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Sauerkraut Straight Up

This cabbage is a beauty underneath
A couple of weeks ago, Terri brought me two heads of cabbage out of her in-law's garden, and I knew it was time. Time to kraut.

What, you don't kraut? Oh, honey, we gotta' get you krauting! Why? Well, first let's say that you, like me, happen to love sauerkraut. It's tangy and sour and gives this fresh zingy brightness to all that it touches. Kraut on dogs, on brats, on Reuben sandwiches (the mention of which tends to make me swoon). Kraut with your mashed potatoes. Kraut on the side of anything, straight up and unadulterated. Hell, I've even heard of people putting kraut on pizza (vegan or otherwise)! Or, let's say you're not sure about this whole sauerkraut thing, having only tried it when you were eight years old and your grandma made you. You hated it then and haven't bothered to try it since, but you happen to be vegan now, or one of the lucky people recently diagnosed with a serious dairy allergy (ahem, I know no one like this, of course) and you have heard that you can get the same kind of digestive health benefits from eating lacto-fermented vegetables (such as the aforementioned sauerkraut) as you would from yogurt or kefir, and you'd like to give it another chance. If either of these sound like you, even a little, and if you have a touch of DIY spirit, then I propose you grab a couple of cabbages (green, purple, whateva') and come with me. We've got some krauting to do!

I started my sauerkraut a week ago, but I'll walk you through the steps to get it started. Making your own sauerkraut is so easy that, if you've ever been intimidated by the thought, you're about to start kicking yourself. Anyone can do this. (I'm doing this, so it's gotta' be true). Let's start with your ingredient/supply list.

You will need:

5 lbs. cabbage, shredded (approx. 2 heads, give or take)
3 Tbs. coarse salt (Kosher or coarse ground sea salt are the top preferences)
A large glass or ceramic bowl/crock/vessel big enough to hold 5 lbs. cabbage*
Something to weight the cabbage down (gallon jug of water, large heavy duty plastic bag of water, etc.)

Keep in mind, if you decide to go with purple cabbage, you will end up with hot pink kraut. Some people love this. I'm not quite so into hot pink, but I hear it all tastes the same, so if that's your bag, I'm not gonna' stop you.

Another thing to mention, right at the start, is that, aside from the initial slicing of the cabbage, once you start your sauerkraut you want to keep metal out of the entire process.  At least, that's what the "experts" seem to say, and I'm not expert enough to argue with them.  Even if you're just fishing out a bite to taste, use plastic or wood so you don't mess it up.  I have found that chop sticks work quite well for kraut tasting.  

First things first, you've got to shred your cabbage. Some people say it's so much faster if you use a food processor. I say these are lies, all lies. The first time I made kraut, I tried using my food processor. By the time I lugged the damned thing out of the cabinet and got it set up, halved the cabbage, cored the cabbage, and cut the cabbage into small enough wedges to fit into the little food processor's feeder shoot (whatever you call that thing you feed your victims... I mean veggies... into), I could've been done shredding my cabbage with my bare hands. In fact, the food processor was such a pain in the arse that I ended up slicing the rest of my cabbage with a knife halfway through the process, anyway. So, do it however you wish, but I'm sticking with my knife and cutting board.

The thing about slicing cabbage into shreds is that half the work is already done for you. The stuff practically shreds itself as you slice. The hardest part is slicing the head in half and coring it. 

To execute this initial step, place the head on a cutting board, grab a big, long, sharp knife, and start slicing through the center. It helps if you do this with the core down, so you've got some momentum by the time you hit the hard part. Once you get the head split in half, start cutting out the core. I do this by cutting at an angle on either side of the core, in a V shape. See?

Coring Cabbage

Once you've got it cored, the rest is easy. Just cut the halves into manageable sizes (quarters are usually fine) and start slicing, as thin as you like. Then, place all of this in your big bowl. It's okay if you have to mound it up on top and you're thinking there's no way this will all fit. Once you get it salted, it will wilt and fit just fine. You can see how mine looks here. 

5 lbs cabbage in a punch bowl
Next, you mix your salt in with your cabbage. Go ahead and stare at your overflowing bowl o' cabbage again. Yes. You're going to need another bowl. It's just too much stuff to mix in one bowl without spilling it everywhere (unless the vessel you're using is super massive, in which case please tell me where you found such a monstrosity). I grabbed the ceramic crock from my crock pot and put half my cabbage in that. Then I sprinkled half the salt over each container of cabbage and went to work with my clean, washed hands, turning and mixing in the salt, so it was distributed fairly evenly throughout. Once you've got all your salt mixed into all your cabbage, go wash the clinging bits off your hands and wait about twenty minutes (give or take) for the salt to do it's thing. Go read a book or something (Terri would undoubtedly suggest Game of Thrones [Hell, yeah! ~territo keep you company, whereas I'm currently enthralled with The Passage or a great little gardening book I found called Eat More Dirt).

When you come back to your salted cabbage, it should be somewhat wilted and, if it was a nice fresh cabbage, should have started to make a generous amount of juice. If there isn't much liquid yet, do this next step anyway, and I'll help with that in a minute.

What you want to do is press all the cabbage down to where the liquid covers the top and none of the cabbage is poking out of the liquid. You do NOT want your cabbage (kraut) being exposed to the air (for long). The salty liquid (brine) is your kraut's protection. You see, the salt inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, while allowing the beneficial bacteria (namely lactobacillus) to invade and conquer. So, in order to accomplish this balance, you must have enough liquid, and you must have a way to weight the cabbage down so it is completely submerged in said liquid. Lots of people will tell you to use a plate to weight down your cabbage.  If a plate will fit into your vessel, by all means start pressing the cabbage down with the plate, adding the rest of the cabbage back into your big bowl and pressing until it all fits in one container. If the plate thing isn't working for you, you'll have to find another setup. Here was my compromise:


Sauerkraut under weight - top view

Sauerkraut under weight - side view




























What you're looking at is a large, gallon size plastic bag (I went with a freezer bag because I was paranoid about trusting a regular bag not to break), full of water, sitting on top of my kraut, which is covered by plastic wrap (not sealed tight, just enough to keep the cabbage from floating up) and a plate.   The plate is to help compress this all in the first couple of days, but as my kraut gets lower in the bowl, the plate will go (because it won't fit all the way down in there) and it'll be just the plastic wrap and gallon bag of water.  To go entirely plateless, you can get a large, heavy duty food grade plastic bag filled with water, and just set it right into your vessel so it fits the form of whatever it's sitting in.  I imagine something you'd have to knot at the top, but which isn't so specifically square like my Ziploc bag.  There are ways.  I trust you'll come up with something.

Now, let's address the possibility that your cabbage hasn't made enough liquid to cover it yet.  This is what happened to me. But I vaguely remembered that it can take up to a day to accomplish this, especially if your cabbage has been chilling in the fridge for awhile before you made your kraut, since cabbage tends to lose moisture during storage. I also remembered that if it still hasn't made its own liquid after a day, you can add some brine and call it good. Which is what I ended up doing. But first, I made a horrible mistake.

Sauerkraut exposed to air too long

Do you see the black spots on my cabbage? Yeah... see, this is what happens if you get busy and forget to check on your juice-less cabbage. This is also what happens when you have to reinvent the wheel every time you do something, like I typically do.  My poor naked cabbage, with its pathetically inadequate amount of juice, sat under its weight (but otherwise exposed) for three days.

Luckily, kraut has a forgiving soul. I simply pulled off the first inch or so and tossed the bad stuff. Underneath, all was still well. I made my fervent apologies to the surviving kraut and went to work making some brine to cover it up properly. 

If your kraut doesn't produce enough of its own juice to cover by THE VERY NEXT DAY (don't do what I did and assume it's taking care of itself), heat up 4 cups of water to warm-enough-to-melt-coarse-salt-in in the microwave, then stir in 3 ½ Tbs. salt until melted. This is your brine. If it's warm enough to cook cabbage, please don't pour it over your kraut yet. Wait until it's cooled off. We do NOT cook our kraut.

At this point in my process, I had another mishap.  I remembered reading somewhere that you should press a towel into your kraut, you know, to keep it from floating over the top  (which sounded more rustic, and perchance more practical, than my plastic wrap). This was stupid. The towel, after a couple of days, absorbed all my brine and wicked it into the air to evaporate. Don't do this. Now, I've added more brine and gone back to my original setup of plastic wrap (you could probably use cheesecloth, if you wanted) to keep the kraut from floating to the top of the brine, and the gallon bag o' water to weight it all down and keep it submerged. If you're using a plate, you still need to weight it down. You can use the bag of water or a gallon jug full of water or anything else heavy enough to keep the kraut compressed and submerged. Then I place a clean dish towel over the top of the whole thing (not touching the brine) just to keep gnats and dust and such out. We don't want dusty, gnatty kraut. Ew... [*shudder!*  I hate bugs! ~ terri]

If you lose brine over time, I'm sure you've learned by now you can always add more. Just be sure to check it daily.

Also, if you start to see mold growing on top of the brine, just scrape it off and toss it. It won't hurt you or the kraut. Keep going.

There is no exact deadline for when your kraut is done. It's all a matter of taste. You can start tasting it after about three days, but don't expect much. I'm at a week at the time of this writing, and I don't think it's ready yet. The longer it sits, the more the flavor develops. At the moment, it's definitely sour, but it's got a little too much cabbage bitter, which I hope will mellow as the sour heightens. I think it might take another week. But it might take longer than that. Some people let their kraut ferment for a month or two. I haven't yet had the patience for that, and I don't know what it tastes like after such a long process, but you can feel free to do it however you want.

When you think the kraut is finished, put it in tightly lidded jars with brine covering the top inch-ish of each, and store in the refrigerator for several months. I know you can also can or freeze it, but it keeps so long in the fridge that I've never seen a reason to preserve it any other way.

I'll check back in when my kraut is "done" and I decide to jar it up.  If all goes well, some of this delicious digestive tonic will be going to this redhead I know who could use a little kraut in her life. [so then I can blog about making some sort of vegan, gluten free Reubens! ~ terri[Dude, if you figure out VGF Reubens, you gotta' let me in on the taste-testing.  I'm just sayin'. ~ angela]

Cheers!

~ Angela

* A note on finding the perfect setup for fermenting your kraut. You will often be told to use a large bowl and a plate that will fit just inside the bowl. I have found that this is almost an impossible combination. In my searches, nearly all the big bowls I found (large salad bowls, punch bowls, the crock from my crock pot) are either too small for an average plate, or too wide. Also, if a plate "fits perfectly" at first, as the kraut loses mass and the plate has to sit further and further down, this prefect fit is quickly lost.  It's maddening. But don't make yourself crazy over it.  It doesn't HAVE to be a plate.  It can be another bowl that will sit inside (like nesting bowls), a lid from something, or a food-grade plastic bag.  I use a glass punch bowl I found at Goodwill and various combinations of plastic bag full of water, plate, and whatever else I can find.  Just keep the kraut compressed and covered in brine and it will do it's work.   

Devouring the Seasons  – (July 6, 2011 at 1:55 PM)  

I may have hacked your post and inserted a few comments...

~terri

What's Cookin Stacey??  – (July 6, 2011 at 9:33 PM)  

I love making kraut every year! We eat it with bean balls!

Devouring the Seasons  – (July 7, 2011 at 9:20 AM)  

Terri - commented back. ;)

Stacey - Bean balls? What are those? (she says in wonderment) Do you have a recipe on your blog you can post the link to? Share! :)

Garden Variety Mama  – (July 8, 2011 at 6:22 PM)  

I have to admit that, as of yet, I do not kraut. I love the stuff, but have yet to make it. But after reading this? I think I will.....

Sarah Franz-Wichlacz  – (July 8, 2011 at 10:45 PM)  

YAY!!!! i love kraut so much!!!! cant wait to start another batch!

Devouring the Seasons  – (July 12, 2011 at 9:30 AM)  

GV Mama - BWAhahahaha!!! My devious plan is working! Sauerkraut will take over kitchens EVERYWHERE! :D

Sarah - I know, me, too! I officially jarred up my batch last night. That's just over 2 weeks for mine. You'll have to let me know how long yours krauts and we can compare notes. :)

CallieK  – (July 15, 2011 at 9:46 AM)  

I don't kraut but I do kimchi- I like my cabbage spicy!

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