Making sauerkraut is quite straightforward according to what I read on various websites and books: for each 5 pounds of sliced raw cabbage, you need 3 tablespoons of kosher or pickling salt. I looked at dozen of recipes, the ratio almost always remains the same: 5 pounds of cabbage, 3 tablespoons of salt. Since the same ratio is found in almost all recipes, we could believe that one needs to use very strict measurements but since cabbage varies in water content and salt in weight to volume, there is inevitably some leeway in this. In fact, I did see a few outliers such as the ½ cup of kosher salt for 2 ½ pound of cabbage in Lucy Norris’ Pickled or a few potentially dangerous sodium free recipes but these were not the norm at all.
All recipes advise to place the salted cabbage in a non-reactive crock and place a weighted plate on top to press the cabbage down. Eventually, a brine should form from the juice extracted from the cabbage by the salt. If it does not, one can always add salted water to insure that the cabbage is submerged. You then place the whole thing roughly at room temperature or in a cool place (18°C to 24°C according to Harold McGee) for a few weeks to let the fermentation do its magic. This, at least, is the theory!
My first sauerkraut experiment was a bit of disaster. I followed the instruction on the Kitchen Gardeners International website where instruction from Sandor Ellix Katz’ Wild Fermentation had been adapted. After a few weeks of fermentation and skimming of the scum floating at the top of my brine, I had to throw the content of my plastic bucket in the garbage. A very unpleasant smell developed probably from unwelcome yeasts or other micro-organisms… not the ones I was expecting for sure. For some reasons, I kept my sauerkraut nearly two months thinking that the smell would disappear and be replaced by a more fragrant sour aroma. I even tried a few bites of the foul smelling cabbage and while it did turn sour, the stench was just too bad to make a meal out of it. In retrospect, I believe that I should have thrown the whole thing away earlier and I should never have tried to eat it.
Since hundreds and more likely thousands of people use this method successfully, I assume that I have simply been unlucky; that some bad micro-organisms got in before the proper lactic fermentation developed to protect the cabbage. The remedy to this problem is quite simple: protect the brine from ambient air. In my ill equipped kitchen, I simply used a layer of loose plastic wrap to cover my bucket. This was not enough. Some people succeed with no cover at all but I did not and the whole experiment put me off trying this method again.
The next method I tried made good use of many tricks gathered on many website and on an E Gullet forum discussion (link). This time, my goal was to avoid any airborne contamination by creating an almost air-tight cover. A few plastic bags filled with water (ideally with brine in case of leaks) were placed on top of a plate, itself covering a few large outer leaves from the cabbage. The sliced cabbage was also slightly pounded down to help the extraction of the juices.
The result, this time, was great. The sauerkraut was tangy and still crunchy and developed a very nice aroma.
We ate it very simply with boiled potatoes and sausages. I will certainly make more sauerkraut in the fall so if you have any recipe using sauerkraut, please let me know!
Here's a review of the whole sauerkraut fermentation process, it includes tricks and details from a variety of sources, most mentioned in the above section of this post:
- 5 pounds of cabbage
- 3 Tablespoons of salt
- A sharp knife or a mandolin
- A non-reactive crock or a food grade plastic bucket
- One plate slightly smaller than the bucket
- 3-4 freezer bags
- Water or brine to fill the bags
- Clean all your tools very well and sterilize them if possible.
- Core your cabbage and reserve a few of the outer leaves.
- Finely shred the remaining cabbage using a sharp knife or a mandolin.
- Mix the shredded cabbage and the salt in a large crock or food grade plastic bucket by adding one layer of cabbage at a time followed by a sprinkle of salt. At this point, you can pound the cabbage using your hands or a heavy object in order to help the release of juices.
- Place the reserved cabbage leaves on top or the shredded cabbage.
- Cover with a plate. Apply as much presure as you can to make sure everything is well packed.
- Fill your plastic bags with brine or water and place them on top of the plate. Do not overfill them so that they are still soft enough to close all the gaps.
- The next day, make sure the juices extracted from the cabbage cover the cabbage by at least 3 cm or an inch. If more liquid is needed, you can add a brine made by mixing a cup of water with a teaspoon of salt.
- Leave at room temperature (bellow 24°C or 75°F) for at least 3 weeks then test it every week until it reaches your desired degree of acidity. If you like a delicate flavor, a three or four weeks is more than enough; if you prefer your sauerkraut on the stronger side, leave it to ferment for up to two months.
- In general, placing your sauerkraut in the fridge will stop the fermentation and will keep well if enough acidity was developed beforehand. Some people also can their sauerkraut but the process will necessarily affect the texture.