Years ago at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco I got seriously addicted to an artisanal sauerkraut made by a company called Cultured
. I jokingly referred to it as crack as it made it's way on top of my toast, tossed into my salads and stirred into my stews. When I introduced my friends to this amazing sauerkraut they too would promptly get addicted. I then moved to Brooklyn and sadly found that this sauerkraut was unavailable in my area. Soon after, I ended up reading Wild Fermentation
by Sandor Ellix-Katz which had a recipe for sauerkraut. I figured I'd give it a go and I was rewarded by deliciously complex kraut that was laughably easy to make and unbelievably affordable. How did it take me this long to make homemade sauerkraut? And why wasn’t this magic condiment more popular? Is it because no one knew how truly amazing it was?
A Note On Probiotics
Since it was so affordable to make, I began to eat it every day. That’s when the really interesting and unexpected stuff started to happen.
Up until now I had experienced digestive problems my entire life. I always seemed to have embarrassing gastrointestinal occurrences. After switching schools following the second grade, I ended up running into a group of old classmates a year later at a baseball game. I walked up cautiously but excited. Just then, one of them blurted out “hey, aren’t you the guy that farts?” and they all bursted into a chorus of laughter! I think it’s hilarious now, but I remember back then that something had to be done, but what?
After seeing numerous doctors and being prescribed a multitude of digestive aids, it seemed as if I was going to have to live with my condition. Then, when I got into healthy eating in my early twenties, I discovered probiotic supplements which resulted in a 90% improvement of my digestive woes. This was revolutionary. Probiotics consist of friendly intestinal flora such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei, etc. These little guys reside in your lower intestine and help you break down food more efficiently, access more nutrients in your food, inhibit bad bacteria from gaining a foothold in your digestive system and improve the immune response. Your lower intestinal tract already has beneficial flora but taking probiotics enhances the party with a wider range and a larger quantity of them so their benefits are increased.
I have a theory that some of the food I was eating was poorly digested, making it to the large intestine and causing it to be broken down by specific microbes that create excess sulphur gas as a byproduct. After establishing a wider range of specific beneficial microbes throughout my digestive system, my food started getting digested more completely in the large intestine before it could pass to the small intestine where the byproducts could be generated.
Beneficial intestinal flora is poorly understood as of this writing but in theory, we have less of them than we used to due to modern diets involving mostly sterile food. There may be health benefits associated with increasing their numbers via probiotic-rich foods. Did you know that the majority of cells in our bodies consist of these intestinal flora? Isn't it ironic that we understand so little about the majority of the cells in our bodies?
Nutritional Benefits of Sauerkraut
Why am I telling you about probiotics? Because sauerkraut is chock full of them! Since I discovered that making homemade sauerkraut was so much more affordable than buying it, I began to eat it every day. It was then that I noticed that sauerkraut gave me the same digestive benefits as taking probiotic supplements and I was able to stop taking the supplements.
But that’s just one of the benefits of eating fermented foods like sauerkraut. Since sauerkraut is raw, there may be more nutrient density in it than if you were to eat an equivalent amount of the same cooked vegetables. Fermenting vegetables is a great way to increase the taste-factor without destroying certain nutrients and phytochemicals as you would in cooking. Since the vegetables are already broken down without the use of heat and they're crawling with friendly flora, the nutrients also become more bioavailable and are more easily absorbed. Eating kraut every day is a great way to sneak in another daily serving of vegetables as well. Did you know that Captain Cook sailed the seas with barrels of sauerkraut because it was rich in vitamin C that was essential to ward off scurvy? Back then they didn't know why. Vitamin C hadn’t been discovered, and fermentation was completely misunderstood so all they knew was that eating soured vegetables prevented scurvy.
We’ve been eating primarily sterilized, preserved, irradiated dead food only since the processed food revolution started in the mid 20th century. That’s not that long ago. Up until that time we were eating live foods teeming with beneficial microbes at every meal. Do you think our bodies have noticed? Do you think current digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Acid Reflux were as prevalent since the dawn of human evolution or are they related to our modern diets, now almost completely devoid of probiotic-rich foods? It’s something to think about.
What is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is made by taking shredded vegetables, placing them in salt water and allowing specific microbes, both on the vegetables and in the air, to take up residense on and ferment them. The salt does three things:
Salt dehydrates the harmful microbes, interfering with their ability to function. In effect, this enables salt to act as a mild preservative, making it so that only our preferred microbes can gain a foothold, not harmful ones. This is the same reason why meats are salted before curing.
Salt dehydrates the vegetables, allowing the microbes to gain access to them more easily.
Salt enhances the flavor of the sauerkraut.
During fermentation, lactic acid bacteria and smaller amounts of other microbes eat the starches and sugars in the vegetables and secrete mostly lactic acid which gives sauerkraut its acidic flavor.
Utilizing Fermentation to Control Sauerkraut Flavor
Good sauerkraut tends to feature a good balance of crisp, crunchy texture, saltiness, acidity, spiciness, tartness and what I like to refer to as funk. Some people like the funk and some people have a distaste for it; the good news is that it can be controlled. This funkiness is caused by additional flavor compounds such as sulphur compounds being broken out of the vegetables, as well as flavor byproducts generated by the microbes themselves. After a couple batches you'll find what you prefer. I prefer mine on the acidic and moderately funky side.
You can control your sauerkraut flavor and texture characteristics with two major variables: time and temperature.
Shorter fermentations will make for crispier, less acidic kraut. Longer fermentations will result in kraut that's softer in texture, more acidic, tart and funky.
In addition to controlling fermentation time you can also dial in your preferred flavor by adjusting temperature. Fermenting at 60F (16C) tends to provide the best balance between clean and funky flavors while preserving crisp vegetable texture. Higher fermentations tend to produce more funky flavors and shorter overall shelf life. This is because different temperatures favor different microbes and the microbes release varying amounts of flavor compounds at different temperatures. Higher temperatures also speed up the metabolism of the microbes, causing fermentation to occur faster.
I find the optimal temperature to be in the range of 55F to 75F (16C to 24C) in a time range of 7 to 15 days. Your particular preference may vary so don’t be afraid to experiment and push the limits.
Sauerkraut can get particularly interesting when a few different vegetables are used as the substrate. Substrate is geeky fermentation-speak for, the stuff you’re fermenting. This word will crop up now and again as you get more into fermented foods so it’s worth knowing. Multiple vegetables making up your substrate is preferable because each vegetable can lend its own signature flavor profile. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower, bok choy, etc. tend to produce consistently good flavor.
Other vegetables can also work really well. Recently I made sauerkraut using black radishes, sunchokes and sweet potatoes. For the images accompanying this recipe I used leeks, red cabbage and carrots. If you get really into making sauerkraut you’ll find that it's worth it to buy a food processor for shredding your vegetables using the shredder disc attachment even if that's the only thing you use it for. Using a food processor is the difference between easy and hassle with sauerkraut. I would absolutely dread finely chopping several pounds of vegetables!
Adding spices to sauerkraut gives it another flavor dimension. Don't be afraid to swap out any of the 2 teaspoons of spices in this recipe with dill, paprika, chili powder, mustard seeds, curry powder, garam masala, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, oregano or any other spice combinations you choose. The 2 teaspoon measurement is just a guideline; I encourage you to be adventurous with your spices!
Calculating Salt Concentration in Sauerkraut
In order to encourage our specific microbes to take residence in our vegetables and leave their flavorful mark, we need to create the proper environment for them to thrive in. We need to hire bouncers to keep out the bad guys and install a velvet rope and red carpet to invite the good guys to stay awhile. Oh and free gin and tonics until 2am. A salt concentration between 2 to 3% is the way to do this for the microbes. They'll just be lining up to get in! A concentration of 2.5% salt creates a flavor profile that I particularly prefer. So how do you take a bucket of vegetables and figure out how to ferment them in a 2.5% salt solution? I almost flunked out of high school due to poor math grades and even I can figure this out, so don’t despair.
This calculation requires obtaining a digital scale
that has the capability of measuring in metric values. If you like to play with your food you’re going to need one of these sooner or later so you might as well just get one already. Got the scale? Good. Now for the simple magic rule and a friendly little equation:
For a 2.5% salt concentration, add 2.5 grams of salt to every 100 grams of vegetables. In other words, for a 2.5% salt concentration, add 25 grams (roughly 4 teaspoons) of salt per 1 kg (1000 grams) of vegetables.
1000 grams x .025 = 25 grams of salt
Keeping this rule in mind, all we need to do is scale up the rule to fit our measurement of our vegetables. So in the recipe below for example, we have 1.6 kg of vegetables which is 1600 grams.
Doing some simple math, we can calculate the following:
1600 grams x .025 = 40 grams of salt
Here’s the takeaway: Just weigh your vegetables in grams and multiply it by .025 to find the amount of salt you need to add in grams to make a 2.5% salt concentration.
Extra credit: This also works in milliliters! So when you decide to make Wild Fermented Pickles
, you can apply this calculation to dial in the optimal salt concentration of 1000 milliliters of water instead of 1000 grams because 1000 grams = 1 kg = 1000 mL = 1L. This is why the metric system rules.
Recommended Crocks for Sauerkraut
Now that we’ve got our preferred vegetables and our salt solution dialed in, we now need to figure out what we’re going to ferment it all in. There are two main ways to ferment sauerkraut
Ceramic Crock with a built-in airlock
- The built in airlock keeps the sauerkraut from infusing your house with intense sauerkraut aroma (seriously, this factor alone could save your relationship).
- When fermenting vegetables in an an oxygen-rich environment, aerobic (oxygen loving) microbes take residence on the surface of your vegetables in contact with the air. This results in mildew that grows on the vegetables on the surface. In addition to looking scary and instilling fear, these vegetables must be discarded after your sauerkraut has finished fermenting. The airlock keeps oxygen from getting in, which results in sauerkraut with no layer of mildew.
- Since the crock has an airlock, you don’t need to get creative with things like rubber bands and cheesecloths in an attempt to keep insects from your tasty brine.
- Ceramic crocks are more simple to use. You just throw the vegetables in, place the ceramic weights on top, place the lid on top of the crock, fill the airlock surrounding the lid with water and forget about it.
The downside is that these crocks can be a bit pricey, but they last a lifetime. if you enjoy sauerkraut, you’re going to end up making up the cost of the crock in a year or so as opposed to buying sauerkraut in the store.
A food grade plastic bucket is definitely the most affordable point of entry into the sauerkraut making world. The downside is that you’re going to need to do the following:
- Create some sort of a weight to weigh the vegetables down so they remain submerged as they ferment.
- Place a piece of cheesecloth over the bucket and secure it with a rubber band to keep uninvited guests such as insects from joining the party.
- Convince your significant other that the funky fermented smells occupying your living space is worth it because it’s totally going to cure you of all your ailments and make you a better person.
It’s a good idea to enjoy the affordability of the plastic bucket method until you’ve decided if you want to make fermented vegetables a regular thing in your life and graduate to the ceramic crock.
A word of caution
In the world of curating fermentations with specific microbes, sometimes uninvited guests do spoil the party. For example, it’s plausible that we can make a salt concentration miscalculation, have imperfect vegetables to start with, or have uncontrolled temperature swings that can throw our microbe colonies out of balance and leave the substrate open to harmful microbes that can gain a foothold. For this reason, it’s extremely important to follow your senses. If you see anything that doesn’t look right, for example, brightly colored mold, or smell things that don’t seem normal, such as putrid or rancid aromas, discard your sauerkraut and walk away. It’s not worth the risk. The chances of this happening are impossible as long as vegetables are fresh and clean, crock surfaces are clean, salt concentration is maintained and temperatures are in the acceptable range.
Learn how to make kimchi
3 ½ pounds (1.6 kg or about 15 cups shredded) vegetables of your choice
40 grams salt
2 teaspoons (8 grams) garlic powder or 4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons (4 grams) cumin seeds
2 teaspoons (2 grams) dried basil
2 teaspoons (4 grams) crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons (8 grams) cayenne powder (if you want the kraut somewhat spicy)
1) Shred your vegetables
Shred a few different varieties of vegetables of your choice in a food processor using the shredder disc attachment. If you don’t have a food processor, use a large knife to chop the vegetables into chunks then slice those chunks into slices roughly a couple millimeters thick. As you're shredding batches of the vegetables, transfer them to a very large mixing bowl. If you don't have a one, use the largest salad bowl you can find.
2) Add the salt, spices and knead the vegetables
Add the salt and spices to the vegetables. With clean hands and short sleeves, knead the vegetables by reaching into the large bowl, firmly grabbing two handfuls of vegetables and squeezing them while pressing down with your weight. Continue to do this, working your way around the bowl for 5 minutes. This step is crucial because it breaks the vegetables down which allows the salt and microbes to find their way into them, allowing fermentation to occur faster and more effectively. It also allows the vegetables to release water. Water is necessary to coat the vegetables with salt and to displace oxygen, which can encourage undesirable microbes. Err on the side of over-kneading to release as much water as possible.
3) Transfer the vegetables to a clean bucket or crock and prepare a suitable weight
Wash your crock, a large food-grade bucket or similar container and transfer the vegetables into it. It's important that all of the things that are going to be in contact with your sauerkraut, including your hands, is washed and as clean as possible. This is to ensure that undesirable microbes don't gain a foothold in your vegetables before our preferred microbes do.
If you’re using a ceramic crock with a built-in airlock
Transfer the vegetables to the crock. Place the ceramic weights on top and press down until you see liquid rise to the surface of the vegetables. With an airlocked crock, the vegetables don’t necessarily have to be submerged completely by water. As fermentation proceeds, water will be excreted and the vegetables should eventually get covered. Place the lid of the crock on and pour water into the moat of the airlock to make an air-tight seal.
If you’re using a bucket
Find a jar that’s slightly smaller than the opening of your food-grade bucket, fill the jar with water and put the lid on. Wash the underside of the jar that's going to be in contact with the vegetables and place it over them. Press it down slightly; the vegetables should now be submerged under a few millimeters of water to ensure they aren't exposed to the air and hence, undesirable microbes. If the vegetables aren’t submerged in water, add a small amount until they are. Note that this will dilute the level of salt in your vegetables by a very small amount but is not cause for concern. Cover the top of the jar and bucket with a cheesecloth secured by a rubber band to keep flies out. Place the bucket in a cool, dark place and wait. The hard part is done!
4) Ferment the sauerkraut to perfection
Your sauerkraut should take 1 to 3 weeks from the time it's placed into the bucket to the time it's done. This depends on several factors including temperature and desired final acidity. Feel free to taste your sauerkraut occasionally as it's fermenting to see how it's coming along and to know when it's done. Just be aware that if you’re using a crock with an airlock, every time you open the lid you’ll be letting in aerobic microbes that can contribute to mildew on the kraut surface. I usually try to limit opening my airlocked crock during fermentation to no more than two times.
When your sauerkraut has fermented to your preferred level, remove any vegetables on the top layer that have mildew, if any, and discard. You may find that your sauerkraut has let go of too much water. This krautwater is extremely flavorful and full of nutrients. I like to save it in an airtight container in my refrigerator and pour it on salads or use it as a de-glasing liquid in stir frys. Transfer the sauerkraut to a clean airtight container and store it in your refrigerator.
Why does this recipe make such a large quantity? Because once sauerkraut is kept in an airtight container in your refrigerator it will last for a long time; the salt and acidic environment will keep it edible for at least six months. Perfect for your next sailing voyage.
Makes about 5 pounds (2.25 kg) sauerkraut.