5 Important Things to Know About Making Sauerkraut

published Apr 6, 2016
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

A few years ago, homemade sauerkraut was just another DIY food trend, but happily now it looks like home kraut-making is here to stay. Why? Perhaps it’s because it’s easy, delicious, good-for-you, and fun. I say, lean into your kraut-love with abandon! These five important tips will help you make delicious, nutritious sauerkraut a beloved kitchen staple.

The Kitchn’s Mason jar sauerkraut tutorial from three years ago is still my favorite go-to for a thorough breakdown on the fundamentals. The beauty of that recipe is that you can practice with this small-scale method until you’re ready for larger batches (which you will totally need because you will have developed a healthy, insatiable sauerkraut habit!).

Here are five important things I like to keep in mind, gleaned from years of kraut-making.

1. It’s hard to ruin sauerkraut.

But it can happen. Cabbage is turned into sauerkraut through lacto-fermentation, a process that naturally prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. An anaerobic (or oxygen-free) environment is key to allowing this to happen, as well as salt, which is used to draw moisture out of the vegetables and inhibit other spoilage-causing bacteria to develop until lacto-fermentaion kicks in. So a key feature of kraut-making is a high-salt, anaerobic environment. (Whey can also be used with less salt.) Follow a few basic tenets and you should have an excellent success rate.

2. Submerge like you mean it.

The most important thing in making kraut is to keep the cabbage submerged in the salt brine or, more specifically, keep the cabbage away from oxygen. Little scraps of cabbage will inevitably float up now and then — just do your best to push them back in. Don’t be obsessive about this, but be as vigilant as possible. Beginners may want to cut their cabbage ribbons a little thicker to avoid those pesky bits, as a finer shred will definitely create floaters.

The easiest way to keep the vegetables submerged is to add a weight to your kraut jar. There are numerous ways to do this: a plastic baggie filled with brine; a weighted, smaller glass jar that sits on top of the cabbage; ceramic or glass weights made especially for preserving. A folded-up whole cabbage leaf (which is then discarded when the kraut is done fermenting) is the easiest, most low-tech solution.

3. Welcome add-ins with open arms.

Technically sauerkraut is made with cabbage (in German, sauer = sour; kraut = cabbage), but once you’ve mastered the basic cabbage approach, keep going — add things to your kraut! Caraway seeds are very traditional (and delicious!), but other spices such as juniper berries or fennel or coriander seeds are also wonderful. Try adding additional vegetables such as shredded carrots, radishes, or turnips. For spice and kick, grate in garlic, jalapeño pepper, or ginger. Make a slightly sweeter sauerkraut with a little shredded apple. Or switch out the cabbage completely and make an all-carrot or all-beet kraut.

4. Wait it out for a bigger impact.

More time means more sour flavor and more probiotics. The beauty of homemade kraut is that you can customize it to your tastes. If you like stronger, sharper kraut, simply leave your jar out on the counter to ferment longer. Some people have been known to leave it out of refrigeration for four weeks or longer and, in fact, claim it’s not truly done anytime short of 28 days. Super-microbial!

These longer ferments mean that the “keep oxygen away from the cabbage” rule is even more important. You may want to use an airlock (fairly cheap and easy to find these days) or at the very least float a half-inch of olive oil on the top of your kraut with these longer ferments. Both of these methods keep the oxygen out while allowing the naturally occurring CO2 to escape.

5. Don’t rinse the cabbage.

It’s not necessary — and indeed even counterproductive — to rinse your cabbage before shredding it for sauerkraut. Just remove a few of the outer leaves and chop away. The fermentation process is kickstarted by the naturally occurring bacteria found on raw cabbage, so rinsing it is not recommended.

6. Keep tabs to avoid a #krautfail.

How will you know that your kraut has gone off? If your cabbage has turned brown or pink, grown slimy or moldy, or starts smelling yeasty instead of that well-loved kraut funk, don’t hesitate to throw that batch away. Monitoring your kraut is a very low-maintenance activity; a daily glance and a sniff is all that’s needed to assure that things are on track and no floaters are ruining your kraut bliss.

Bonus Tip: Traveling close on the heels of the homemade sauerkraut trend is the gut-shot trend, or the act of downing a shot of sauerkraut juice as a tonic. The juice contains all the delicious and beneficial properties of sauerkraut itself, so there’s no need to throw it away. If you find the brine is too salty, just dilute it with water. It can also be used in vinaigrettes or poured over your next batch of kraut to kickstart the fermentation process