You can make great sauerkraut at home, cheaply, and your gut will thank you

Some researchers believe that the increase in autoimmune diseases in the West, like rheumatoid arthritis, stem from the disruption in the relationship between the body and its microbiome—trillions of microorganisms, mainly bacteria.

Recent research has shown that gastrointestinal microbiota can affect resting metabolism, decreasing the body’s ability to burn calories, increasing the likelihood of developing obesity.

It’s clear that the overuse of antibiotics and a diet rich in processed foods compromise the body’s microbial community and diversity.  

Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut contain large numbers of probiotic bacteria, and so they are recommended for a healthy gut. Though it appears that much probiotic bacteria don’t take up permanent residence in the gut, there is evidence that they enhance the diversity of the gut flora and positively alter their gene expression.

Advertising would have you believe that any probiotic is great for you, but commercial probiotics like yogurt drinks lack fiber and microbial diversity (usually containing only one or two strains of bacteria), and are commonly loaded with sugar.

Fiber is necessary to feed the resident gut community, and vegetables—whether they are fermented, raw, or cooked—provide a lot of fiber, in addition to vitamins and minerals. Fermenting vegetables yields a diversity of good bacteria. Diversity, not necessarily the volume of microbes, is what’s important. Fermented vegetables are certainly one of the healthiest foods you can eat.

Sauerkraut, fermented cabbage, is high in fiber, rich in vitamin C, and easy to make at home. Store buying sauerkraut all the time is too expensive, at least for me it is. This week was a great time to make sauerkraut since I happened upon cabbage at fifty cents a pound.

If you want to give it a try, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Some kind of fermentation vessel. In this case I used a small 5-liter fermentation crock, but you can also use large glass jars.
  • A weight. The crock I have came with two ceramic semi-circle weights. You could do something like put a clean rock on top of a plate. Doesn’t need to be fancy.
  • In this recipe I’m working with three average sized heads of cabbage, roughly 8 pounds.
  • Sea salt or pickling salt.

1. Choose the freshest cabbage you can find to make a good kraut. The base of the cabbage where the stem was cut should be white or close to it. Set aside the large outer leaves from one of your cabbages, then chop or grate the rest of the cabbage into thin, long strands.

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2. Sprinkle salt on the shredded cabbage to pull water out of the cabbage, generally three tablespoons of salt for about five pounds of cabbage.  I had 8 lbs of cabbage so I put about four tablespoons, gave it a good mix, and decided to shake on a little more.

I don’t use exact measurements here. It should taste pretty salty, but not so salty that you want to spit it out.

3. Make sure the salt is evenly distributed by taking a few minutes to mix and squeeze the cabbage. The cabbage should start to ‘sweat’ and become limp.

After letting it sit for about an hour, pushing down on the mixture should yield quite a bit of juice. If not, let it sit for several more hours.

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4. At this point you’re ready to put it in the crock or whatever you’re using for a fermentation vessel.  Pack it in using your fists every time you put a portion in, so that water is continually forced out of the cabbage.

5. Cover the shredded and packed cabbage with the large cabbage leaves set aside. I used only two here because of the size of my crock. On top of the leaves put the weights.

Then push the weights down hard so that the brine comes up over the weights.

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The leaves act as a barrier under the weights so that cabbage shreds don’t rise up from around the weights to meet the surface of the water where they’ll have contact with air. The cabbage must stay completely submerged because lacto-fermentation—harnessing lactic acid bacteria—is an anaerobic process. 

If the cabbage brine doesn’t come above the weights, and it should by at least an inch, you’ll need to make your own. For every quart of water, add 1.5 tablespoon salt. If you have good water quality you can mix the salt into tap water and pour the brine in. If you don’t want to risk it, boil the salt water and then cool it before adding it in.

Make sure your weight is heavy enough to keep constant pressure over the developing kraut. Pressure is key to good kraut. If the weight is too light and there is too much space between the cabbage shreds, the kraut will not turn out well. Pack it as tightly as you can and then place a lid over the top.

My crock has a lid that creates a water seal, though I’m not sure how crucial the seal is because the important thing is that cabbage remains submerged under water, unable to make contact with the air.

I leave the crock fermenting in a corner of my kitchen, on the counter. The longer you let it go, the more sour it will be. I like to let it ferment at least two weeks. The end result should be crunchy and tangy.

Sometimes mold appears on the surface of the water. That’s okay, just skim it off. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. I’ve done this many times, and I’ve never gotten sick.

 

Last words:

You’ll get mushy kraut if you:

1) Don’t put enough weight to keep substantial pressure on the cabbage.

2) Don’t evenly mix the cabbage with salt.

3) Try to shove cabbage into the vessel without letting it sweat out enough of its water content. It will be too difficult to pack tightly. Air pockets will hinder proper fermentation and there probably won’t be enough brine.

I hope you enjoy this and if there are any questions send me a message. P.S. mushy kraut is still edible and healthy, it’s just not satisfying in the way crunchy kraut is.

 

Update 1/4/2016: Some people have written in stating that the water seal is very important and this is a great comment: “The water seal on the fermenter is important. The lactic acid bacteria in the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide pushes out the initial oxygen rich air in the head space of the fermenter. The removal of the oxygen prevents the formation of mold within the fermenter.”

The reason I wrote that the water seal might not be so crucial is because I don’t expect everyone has the money to invest in an expensive fermentation crock. Although, it does eventually pay for itself if you use it frequently to replace buying kraut at the store.

And there are people who successfully make kraut without a water seal. Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, is one of them: “I generally use a plate that just fits inside the vessel, weighted down by a full jug of water, and I drape a cloth over the top of the vessel to protect against flies. I call this the “open-crock” method.”

What is absolutely crucial is that the cabbage stays well submerged under brine.

Though the seal is important for preventing mold formation, it doesn’t always stop it from happening. The few times it did happen to me was probably due to contamination on my part, but nevertheless the seal didn’t stop it from happening. And, again the mold was not an issue, I just skimmed it off and the kraut was absolutely fine.

 

 

Ashley Rekem

About Ashley Rekem

I am a California transplant who now calls Maine home. I have a degree in Biology and enjoy researching and communicating how the body works.