I've written many times in detail before, that the gut runs the show. Getting back to making and consuming traditional foods is what is truly going to heal your body. Building back up your gut flora and beneficial ecosystem is critical especially now in this day and age of hyper-sanitation, antibiotics used for every sniffle and sneeze and over processing of foods. Homemade sauerkraut has that delicious crunch, delightfully sour and salty taste that we love and this recipe is sure to please even the pickiest of eaters. Many recipes show you how to make kraut in fancy crocks with fancy tools, however, I want to share with you the easiest and most frugal way to make this nutrient dense probiotic food for beginners.
The How and Why of Fermenting Sauerkraut
Fermented beverages and foods have been used throughout human history as a way to enhance the vitamin and amino acid content of foods, acidify the stomach, balance gut pH and support beneficial flora in the intestines. They are also recommended to help resist intestinal infections, enhance the flavors of foods and as a way to naturally preserve foods.
How is sauerkraut fermented?
Homemade sauekraut is made by a process called lacto-fermentation. Lactofermentation increases food enzymes and vitamins, particularly Vitamin B and C. There are beneficial bacteria that grow on the outsides of all vegetables and fruits and we are capturing their benefits in the mason jar. Lactobacillus is just one of those beneficial bacteria strains which can also be found in kefir, homemade yogurt, raw milk, and other cultured or raw foods. When submerged in the brine, the bacteria begin to convert sugars from the cabbage into lactic acid, lactic acid is naturally acidic and helps to inhibit the growth of pathogenic microbes. The beneficial bacteria help to colonize your gut bacteria which also helps heal crohn's, IBS, as well as emotional and mental issues such as depression, autism, ADD, bipolar and focus concerns.
Why should you ferment foods and eat them?
Folks have been fermenting foods for centuries. They have done so as a means to boost their good gut microbes to keep their immune system strong, help balance their mood and emotions, and the fermentation process is a natural way to preserve seasonal foods. In the winter, when immune systems are challenged by colds and flus, fermented foods such as sauerkraut, can act as rocket fuel to boost the immune system!
Nervous to Ferment Food?
No need to be! The fermentation process is safe (with common sense, understanding and observation) and reliable and when your finished jar is kept in a cooler temp, such as in a basement, cellar (approximately 56 degrees) or a refrigerator, it lasts for many months. The sauekraut is actually safe to eat at any stage as long as it doesn't contain mold, slime, a creamy film or yeasty odor (refer to trouble shooting chart below for details). You will probably see some white bubbles at the top of your brine in your jar, this is totally normal and part of the fermentation process. You may also seem some (white) floating debris, you can easily skim that off the top and discard. You may at some point find some mold growing on the top of your kraut or that it has turned brown. If this happens it is typically because your kraut was not completely submerged in your brine solution. From the fermenting experts, it is not safe to eat. Disclaimer: Always use your best judgement, if something looks off, smells off or tastes off, do not eat it. It is better to error on the side of caution.
Here is a great graphic when troubleshooting sauerkraut from Nourishing Treasures.
The Three Stages of Sauerkraut Fermentation (Source)
In order for sauerkraut to be a true lacto-fermented success, it must go through three specific stages of fermentation.
Leuconostoc mesenteroides initiates sauerkraut fermentation. Since Leuconostoc mesenteroides produce carbon dioxide, it effectively replaces the oxygen in the jar, making the environment anaerobic (oxygen-free). When lactic acids reach between .25 and .3%, Leuconostoc mesenteroides bacteria slow down and die off, although enzymes continue to function.
This stage lasts between one and three days, depending on temperature.
Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus cucumeris continue the ferment until lactic acid level of 1.5-2% is attained.
High salt and low temp inhibit these bacteria, so I hope you didn’t over-salt your cabbage – and be sure not to refrigerate yet.
This stage continues for 10-30 days, depending on temperature.
Lactobacillus brevis (some sources also include Lactobacillus pentoaceticus) finish off the ferment. When lactic acid reaches 2-2.5%, they reach their max growth and the ferment is over.
This final stage lasts under a week.
You will know your sauerkraut is ready for long-term storage (or to eat!), when no more bubbles appear on the sides or top of your jar.
What you will need:
- 1 medium sized cabbage, red or green or a mix, cored and finely shredded
- 1 Tablespoon sea salt, I use this salt
- Spices such as fresh dill, sage, basil, thyme, caraway seeds, garlic (optional)
- 2, 1-quart (32 oz.) mason jars with metal lids or even better: plastic lids.
- Wide mouth funnel (very helpful, but not necessary), I use this one.
- Knife or food processor, I use this one.
- Cutting board, click here.
- Vegetable pounder, click here or end of a wooden spoon
- Clean everything. Be sure that your hands, jars, utensils and cutting board are clean.
- Slice the cabbage. You can use a knife or for a quicker shred you can use your food processor.
- Toss cabbage and salt together. Simply add the salt and cabbage to a large bowl and toss.
- Pound cabbage. Now you want to take a few minutes (~10 minutes) and pound the water out of the cabbage. Use your pounder or end of a wooden spoon.
- Transfer to your mason jar. Using a wide mouth funnels is easiest, simply transfer the cabbage and brine (juice) to the mason jar(s). I also added different spices to each jar and wow, the taste is amazing. You can see my garden dill hanging off the fork in the last photo, so delicious!
- Pack down the cabbage. Using the end of the handle of a wooden spoon, pound the cabbage down as far as you can. *The key is to be sure every single piece of cabbage is completely submerged under the brine.
- Weigh down the cabbage. I always save the outer cabbage leaves and place them on top to weigh down the shredded cabbage, it works great. Sometimes I also add a small heavy rock from my garden on top of the outer leave too to weigh down the leaves.
- Check the brine level. Be sure the cabbage is under the brine. If it isn't you can make additional brine solution: dissolve 1 teaspoon of sea salt in 1 cup of water and add enough brine solution to submerge the cabbage
- Ferment. Tightened the lid and let it sit on the counter. Time is key. You can ferment for as little as 2 weeks and as long as a couple of months. The longer the ferment the more beneficial bacteria will be present, 10 weeks is optimal. Keep the sauerkraut out of direct sunlight and at a cooler temperature, preferably 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. When you use the tightened lid method and the sauerkraut stays below the liquid, you create an anaerobic environment, also because the lactic acid bacteria are anaerobes and they do not utilize oxygen during fermentation, however, you will have to release the CO2, do this every other day to help prevent glass breakage due to CO2 buildup. Simply unscrew the lid and let the air out, while the lid is off, be sure to check that the liquid is above the sauerkraut, you can also pound it each time you lift the lid. Then quickly place lid back on.
- Test. Taste test the sauerkraut after week 2, once a week until it is done to your liking.
- Medicinal Properties. The longer you let it ferment, the more good bacteria are in it, refer to the three bacterial stages above. 10 weeks is optimal. Remember the gut runs the show.
- Store. Transfer to the refrigerator, basement, cellar or other cold storage when the sauerkraut is to your liking, where it should keep for at least 6 months and up to 1 year.
I did want to note that there are many different ways to ferment foods and beverages. As long as you get to the proper end results, that is what matters. Folks have been fermenting foods and beverages for centuries with different tools, techniques and time ….with great success!
What foods or beverages do you ferment? Let me know in the comments below!