Perhaps you have heard that the more we eat fermented foods—delicious things that are probiotic, like pickles, miso, yogurt, kombucha, sourdough, kimchi, and sauerkraut) the happier our guts tend to be. Perhaps you have also heard of the microbiome—the lush community of microbial flora and fauna of our bodies, which, among other things, seem to keep us healthy. If you and I have chatted about fermented foods before, you know that I am totally fascinated by the microbiome, by these good bacteria that animate us. (Aside: If I haven’t talked your ear off about it yet, check out this video from NPR. You will be astonished and fascinated and probably giddy. Then again, it could just be your microbiome talking.)
But I’m a cook, not a scientist, and I’m certainly not here to make any health claims. What I am here to say is that sauerkraut is delicious, colorful, and basically a blinking neon light in the often beige and heavy landscape of winter foods. There’s a reason kraut (and its cousins, kimchi and the deli pickle) are served with those buttery, starchy winter staples. And there’s a reason so many cultural foodways have some kraut variant, if not at their centers then certainly off to the side, to be heaped crunchily, tangily on top of whatever is at the center. It is also extremely easy to make. In fact, after a half-hour or so of active cooking, sauerkraut basically makes itself.
If you want to give home fermentation a go, there may be no better way to start than sauerkraut. Beyond being hands-off, wonderfully sour and crunchy, and a world away from kraut that comes in a can (which is how I grew up eating it): 1. It's a much less expensive weekend than trying to make croissants from scratch; 2. For those of you at home afraid of poisoning yourself with a pickling project, there’s very little that can go wrong, and; 3. You probably already have all of the “equipment” you’ll need.
Are you convinced? Onward!
The most important things you need to make kraut is salt and vegetables. Start with a ratio of 1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt to every 2 ½ to 3 pounds of grated or very thinly sliced vegetables, at least part of which is cabbage. (A smallish head of cabbage weighs about 2 ½ pounds.)
Some ideas for what to make kraut with: cabbages (red, green, napa) of course, carrots, beets, apples, Asian or other firm pears, bell peppers, turnips, Brussels sprouts, chopped kale, scallions, kohlrabi.
Wash a large glass jar or ceramic fermentation crock with boiling water and soap and rinse well. (If all you have are quart-sized plastic containers, those would work great too.) Track down a smaller glass jar, clean it well, and fill it with something heavy (pie weights, rice, pebbles from your garden)—this will weight your kraut down, so it has to fit inside the mouth of the larger jar. You’ll also need a clean bandana, dish towel, cloth napkin, or the like, plus a rubber band to secure it tightly over the mouth of the larger jar. This will keep dust and bugs and other critters from getting to your kraut before you do.
1. In a large bowl, toss together your vegetables and the salt, then really go at it, scrunching them like crazy with your hands.
Think not about the kind of massage where there is soft music playing and essential oils diffusing and you fall asleep on the table after 15 minutes—think about the kind where it hurts so much that you are quietly crying into the donut on the massage table where your face goes. What you want is for the vegetables to release their liquid.
2. Set the bowl aside for a few minutes while the vegetables make their brine, then scrunch and rest again.
Do this a couple of times over the course of an hour—at least one hour, up to four. Patience is the name of the game with all fermented foods. Once there’s enough brine to cover the vegetables, stir in spices and/or aromatics if you’re using them and tightly pack it all into your big jar or crock.
3. Add some spices or aromatics (optional but gives lots of additional character).
A few ideas: caraway seed, fennel seed, peppercorns, thinly sliced chiles, smashed garlic cloves, fresh smashed turmeric root, fresh smashed horseradish, whole fresh cranberries, juniper berries, fresh smashed ginger root, star anise, coriander seeds, dill seeds, cumin seeds.
4. Make sure the vegetables are completely submerged in salted water.
The fresher the vegetables, the more likely they are to release the water the kraut will need for its brine, or the vegetable juices plus the salt that draws out the vegetable's moisture. If your veg has been kicking around the back of the fridge for a few days (or weeks—no shame there), you may need to top the jar off with some salted water. The rule for sauerkraut is that it should be a 2% salt solution, or about one teaspoon of salt (kosher, please) per cup of water. And, again—all the vegetables need to be totally covered by a healthy layer of brine. I also like to save an outer cabbage leaf for tucking over the grated vegetables beneath the surface of the brine, which helps keep the smallest pieces from floating up, up, up.
5. Set the smaller, heavy jar atop the kraut and cover both with the clean cloth, securing it with a rubber band.
Then tuck the jar in a room temperature, out-of-the-way spot and circle a date on your calendar 3 or 4 days away to start sampling it.
6. Keep an eye on the kraut over the next few days.
Over the course of the fermentation process, you might notice some mysterious, whitish scum floating on top of the brine. This is totally normal and should be expected. Just skim off as much as you can with a big wooden spoon, recover the jar, and let the fermentation proceed.
7. Decide How Sour You Want It.
Keep in mind that the fermentation process will go more quickly in a warmer room and more slowly in a cooler one. I like a one-and-a-half to two-week fermentation in my cooler apartment, but you should trust your tongue and ferment for however long tastes best to you. If you taste the kraut and want it to keep fermenting, make sure to carefully pack all the vegetables safely back beneath the brine and weight them down again. The longer you ferment, the more sour and complex and kraut will be. Some let it go 4 weeks or longer. Up to you.
8. Once you’re happy with the way it tastes, stop the fermentation.
Remove the weighted jar and the cloth, covering the large jar or crock with a lid, and moving the kraut to the fridge, where it will keep for up to 6 months. Until then, eat it warm or cold, alongside sausages or in grain bowls, inside pierogi, with anything potatoey, or on a big Reuben-style sandwich or inside a grilled cheese. Lately I have seen people selling the kraut liquid for one to take like a shot—so give that a try, too, or add a splash of it to a bloody Mary.