Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Kraut 101

I've become known in some circles as a bit of a fermentation guru. I'm no Sandor Katz, but I've done a fair amount of pickling and have a pretty decent understanding of the science of fermentation. I have been asked time and time again for help with the basics of making sauerkraut and was disappointed with some of the other kraut recipes out there. I developed this little tutorial to help the beginner kraut maker. I think it's easy, and I know it works. Give it a try.

At it's most basic sauerkraut is cabbage and salt, left to ferment into a tangy condiment. The fermentation is completed by a wide variety of bacteria that turn the sugar in the cabbage into acid that in turn preserves the cabbage from spoilage. The live bacteria in unheated sauerkraut provide immense benefit when eaten including better digestion, increased gut health and an immune system boost. I recently read that the healthy bacteria that live on your skin and in your gut outnumber your body cells 10 to 1 - doesn't it make sense to make sure they are the right kind of bacteria?

Here are my instructions for making one quart of jar fermented sauerkraut. This is a great size to start with because it is big enough for everyone to try it a couple times, but not enough that you feel overwhelmed. After your first batch, make a second and try some variations. I'll list some of those down at the bottom.

Phase one: Shopping
1. Find good quality, organic green or purple head cabbage. Look at the grocery store or at farmers markets. Even non-organic ones will ferment just fine, but buy organic if you can. One 8 inch diameter head will be more than enough, but it's not a bad idea to pick up more than you think you'll need. You can use leftovers in a recipe like this soup from Nourishin Days. Weigh your cabbage at the grocery store and remember this number.
2. Buy good quality sea salt. I use Real Salt and highly recommend it because it is "real" salt with micronutrients, but isn't going to break the bank either.

Phase two: Cleaning and Chopping
1. Get a quart size mason jar with a lid. You can either buy 6 or 12 of them new with lids, or find one at a thrift store and buy new lids and rings at the grocery store. You might even have some at home already. Wash it well with soap and hot water.
2. Core and chop your cabbage. Commercial kraut is often made with really finely shredded cabbage. I prefer a little bigger shreds.. more or less as small as I can get them with a knife.
3. As you chop your cabbage stuff it into the jar.. with no salt.. this is just for measuring. Don't pound it in, just stuff it as stuffed as you can get it. When the jar is full pull the cabbage out into the biggest mixing bowl (or a big cooking pot) you have. Add another handful or two of shredded cabbage.

Phase three: Salting and Packing
1. Remember how much your head of cabbage weighed at the grocery store? Do a little mental math estimating how much of the cabbage you used, and multiply that by 2 tsp per pound. For example, your cabbage weighed 2 pounds and you used 3/4 of the head. You used 1 1/2 pounds of cabbage so you need 3 tsp of salt. Figure out how much salt you need and sprinkle that over the cabbage. No need for a calculator here, just guestimate.
2. Toss the cabbage and the salt with your hands, squeezing and crunching the cabbage. You should start to see some liquid coming out of the cabbage. Keep kneading and squeezing, thinking about how yummy and healthy this kraut is going to be and how much you love your family for a couple minutes. Alternatively, you could pound the kraut with a wooden pounder or meat tenderizer for a shorter period of time like Jungleen is doing in this photo from Cheeseslave. Either way, the point is to allow the salt to draw the liquid out of the cabbage. Don't give yourself carpal tunnel syndrome, but do allow the cabbage to get wet.
3. Taste the cabbage.. it should be distinctly salty. If it is pleasantly salty, add some more salt. If it makes you want to gag add some more shredded cabbage :)
4. Rinse your hands off and start packing the jar. Use a wooden spoon or wooden meat pounder or small ladle to help you really pack the cabbage into the jar. You want to push any air bubbles out. Pack it in a small amount at a time until the cabbage is within 1/2 an inch of the bottom of the threads of the jar.
5. Push on the kraut one last time. If liquid isn't rising above the level of the cabbage then make a brine of about 1 tsp of salt per cup of water (this should also be too salty to be pleasant but not salty enough to make you gag). Slowly pour a little of this over the cabbage, giving it time to sink in, until it is at or above the level of the cabbage.
6. Screw the lid on tight and put in a warmish place in your kitchen. On top of the fridge, the cupboard above the microwave, etc. Do the dishes and leave the cabbage for the day.

Phase Four: Fermenting and Ageing
1. The next day, open the lid of the jar. I recommend doing this over the sink. Did the jar "pop" or fizz when you opened it? If not, that's OK. Taste the kraut. Put the lid back on and put it back in the warm spot.
2. Repeat the last step every day until it truly is popping of fizzing. Taste it again, and then put the lid back on and put that jar in the fridge.
3. Let it sit for at least one more week and then test again. Sour yet? No, let it go anothe week. In the fridge this stuff will last for weeks and months and just get sourer and sourer. Most likely after 2 weeks in the fridge it will be quite sour, but since you've been tasting it the whole time you know what it's like and when you are going to enjoy eating it. I recently found 6 month old kraut in my fridge and it was sour like vinegar pickles. The salty cabbage will eventually get sour, you just need to give it lots and lots and lots of time if thats what you want.

Phase Five: Making the next batch...
Repeat from the beginning, adding some of your sauerkraut juice to the cabbage as your are packing it or instead of the brine.

Once you get the hang of this kraut method you can start making variations. Adding caraway or juniper berries is pretty traditional, as is sliced or grated turnips or carrots. Other vegetable or seasoning options are as limitless as your imagination. Try onions, garlic, seaweed, greens like kale or brussels sprouts, roots like burdock, horseradish or beets. Try mustard seed, dill, curry or hot peppers of some sort. If you add garlic, ginger, chiles and onion you have kim chi but if you use oregano, chiles and cumin you have cortido. I recently made an apple cranberry sauerkraut that is so wonderful. Experiment, it's your kraut!

Please feel free to post comments with your kraut questions, your kraut experiences and your favorite flavor variations. Your question may end up in my future post, Kraut FAQ :)


  1. Thanks fro sharing. This is a skill I want to try.

  2. What an awesome tutorial, I needed this!

    Thanks, Kelly

  3. I got some purple kraut going right now, I love to add in some radish's and carrots also!

  4. This is so helpful! I'm going to link to this post in an upcoming post of mind on Cortido. I love the hot and spicy version of kraut. It's heavenly. Do you make that ever ?

  5. Carrie - I make cortido using pineapple vinegar. It is usually sweeter than it is hot - I like to be able to add hotness separately to whatever I'm eating. Some days I can handle heat to make me sweat, some days I want something milder and easier :) I also have done kim chi, but my dad keeps buying some good quality stuff from a local store (Uwajimaya) so I haven't had to make any in a while. I love kim chi with macaroni and cheese :)

  6. i just made this, it hasn't popped but it has fizz on top. And it is getting sour, is it time to put it in the fridge?
    many thanks,

  7. Also, I really like this blog. It gives me the exact directions I need to get started eating traditionally. Can you do a tutorial for soaking grains just like you did with sauerkraut.

  8. This is a great, simple recipe. Thanks for sharing! Just curious - what is the difference between fermenting with salt, and fermenting with whey? Is one better or more healthy than the other? Does it produce different bacteria?

  9. This is wonderful! Just the info I needed, so that I feel confident in making my own.

    Thanks for posting this and I hope you post more articles about cultured veggies!

  10. Great tutorial! I still chuckle at myself because of how nervous I was at the beginning when I made my first sauerkraut. Now, it's just "old hat." My favorite mix (in a quart jar) is mostly cabbage, a little grated carrot, and a grated Granny Smith apple. Yum!

  11. My friend makes one with cabbage, green tomatoes, corn and pickled banana peppers.
    I helped her for the first time last fall. I want to try some plain kraut for my DH to go with corned beef.

    Thanks for the tutorial on how.

  12. I want to make fermented beets alone, how do I do this

    Thank you,


  13. What I meant is just Beets and no other vegies with the beets. I was hoping to find a simple recipe for fermented beets.


  14. I'm planning to make the sauerkraut today using your method but I was reading a Ball recipe book last night and they have you make it (similar to your method) and can it. If you can it, are the exact same things happening without your periodic checks and how would you know when the fizzing had started? Any issues with potential pressure building up in the jar when canned?

  15. Joyce, after cabbage and carrots, I used my exact same procedure with grated beets. With grated (rather than slice or quartered) beets I have read there is the potential for alchol to form because of the high sugar content, but I never noticed any, and I would wonder arent carrots sweeter than beets? Anyway I used an open 2qt glass jar, with weight (plate under a wine bottle) to keep the stuff submerged; I guess the openness and the small volume allow any ethanol to evaporate off. They are fine pickles, a little beety and otherwise the normal lactic acid taste.

  16. Thanks for this article. I'm on my 7th batch of kimchi since December. The last batch almost filled a 5 gallon bucket. Every batch is an experiment of something new and different. I'm looking forward to the next!

  17. If you make lacto fermented sauerkraut (or other veggie) can you store them in vacuum storage bags (like using a food saver) once the sauerkraut is finished in the crock? Once vacuumed bagged, would it be shelf stable, or would you need to store in the refrigerator or freezer? Just wondering as I thought this would be great way to store it w/o having to heat it like canning. Also, you can purchase the things for the food saver that vacuum seals jars, would this work to make it shelf stable? Just wondering as I saw on Cultures for Health that the are selling raw lacto-fermented veggies that are vacuum sealed in bags and wondered if this would work for the home kitchen. I have a lot more room to store it in cabinets than in my refrigerator.

    1. You can vacuum seal and freeze, or just bag and freeze. Just removing the air is not enough to make the fermented vegetables shelf stable; you also need to halt the fermentation process once the ferment has reached the desired state. Otherwise, the ferment will continue and your vegetables could get mushy. Eventually yeasts may take over and ruin the flavor.

      Freezing halts the fermentation process completely and frozen fermented veggies can be kept indefinitely. Keeping your fermentation vessel in a cool place (below 60°F) will slow down fermentation and allow your ferments to keeps for months but that is not cold enough to stop it completely.


    2. Forget the crock, ferment directly in vacuum sealer bags.
      I fermented sauerkraut & sauerkohlrabi last year. They turned out great especially the kohlrabi.
      4 cups shredded cabbage and or kohlrabi
      1 tbsp. salt
      4 tbsp whey
      Make the bag twice as big as this mixture. Kept for months and got better with age.

  18. Susan,

    If you seal it into a bag without heating it then you still have all the live bacteria in it that continue to do their work. There is probably a very low chance of contamination by bad bacteria, but the bag might explode as the good guys continue to make gas byproducts. The live sauerkraut sold in bags at the store is always sold refrigerated with quick expiration dates. The ancient technique of storing kraut in a crock with some kind of water lock is probably the best long term, live storage for fermented vegetables.

  19. I used to sprinkle some Acidophilus powder on the cabbage along with the sea salt while making kraut, but lately I've been spooning on some raw goat milk kefir. It seems to help with the germination.

    1. Hannah you don't need to do that with sauerkraut. Cabbage already has naturally occurring bacteria of the right species. Acidophilus are milk lovers not cabbage lovers and will not help much with the fermentation of cabbage. Sea salt on the other hand is a very good choice because the minerals in the salt give a nutrition boost to the bacteria -- and to you.

  20. My sauerkraut went bad after being left alone in the fridge for a few months. The kraut near the surface had floated above the brine and disintegrated when I touched it. It's not nearly as crunchy as it was when I placed it in the fridge. Can you advise me as to what I did wrong?

  21. preserving food is a good idea and there is a lot of food which start getting foul smell even if in the fridge, so it is best to use vaccum sealer, which maintain the freshness of food.

  22. Your instruction is very detail and easy to follow. Thanks so much.

  23. I've tried this recipe and it's GREAT! ... I've also studied many methods which work as well. If you really enjoy the "science" behind these type foods and like to make and eat them, I recommend you read "The Art of Fermentation" by Katz. It's a tad expensive but well worth it but if price is an issue, check with your local library as it's a reference book on all things fermented. Tells how to make EVERYTHING you'll ever care to try, both food and drink! Enjoy... and thanks for this Blog!! TWM

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