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How to make homemade sauerkraut — you'll never buy store-bought again

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut

Everyone should be making their own homemade sauerkraut. Not only do you get all the benefits of those fermentation-induced probiotics, but you ditch all the preservatives from canned and jarred versions.

It also turns out it's ridiculously simple to make. You'd think I'd already know that. My grandfather was stationed in Germany back in the day… my dad even lived there for a while. I was introduced to sauerkraut when I was a kid. I have this vague memory of my grandmother thinking it was hilarious I thought you could only get sauerkraut in a jar at the store. Guess I should have asked her how to make it.

It starts the same way any pickled or fermented recipe starts: by sterilizing the jars. The way I do it, there are two different sizes of jars to sterilize — the sauerkraut jar itself and the smaller jar used to weigh down the contents of the larger jar. Before beginning, make sure the smaller jar fits into the larger jar, but both should be sterilized.

Then you can start making your sauerkraut.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

When your jars are sterilized, pull all the wilty outer leaves off the cabbage, and cut the cabbage in half.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

Then use your knife to cut the core out of the halves by making triangular cuts around the stem.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

To make it easier to shred the cabbage, I like to cut the halves in half after that. This should keep them manageable when you're cutting them, which is important since you need uniform shreds.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

Use a mandoline to create uniform shreds. A food processor does shred, but it also generates a lot of varying sizes, which means the cabbage will ferment at different rates. That could result in uneven flavor throughout your sauerkraut. But a food processor's shredding attachment is better than hand slicing.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

You can use many different types of salt, but not table salt. Pickling salt and sea salt are best, but kosher salt works too. Kosher salt is what most people will have on hand, but know that it may take longer to ferment with kosher salt. The wait is worth it, so if that's what you have, don't buy something you won't otherwise use.

Part of the point of this step is to pull the water out of the cabbage, but it also adds flavor. When you add the salt, be prepared — the cabbage starts to emit water really quickly. That's a good thing, but don't be surprised by how fast it happens.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

You don't need additional spices, though I do like caraway seeds. Dill seeds are also good. If you want to add those, now is the time. It's plenty wet from the water seeping from the cabbage, and it will mix thoroughly.

A seriously simple step-by-step guide to homemade sauerkraut
Image: Heather Barnett/SheKnows

To ferment, you have to keep what's being fermented from exposure to air. That's why they used to bury fermenting goods. Pack the cabbage mix down really well into a couple of quart-size Mason jars. Get it good and packed, and don't fill it too full. You'll need to leave room for the weight.

I sterilized a smaller Mason jar (one that would fit into my main jar) and filled it with (clean) aquarium rocks. You can also use marbles. Heck, some people apparently use boiled rocks. You just need to weigh down the cabbage so it stays underneath the brine you created. Any cabbage floating on the top might get scum or mold on top. Both are removable when skimmed off the top, but if they sit too long, they can ruin your batch. Best not to risk it by not letting it happen.

I like to use a piece of clean fabric or cheesecloth instead of the metal disk when I seal it, as that lets gas escape — which reduces bubbling over — without letting dust in. The Mason jar ring will hold it in place. But if you can't do that, you can put a sheet pan under it to catch any fluids that bubble over while it's fermenting.

Homemade sauerkraut recipe

Yields about 1-1/2 quarts

Prep time: 30 minutes | Total time: 3-7 days

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium head green cabbage (about 2-1/2 pounds shredded)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons pickling salt or other unrefined salt (may use kosher salt)
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Directions:

  1. Remove the loose, outer leaves from the cabbage head. Divide the cabbage through the middle with a sharp knife, using a slow, forceful rocking motion to cut the cabbage if you're having difficulty. Remove the thick cabbage cores, and divide each half in 2 for 4 equal quartered wedges. Shred the cabbage into thin, uniform ribbons using a knife, mandoline or food processor. Discard any chunks or uneven pieces.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix the salt with the cabbage using a salt ratio of roughly 1 tablespoon of unrefined salt per 2 pounds of cabbage. Massage the mixture with your hands to break down the cell walls of the cabbage until it starts to take on a more wilted, coleslaw-like texture and liquid begins to form (5 to 10 minutes). Add in the caraway seeds, and mix thoroughly.
  3. Scoop the sauerkraut mix and any liquid from the mixing bowl into sterilized Mason jars, packing down the cabbage mixture as much as possible using a pestle or wooden spoon, being sure to not overfill — leave plenty of room for an active, bubbly fermentation process and a small weight to keep the cabbage submerged. For the weight, a smaller Mason jar or jelly jar filled with clean stones or marbles works well, but the weight can really be as simple as a boiled stone. Place the weight into the Mason jar, ensuring all the cabbage is submerged.
  4. Cover the jar with a piece of cloth, and secure it with the metal band (no vacuum-seal lid).
  5. Store the sauerkraut in a cool area (from 65-75 degrees F) that is out of direct sunlight for 3 to 10 days. For the first 24 hours, gently press the weight down on the sauerkraut to encourage the water to rise. If the water hasn't covered the cabbage after 24 hours, make a brine by dissolving 1 teaspoon of salt in a cup of water, and add enough water to the jar to completely submerge the cabbage. Check the sauerkraut every day to make sure none of the cabbage is floating above the water. If it is, gently tamp it down. After a day or so, fermentation should begin, and the mixture should begin to bubble. Start tasting after 3 to 4 days until you're happy with the flavor, but the longer you wait, the more flavorful your sauerkraut will be. When you're happy with the taste, remove the cloth, seal the jar using the flat vacuum-seal lid (instead of the cloth), and refrigerate. The sauerkraut should be good for about 2 months.

Important: You'll most likely see foam or white scum form on top as well, but don't be alarmed — it's all part of the process. If you see mold, however, skim it off, and verify that your cabbage is fully submerged — your sauerkraut should still be fine. While fermented foods are usually safe, use your best judgment when consuming them, the same as you would for any food. If the food looks suspicious or smells like it has spoiled, don't take any chances — throw it out.

More ways to make it homemade

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How to make homemade soda — it's easier than you think
Easy homemade soft serve takes these ice cream sandwiches to another level

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