Ruby sauerkraut with juniper berries

I love the more common sauerkraut made with green cabbage but for a burst of color and flavor I thought it would be fun to make ruby sauerkraut.

Last time I made sauerkraut I used a traditional Polish fermentation crock with a water seal; this time I used a large glass jar with a towel cover, the open crock method, to compare the two processes. If you read the last post I linked to, you’ll see there was some debate over the importance of the water seal.

One reader wrote to me and recommended a book called “Fermented Vegetables” by Kristen K. and Christopher Shockey. It’s one of the best fermentation books I’ve opened, with tons of recipes, tips, and explanations. I will definitely be trying several recipes out and reporting on them.

The Shockeys point out that just about any vessel works for fermenting, even a food-grade plastic bucket, as long as it’s something non-metal. Metals react with the acid and salt.

They also write that the water seal crocks are for the “serious fermentista,” the “Cadillacs” of fermentation, as they put it, or the “cook who enjoys the beauty of tools.”  Glass jars, they note, are not only cheap, but they’re great because you can see the changes in the kraut over time.

Like Sandor Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” they also provide a description of the open crock method, whereby the cabbage is packed into a vessel, in their case a large glass one, with a glass jar full of water to act as weight. The whole thing is then covered with a towel to prevent debris and bugs from getting inside.

To give the ruby kraut its beautiful color, you will need to use a mix of green cabbage and purple cabbage. I used one head of green cabbage and one head of red cabbage and the total weight was about seven pounds.

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I also decided to add in one tablespoon of caraway seeds and one tablespoon of juniper berries for a traditional flavor combination, though you can omit them and go only with cabbage.

One tablespoon of caraway produced a very strong flavor (at least I thought so, though I’ve seen recipes with more) so next time I will go with a half a tablespoon for a lighter caraway flavor or only juniper berries. The juniper berries add a slight piney flavor to the kraut and I’ll probably be adding them to other sauerkraut batches in the future because I like them so much.

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My food processor has a slicing attachment and I found that I really liked the way the cabbage came out, nice thin strips. I would like to use a fancy mandolin that makes long threads of cabbage, but they are expensive so I have yet to invest in one. Another plus about the food processor is that it makes the job of shredding up all the cabbage speedy.

I sliced up the cores in the food processor as well because I like their flavor in the kraut; they have a spiciness to them. You can discard them if you prefer.

Make sure to set aside about three of the large, loose outer leaves from the cabbages to place on top of the shredded cabbage at the end.

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Toss the shredded cabbage with salt. It’s 3 tablespoons of salt (not iodized salt because the iodine kills bacteria) for five pounds of cabbage as the general recommendation.

I play around with the amount of salt that I use. I just sprinkle it on little by little, tasting as I go. Like I mentioned in the last post, it should be salty, and it needs to be for proper lacto-fermentation, but not so salty that you want to spit it out.

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Squeeze and massage the cabbage, salt, and spices together until the cabbage is limp and sitting in it’s own brine.

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Then pack it all into a vessel of your choice. Pictured below is a one gallon glass jar. The shredded cabbage mixture is packed as tightly as possible, and it’s hard to tell but I placed the large cabbage leaves previously set aside on top of the mixture and tucked the leaves in along the edges of the jar to ensure that cabbage bits didn’t come floating up over them.

I filled a smaller jar with water to use as a weight. The weight keeps pressure on the fermenting cabbage and forces the brine to come up over all of the cabbage, including the covering leaves.

Make sure to use a weight that is heavy enough to prevent the cabbage from floating, otherwise it will lose it’s tight packing and fermentation won’t take place properly. Ideally I would have used an even bigger jar as a weight, one that almost completely filled the rim of the larger one, but I had none on hand.
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I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep pressure on the cabbage and keep it all submerged under the brine. Along with adequate salt, these points are key for good crunchy kraut no matter the type of vessel you use.

Make sure to cover with a towel so that debris doesn’t get in, and place it in a dark place or on a counter away from direct sunlight.

Also, about a day in, the brine level will usually have increased as the cabbage has released more of it’s water content. That’s important because the brine is more subject to evaporation with the open crock method.

You might even want to make a brine to add a few inches of fluid to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Bring water to a boil, add salt, and let cool. You’ll need 1.5 tablespoons of salt per quart of water.

Similarly for the water seal crock, in my experience I have had to put more water in the rim every few days because the seal dries out. Once I noticed it was dried out, wasn’t sure for how long, and I opened the lid to find the layer of brine completely gone. On the cover leaves was a layer of sludge, but luckily the kraut underneath them was absolutely fine.

Fermentation time depends on the ambient temperature. The warmer it is, the faster it will ferment. After two weeks in a 70 degree kitchen, my kraut turned out like this:

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I liked how it tasted and it also had a nice crunch. Choosing the duration of the ferment is a matter of personal preference for the degree of sourness.

Make sure to pack it as tightly as possible into storage jars and then refrigerate.

So, here’s my conclusion: If you’re seriously getting into fermentation, then it’s probably a good idea to purchase a water sealing crock because it does allow for more control in the process and it reduces mold formation and evaporation. Plus you can get a big one and make really large batches of kraut.

But the glass jar, or open crock method works just fine if you don’t want to break the bank and invest in a fancier crock. If mold forms on the surface of the brine, it’s no big deal, just skim it off.

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.