I'm Russian, and so have a deep appreciation for all things canned, pickled and otherwise preserved. Every year we make tons of preserves for the winter ahead. The following is my grandfather's (and his mother's before that) recipe for making sauerkraut. I note wherever applicable all possible modifications. Hope you give it a shot and enjoy it!
Here is what you'll need to get started:
- Knife and cutting board
- Large mixing bowl
- A container to ferment cabbage in, such as a large pot or a bucket (we use a 5 gallon bucket from local cafeteria that they buy boiled eggs in). If you want to use a glass jar, make sure it is one that you can fit your entire hand into and also the weight mentioned below. Wide mouthed containers are best.
- Some sort of lid for above container (our bucket comes with a lid, very convenient! but so does a pot)
- a plate a little smaller in diameter than your container
- something really heavy to 'press' the cabbage. Grandpa uses a rock, we use the weights from Husband's dumbbells inside multiple plastic bags
- Jars for storage
For each head of cabbage you'll need:
~2 carrots (optional but I really prefer carrots in my sauerkraut)
~1 tablespoon pickling salt (any salt without iodine will do)
caraway seeds (optional, I don't use them but some people like the flavor)
I would suggest picking cabbages that are as 'white' as possible, avoid greener looking ones. We've used purple cabbage in the past, and personally I didn't like it as much, but it does have a nice color!
I would do at least three heads of cabbage to start with. If you like how your kraut turned out, you can always make more.
Preparing the cabbage:
- Peel the first few leaves of the cabbage and wash it.
- Cut the cabbage. This can be done almost any way. Some people like really thin short strips of cabbage, others like larger chunks, or longer strips of cabbage. The flavor is not affected, but larger pieces will be more crunchy. Do not include the core in your cut cabbage mix (however, my grandpa likes to stick a core or two into the final pot with the cabbage and let it sit there and ferment). Cut all three cabbages and place them in your mixing bowl. (If you are doing a bigger batch like 6-12 cabbages, I would still only do about 3 cabbages at a time, it makes the mixing more manageable).
- Grate the carrots on a large grater. If doing 3 cabbages, you'll need about 6 carrots. Carrots add a touch of color and also a touch of sweetness to your kraut. If you don't like carrots in your kraut however, it is not necessary. Place grated carrots in mixing bowl with the cabbage.
- Add the salt. (Make sure it does not contain iodine!!!) This is possibly the trickiest part. The salt will draw out the juices from the veggies but it will also prevent the sauerkraut from spoiling while it's fermenting. In essence it will create an environment conducive to fermentation of your kraut by non-harmful bacteria. On the other hand, you don't want to over salt your cabbage as it will make kraut that's too salty. I've found that the ratio of 1 tablespoon of salt to 1 head cabbage is about right. HOWEVER, not all cabbage heads are created equal! If yours are rather small, then a tablespoon of salt will be too much! What I would recommend, is that you mix in about 2.5 tablespoons of salt first for your 3 cabbages and then if it's not too salty, add the remaining 0.5 tablespoons.
- Add caraway if using. I don't use caraway so I am not sure what a good amount would be. Try sprinkling it on till you like the looks of it, probably about 1 tablespoon per cabbage.
- Mix the cabbage and carrots with your hands, scrunching it a bit as you go. If you don't scrunch the cabbage, it will be a bit firmer and cruncher later, but the scrunching gets the juices flowing. If you scrunch too much and turn the cabbage to mush, the kraut will be non-crunchy/soft/limp. It will still taste good but be sort of flaccid. So I just scrunch a bit as I go. I do not see too many juices at this stage yet so don't scrunch till it's actually 'bleeding'.
- Taste the mixture, the saltiness should be pleasant but obvious. Add more salt if you feel it's necessary, add more cabbage if it's too salty. My ratio of 1 cabbage to 1 tablespoon should guarantee a good taste.
- Transfer the mixture into your fermentation container. If doing more than a 3 cabbage batch, repeat above steps for the rest of the cabbages and give everything a good mix once all the batches are in the fermentation container.
Note: some people add whey to the mixture. Whey contains live lactobacilli and shortens the time it takes to start fermenting. I do not use whey, but if I understand correctly, the appropriate amount is 4 tablespoons per cabbage.
Preparing for fermentation:
- By now you have placed the mixed salted cabbage into your fermentation container. The container should have a lid but it does not need to be air tight. Fermentation will produce gases that will need to escape. The fermentation itself is anaerobic (without oxygen) but the juices will keep the reaction submerged and away from air so don't worry about the air entering the pot.
- Press the mix down with your fists. You should notices some juices starting to form. Take your plate and place it upside down over the cabbage and push down. The plate should be smaller than the container's diameter, with about an inch around the edges. It will keep the cabbage down but allow juices and gases to escape from around it's edges. If doing this in a jar, you may use a small piece of tile or wood for the same purpose.
- Leave your container/kraut at room temperature to ferment. Cool fall temperatures are particularly conducive to fermentation. Hot summer days may raise the temperature too high and let your cabbage spoil. Cold temperatures will slow down the fermentation process. A temperatures in the high 60s low 70s is perfect.
- The cabbage will now begin to ferment. The salt will keep bad bacteria from growing/spoiling your cabbage in the first few days. Then the lactobacilli bacteria will have produced enough lactic acid to keep the cabbage from spoiling for the rest of the year. These bacteria are probiotic, very good for your digestive system, and the product is delicious to boot!
- Fermentation will produce gases and your kraut will start to bubble and foam. Once, or better yet twice a day, open up your container's lid and push down on the weight to release the gases. Husband takes out the weight and the plate, pokes the mix with a long knife, then places the plate down, pushes on it really firmly to let the gases out, then replaces the weight. You may also poke around the edges of the plate and not pick it up. You may see a white/milky tint to the juice. This is the lactobacilli and totally normal and good.
- The cabbage is to be kept in this way, poked several times a day, until all the bubbling has stopped. This may take anywhere from three days to a week. You will notice a smell of kraut, which sometimes smells perhaps a bit like fart. The cabbage should NOT smell putrid though. Granted we all have different definitions of putrid, but it will not smell sour, it will smell rotten if something goes wrong. Really, unmistakeably rotten. I've never had kraut NOT work out but I've smelled the kraut-gone-bad of others and it is definitely nasty. You'll know.
- At the end of this fermentation period (3-7 days) the kraut is done. At this point we transfer the kraut into glass jars, pressing it down (but there is no need to beat it up or compress it unreasonably), add some of the juice on top and close the lid. The process is NOT sterile and should not be. The lactic acid will keep the kraut from spoiling. After this we store our kraut in the fridge. If you have a cellar, it's even better. You want a dark cool place for ultimate kraut storage. You may eat the kraut right away, but it will only get better/more sour with time.