should use compared to how much cabbage you have. The general rule of thumb is 2.25-2.5% of salt to cabbage: by weight. So I weighed my cabbage in grams. For 800 grams of cabbage, you want 18-20 grams of salt. WEIGHING the salt is important: salts come in different crystal sizes and shapes, and so some may take up more volume than others. My favored brand, Diamond Crystal, has a large crystalline structure, and so will pack less of a sodium punch per teaspoon. For me, 18g wound up being just less than 5 tsp. This ratio is IMPORTANT because it not only starts the fermentation process, but the correct level of salt keeps the good bacteria alive while simultaneously keeping the bad bacteria out, which keeps your sauerkraut safe to eat.
Shred your cabbage into thin shreds, approximately 1/8″ in width. I put half of the shreds into the bowl, added half of the salt and, using my fingers, massaged the shreds until they lost about 50% volume.
Then I added the rest of the cabbage and salt, and went to town massaging it. Your goal is to use the salt to break down the cell walls of the cabbage shreds, softening the cabbage and releasing the water stored inside the cells to help form the fermentation liquid. When you think you’re done massaging the shreds, massage some more. You want to reduce the volume of the cabbage by about two thirds. When you’re done massaging, you want to firmly pack the cabbage into a very clean jar (put it through the dishwasher or rinse it with boiling water). You’ll notice there’s quite a bit of liquid pooling in the bowl.
Don’t throw that liquid out: we need it! Pack the cabbage tightly, then pour the remaining liquid into the jar. You want your cabbage to be totally submerged in liquid. There doesn’t need to be a ton of it, but you want this to be wet. Next, take a gallon sized zip top bag and fill it part way with water. Squeeze out any excess air and zip it closed, then feed it into the jar to create a nearly airtight seal. This will keep the cabbage submerged and keep any contaminants out of your cabbage while it ferments. I popped the jar lid on (it’s just a pressure seal, you don’t want a screw down top yet) and stored the jar in a cool dark space. It doesn’t need to be COLD, room temperature is perfect. In my case, this was the closet of my guest room. And then you wait.
And wait. And wait some more. Six weeks in total. Check your jar on occasion to make sure the cabbage stays totally submerged. You will see tiny bubbles forming around the shreds of cabbage. This is good: it means the fermentation is happening and the chemical composition of your cabbage is slowly changing to form sauerkraut. Once the bubbles are totally gone, your sauerkraut will be ready to eat, and it will look like this:
The pale green color of fresh cabbage will have turned into a golden yellow, there will be more liquid in the jar, but the actual cabbage should still be almost as crunchy as fresh. Believe it or not, it’s now ready to eat! You can eat it as is, without cooking, or you can cook it for a few minutes to soften it to your liking. I put mine in a small frying pan with a splash of water and simmered it for about 10 minutes, but I would have been equally as happy cooking some pork inside of it in a crockpot for several hours. It’s all good, baby!
My favorite thing to serve with sauerkraut is pork, and to go with my homemade sauerkraut I grilled some pork chops seasoned with crushed caraway seeds, which are a common spice used to season sauerkraut. It was delicious, but to be honest, it wasn’t as sour as store bought. This can be solved by letting it sit even longer next time!
I hope you’re ready for Salt – Part II from Feast on History, where we discuss how prevalent salt is in RELIGION. *gasp* Stay tuned!