How to Make Kraut and Why It’s Good for You (Almost Like Mayo)

*For those who are wondering how the heck is mayo good for anyone, watch Regular Ordinary Swedish Mealtime videos. You are welcome

Ever since I moved to the States, I’ve missed three foods the most. Those are kefir, sauerkraut and decent pickled herring. Good news is that I just recently learned how to make the first two! The third one will have to wait, since I don’t quite feel comfortable with pickling fish just yet. But if you know me at all, this glorious day should come pretty soon.

Ever since I moved out of my house and said farewell to my garden (sigh), I’ve been looking for a new hobby to pick up. And then it suddenly hit me – fermentation! Not quite canning, not quite cooking, yet it’s the same alchemy as with making cheese. There is something to be said about growing colonies of bacteria and watching them work on preserving your food while it is getting infused with amazing flavor. Well, that came out all wrong…

I decided to start with the foolproof ferment, sauerkraut. My dad would make it all the time. He would fill 3 liter jars with shredded cabbage and carrots, add just a bit of salt and leave it alone for about a week or so.  Soon the cabbage would transform into something delicious and crunchy, a perfect afternoon snack. Don’t get me wrong, I hate cabbage, especially when it is cooked. I had to eat lots of it as a kid, because we were quite poor. Whatever my aunt and mom would grow on my grandma’s acre of land was what we had on the menu all winter. That meant lots of cabbage, potatoes and canned items.

But back to kraut. The stuff that’s sold in the US stores is so highly processed, it can hardly be called sauerkraut any more. It is basically boiled nasty cabbage, just the kind I despise. After doing some research, I discovered that it should not even qualify as kraut because of all that processing. Apparently, real sauerkraut is full of wonderful beneficial bacteria; the same bacteria that is responsible for producing lactic acid which acts as a preservative, is quite helpful for human digestion. In other words, sauerkraut has probiotic qualities, just like yogurt. Also, kraut is chock full of vitamins like C, A, B and K, provides a nice source of fiber and can be a great guilt-free snack for those who like counting calories.

kraut-1
Here is my jar of wonderful kraut. Tasty, very tasty.

And did I mention that homemade unprocessed sauerkraut is simply delicious and completely devoid of that nasty boiled cabbage stink? It is also amazingly cheap! Try it, I dare you. If you don’t like it, the most you lose is a head of cabbage, which is maybe like a buck, three if you prefer organic, and a few carrots (personal preference, they add a nice touch of color). No fancy crocks, no airlocks, no starters, it is super easy.

Did I convince you? Good. Now go and get your supplies. Here is what you will need:

  1. A head of green cabbage (2-3 pounds works great for a quart jar)
  2. 2 medium size carrots (again, skip those if you are not a fan)
  3. 1 tbsp salt
  4. Something to shred the cabbage
  5. A big bowl, the biggest one you’ve got
  6. A quart mason jar with a ring and lid

Wash your cabbage, remove the outer leaves and shred the rest. Don’t be gentle. My generic food processor does a great job, but a knife would work great too. The tinier you shred, the quicker it ferments. Shred or grate your carrots too.

Put all of your shredded veggies in a big bowl and sprinkle 1 tbsp salt on it. Less salt can be used. It is not crucial for preserving the cabbage, rather, it helps draw out the water and that is what starts the fermentation process. However, I would not recommend skipping salt at all, because that would be an invitation for unwanted bacteria. 1 tablespoon is the recommended amount.

Knead the cabbage with salt for a few minutes, just like you would bread. Really squeeze it. Soon it will get softer and wetter, just keep kneading. 5-10 minutes is enough. The cabbage should feel quite soft and watery, you should see some liquid on the bottom of the bowl.

Gently start dropping the cabbage into the jar by a handful. If the jar gets too full, press the cabbage down. Try to avoid air pockets, they will aid in growing bad bacteria, the kind you definitely don’t need.

Once your jar is full, press the cabbage down once again and put something heavy on top. The idea is to keep floating cabbage pieces down as much as possible, so all of it is submerged in the liquid produced by the vegetable. This creates an anaerobic environment where Lactobacillis (yes, the same bacteria as in yogurt) start converting sugars into acid. Where do Lactobacillis come from? I am no expert in bacteriology, but Google says they live on the surface of pretty much all fruits and vegetables. So no, not all bacteria is bad. Go figure huh.

Anyway, to keep your cabbage submerged in brine, just cover it with the bigger outer leaf. I also like to fill a snack-sized ziplock with some water and salt and place it on top to weigh down the floaters. Word of caution: try to avoid chlorinated water, it might damage or kill the Lactobacillis. The salt in it also helps to preserve the saturation of the brine, just in case the bag bursts. I’ve read about people using half an onion for that same purpose. Try it and let me know. Pop a ring and a lid on to keep critters and dust out.

That’s about it… Leave your kraut on the counter to ferment for a week. At some point the brine can turn a bit slimy, sort of like runny egg white. It is perfectly fine. The sliminess is indicating that one type of bacteria is about to be succeeded by another, it usually occurs in the middle of fermentation process. Give it a few days and your kraut will not be slimy any more. You might see some bubbles rising up, that is normal too. In general, nothing should grow on your sauerkraut, unless the brine levels are not sufficient.

Oh yeah, sample it during the process. It’s totally ok. My sauerkraut reached appropriate deliciousness levels after around a week of fermentation. Suddenly it stopped being salty and gained that wonderful tangy fermented flavor I remember from my childhood. Once you are happy with your kraut, put it in the fridge, it should keep forever. If it is not sour enough, keep it on the counter for another week.

I hope I inspired you to shred some cabbage and turn it into kraut. Make it and let me know how it comes out.

In my next post I will talk about kefir and the wonders of this magical drink. Just don’t tell my husband, he is tired of hearing how kefir can pretty much raise the dead. Stick around!

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