Crisp, tangy homemade sauerkraut beats anything you’ll find in a can and is more economical than store bought varieties. Best of all, it’s fairly easy to get in touch with your inner German to turn out a batch in time for Oktoberfest celebrations this year. The goal of kraut making is the successful fermentation of cabbage in brine. That’s it!
Begin by choosing a container that is nonreactive, meaning nonmetal. Glass, ceramic and food-grade plastic are acceptable. I first used a 5-gallon plastic bucket that previously had contained vegetable oil, but a friend has since dug up an old ceramic crock for the purpose. Lest you get the wrong idea: I make about seven pounds at a time, but you don’t have to! A canning jar is fine for the job.
Cleanliness is also important and applies to hands, containers and ingredients. I rinse the crock with very warm water, then pour boiling water in and cap it for a few minutes. With canning jars, the boiling bath method is fine. Clean the cabbage by pulling off grungy-looking outer leaves and giving it a good rub and rinse under cool water. The salt must also be “clean,” meaning a kosher or pickling salt instead of table salt, which contains unwanted additives. I like a kosher sea salt with red crystals in it that show me when the salt is well distributed in the cabbage.
Use green or red cabbage, the whole vegetable or just the leaves; but do cut it into very thin shreds that the brine can easily penetrate, no wider than 1/4 inch thick from any angle. Toss shreds in a glass or plastic bowl with salt at a rate of 1-2 teaspoons of salt per pound of shredded cabbage (or about three tablespoons per five-pound batch) and pack it tightly into your container.
Salted cabbage produces its own brine, but sometimes not enough. In that case, add your clean salt to distilled water at the rate of two teaspoons per quart. Boil and stir until the salt is dissolved, then cool it and add enough to finish covering the cabbage mixture.
Only cabbage that is completely submerged in brine will become kraut. Floating cabbage will grow mold. Try adding weight to the top: a ceramic plate, roasting bag filled with brine or another nonmetal ballast. Frankly, I’ve never had 100% success with submersion, yet once I begin to scoop off and discard the spoiled spots on the surface my nose instantly tells me about the fresh, healthy kraut underneath. Chances are you will experience the same, but if your submerged kraut does not smell wholly wonderful to you, throw it all away.
Cover the container to discourage airborne bacteria from diving in, but cap loosely. Do not try to create an airtight seal because some air exchange is necessary to allow gases created during fermentation to escape without mishap. Still, a little brine may bubble over at some point so take precautions such as putting an old pan under the container.
Fermentation takes 2-3 weeks depending on ambient temperature. I keep new kraut in the kitchen for 5-7 days to make sure the party’s started but then transfer it to the cooler basement for another couple weeks. You do not have to cook the kraut before eating unless you can it, so feel free to fling a big spoonful onto your favorite wiener right out of the crock. It stores in the fridge up to two weeks and freezes well, too — just remember the no-metal rule when selecting storage containers.
For Oktoberfest applications, assemble a sauerkraut salad or try a sauté with sweet onions and tart apples as an accompaniment to potatoes, sausages or roast pork. Then, raise a glass of good beer or cider and make ein prosit to your new achievement!