How to make amazing sauerkraut at home

Sauerkraut is shredded and fermented cabbage. It is incredibly simple to make, and provides an amazingly versatile product that is usable as a topping, a side, a flavor enhancer, and many other culinary roles. I love in raw on top of a hot dog or bratwurst — or just as a snack, like pickles. I love to braise sausage or other meats with kraut and onions. I love sauerkraut in a hearty soup (If you’re a West Michigan native, you have probably tried the amazing Reuben Soup at Russ’ Restaurants — yup, it has sauerkraut in it!). Speaking of reuben sandwiches, you can’t make a great one without great sauerkraut.

Do you think you’ve tried sauerkraut before and didn’t like it? Well, all I can say is that the homemade version is a totally different beast than the store bought stuff. Homemade kraut is like a really great homemade pickle — it just doesn’t have a store-bought equivalent, and I really urge you to give this a try. You’ll be surprised — shocked I tell you.

kraut cutterI learned the simple procedure from my dad’s parents (German lineage) who used to make 10 or 15 gallons worth in one big day-long event. Grandpa would use a “kraut cutter” — which was effectively a mandolin type slicing tool with a moving carriage that you would move back and forth over the stationary blade. I’ve still got the kraut cutter, but my cuisinart food processor makes for a lot less labor. I also have an amazing assortment of old crocks (some here on the farm and many more of which are in a collection on display of our family’s collection at Bowens Mills in Yankee Springs), but I find the 5 gallon food grade buckets much more easy to manage (both in terms of weight and worries about breaking those big crocks).

Give this procedure a try…

Get a 5 gallon bucket. Food grade, BPA Free. You can find these for a few bucks at most Tractor Supply Companies and other farm or hardware stores. If it is food grade, it says so on the container. If it is a color other than white, and unmarked, assume that it is NOT food grade (which can leach toxins into your food — bad stuff).

Clean the bucket. If you have some beer making supplies handy, use StarSan or some other acid sanitizer to sanitize the bucket. If you don’t have StarSan (and you can’t buy it at your local brew supply shop), then consider carefully pouring boiling water around the entire interior of the bucket. Sanitizing your fermenting vessel is an essential part of assuring that you end up with a delicious product and not a spoiled one.

Get cabbage. Around 35-38 pounds of cabbage is the amount you’ll need to make a 5 gallon batch. Peel any nasty leaves from the outside and get down to the shiny clean stuff. Cut each cabbage into quarters and then remove the core material by simply slicing it out from the bottom of quarter. You may need to reduce the pieces further to fit them into your mandolin or food processor chute.

Get salt. You want non-iodized salt. I prefer a finer (table) grind of salt, as it disperses faster in the cabbage. Most recently I’ve been purchasing Morton natural sea salt, as it is the same grind as their regular table salt. In the past I’ve used other salts (kosher, canning, etc.) and they all work the same. Some just take longer to act on the cabbage.

Get a kitchen scale. You need to weigh the cabbage after slicing to assure that you don’t over/under apply the salt. This is important. Don’t just “eyeball” it or else you’ll end up with really salty or really spoiled kraut.

Get cheesecloth, a plate, and a weight. Fine cheesecloth works better than the thick weave stuff. You’ll want a food safe plate (like a dinner plate) that fits inside the bucket and covers the interior space as best as possible. You’ll want a one gallon weight. Large pickle jars, gallon wine jugs, or a milk jug works great. You’ll want to clean and sterilize the plate and weight. Fill the weight with room temperature water. To sterilize the cheesecloth, cut it to fit the size of the bucket (with some overlap to spare), and then boil it in a saucepan of water for several minutes. Allow to cool before handling.

cuisinartGet started. Using your mandolin slicer or food processor, you’ll want to slice the cabbage into thick shards. I use the thickest (4mm) blade on my Cuisinart food processor. You can make the kraut thinner, but you’ll lose crunch in the finished product — and crunch is a big part of the mouth feel of good kraut in my opinion.

Weigh, salt, pack. You will be applying 3 Tablespoons of salt to 5 pounds of shredded cabbage. If you have a large enough bowl, tare your kitchen scale to the weight of the empty bowl and fill it with 5 pounds of shredded cabbage. Sprinkle the 3 Tbs of salt on the cabbage and mix it thoroughly with your hands (you may want gloves if the salt bothers your skin). Spread a layer of salted cabbage in the bottom of the bucket and pack it down firmly with your hands or a (clean and sterilized) tool (such as a potato masher). Continue this process until your cabbage is gone and your bucket is nearly full. Packing is important. Once the bucket is about 1/2 full you should be able to apply pressure such that water starts appearing. By the time you’re at the top, you’ll want to be packing hard, and you’ll begin to see a significant amount of cabbage water form. If water is slow to form, go grab a frosty beverage and check back on it in 15-20 minutes (sometimes the salt takes a while to draw out the water).

ImageFinish. When the cabbage is all shredded and packed (or when the packed bucket is 80% full — leave a few inches!) you’ll want to get your cheesecloth and gently place it over the top of the bucket. Use a flat (sanitized) paddle or wooden spoon to poke the edges of the cloth down evenly all the way around the bucket. This will create a layer of cloth — a “tent” — that keeps the cabbage underwater. If you get the cloth completely “tucked” and there are still bits of cabbage floating on top, skim all of them off. Place the plate on top of the cheesecloth and push the plate down until it is completely underwater. Place the weight on top of the plate. Leave in an out of the way corner (preferably a temperature stable and relatively dark place).

Fermentation. The cabbage will ferment. This takes anywhere from one week to several. When it stops making bubbles, it is done. Simple as that. Skim any scum that forms. Mold blooms may appear on the surface, and they are not a problem. Just skim.

Enjoy! When it is done, you can scoop it out and store it raw in smaller containers in a fridge (great as a topping), or you can follow standard water bath canning measures to preserve it at peak freshness. Enjoy! You’ll never buy the store bought stuff again.

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