Sauerkraut recipes are found in cultural variations around the world. From the curtido of El Salvador to tart German or sweeter Russian sauerkraut, variations of fermented cabbage are both a gourmet treat and a peasant staple.
In the days before refrigeration, it was discovered that many foods could be preserved by natural fermentation, because fermentation organisms are present on plants everywhere. Very clever of nature to provide for us in that way, eh? Because of this, homemade sauerkraut has been used as a staple food for all of recorded history.
Health Benefits of Homemade Sauerkraut
It turns out that those naturally-occurring fermentation microbes are also an essential part of a healthy digestive tract. We now know that these essential bacteria help us:
When plants ferment, the population of good microbes explodes, creating nature’s free “probiotic supplement”, which contains more good microbes than the storebought kind.
As I write this, it’s July and my cabbages are big and ready to harvest. Here are a few of my favorite international sauerkraut recipes that make use of the cabbage harvest.
Though the ingredients vary, the basic Directions for All Sauerkraut Recipes are the same for all, so they are just given one time at the end of the recipe ingredient lists. Don't start making any recipe until you have read the entire directions at the bottom.
With experience I have learned why certain processes or ingredients are recommended in kraut-making. Read through these at the end of the article because understanding the why's will give you more freedom to experiment. I wish I had understood some of these things (that many recipes don't tell you) when I started.
Making curtido takes about a week because it's a two-step process, but it is definitely worth it! Curtido is especially popular in El Salvador and Guatemala, where it is served on top of pupusas. This is my #1 favorite sauerkraut recipe, which Tito and I eat at almost every meal. Some recipes consider it “done” before it even ferments, but these are not nearly as delicious (or healthful!) as fermented curtido. True curtido is made with pineapple vinegar, which is the first step in the recipe:
Combine all ingredients in a big bowl or half-gallon glass jar. Let sit, covered with a cloth or loose lid, for at least 3-5 days. The warmer your house, the faster it will ferment. It will get a white bubbly film on top, which is normal. Strain and use to make the curtido (below).
Put any leftover pineapple vinegar in a jar in the fridge, where it will store for at least month. I use an empty quart Knudsen juice jar for this because it has a narrow mouth, limiting air exposure on the surface, which can cause mold. You could also add a few drops of olive oil on top to seal the surface against air.
When the pineapple vinegar is finished, you're ready to make the curtido itself:
I’ve read that you can also use a 50/50 water/raw red wine vinegar mix instead of the pineapple vinegar, but I haven’t tried it. To me, the flavor imparted by the pineapple vinegar is what makes curtido so outstanding! It’s well worth the extra step and the wait.
These recipes all call for one solid, approx 7-8” diameter cabbage. But honestly, the amounts of the vegetables are somewhat variable. If you grow your own cabbage it may be larger and/or less dense than a typical storebought one, but the quantity isn't critical. Don’t be shy about adjusting the quantities of the ingredients up or down a bit to match the quantity of cabbage, or your personal taste.
Read and follow the Directions for All Sauerkraut Recipes below the next two recipes.
Read and follow the Directions for All Sauerkraut Recipes below the next recipe.
Follow the Directions for All Sauerkraut Recipes below.
Directions for All Sauerkraut Recipes
I use the same basic process to make all the different sauerkraut recipes.
First I pull off one good large cabbage leaf for a special purpose later on, and set it aside. Then I use a food processor with a fine slicing blade for the cabbage (and the onions, if used), and a grating blade for the carrots (if used). This saves a LOT of time over slicing/grating everything up manually, but a mandolin slicer or processing by hand works too if you don’t have a food processor.
Next I take a huge, wide soup pot, and dump in all the cabbage/veggies and whatever spices I’m using. I do not add the liquid or salt yet. Then I take a woodcarver’s mallet (you could use kraut pounder, the flat end of a handleless rolling pin, or the end of 2 lb. dumbbell wrapped in a plastic bag instead) and spend about 10 minutes pounding the shredded vegetables until they are thoroughly bruised, which releases juices and opens the plant cells to the microbes.
Next I pack, and I mean pack, a wide-mouth half-gallon mason jar with the veggie/herb mixture. You could use two wide-mouth quart jars instead (or any of the other containers described below). It never looks like all the veggies are going to fit in the jar(s), but they usually do - I just have to keep packing them down with my fist. I fill the jar with veggies no fuller than 2” from the top.
Then I take about half of the liquid (water, water/vinegar mix, or pineapple vinegar, depending on the recipe), mix all the salt into it, and then pour it into the jar over the veggies. I reserve the other half of the liquid to pour in when I'm done packing. If I poured all the liquid measure in at first, it would overflow when I put my fist in there to pack it down some more.
I keep pressing the cabbage/veggie mix down to squeeze out air bubbles, and then add more liquid until the it covers the veggies again. My final goal is to have about 1 1/2" space between the top of the jar and the top of the liquid, with the veggies about ¾”-1” below the level of the liquid. If you are close to sea level, you can pack the jars a little closer to the top of the jar, say 1" below the top.
The reason it is important to keep the veggies below the surface of the liquid is to keep them from growing mold on the top, where they are in contact with the air. For this reason, I use a glass weight or a smooth, clean river rock on top of the veggies to hold them down under the surface of the liquid.
To keep the little bits of shredded veggies from just floating up on top of the weights, I cover the veggies with a solid piece of cabbage leaf before putting the weights on top. Remember the whole cabbage leaf I set aside at the beginning?
I lay that whole cabbage leaf on my cutting board and set the jar of veggies on top of it. Using the jar as a pattern, I cut around the cabbage leaf with a sharp little knife, cutting the leaf about 1/4" bigger than the jar, all around. This gives me a custom-fit cabbage “gasket” to set on top of the veggies.
On top of this cabbage leaf I put my glass weights, pushing the veggies below the level of the liquid. When I used the river rock, I ran it through the dishwasher the first time before using it.
The extra space above the veggies is to accommodate expansion. As the mix ferments, it will create gas bubbles that cause the cabbage to push up, which also pushes the liquid up. If the jar is sealed tightly, it will build pressure so that when you open it can cause some of the liquid to explode out of the jar with a “pop”, making a mess. But if the jar is not sealed, the expanding gas can just push the liquid out slowly, all over the counter. So what to do?
The best way to deal with this challenge is to use one of the following containers:
The next best way, if you’re using a canning jar but don't have an airlock, is to open the jar every day (or twice a day when it really gets cookin’) to let the pressure out. When you do this, use a wooden or bamboo utensil to press down on the weights a little, to force some of the bubbles out. You have to be careful not to overflow the liquid when you do this.
Before I had an airlock system, I set the glass jar in an empty bowl and left the lid rather loose, so that if liquid got pushed up and out it didn’t run all over the place. I later realized that this is more of a problem for those of us who live at altitude (see below).
Do not hesitate to taste the mixture at various stages of its development. When you are new to eating fermented vegetables, you may prefer the flavors when they are younger, say 3 or 4 days old. As you become accustomed to the flavors, you may prefer them after longer ferments, 7-10 days or even longer.
Once you refrigerate the sauerkraut, the fermentation process will slow dramatically, but it will not stop completely.
Do not use a metal container for making sauerkraut, because the acidity of the sauerkraut can leach toxic metals into the kraut. Food-grade plastic is okay, but may impart flavors from prior use (you don’t want it to taste like cake frosting, lard, etc.) and will definitely pick up the flavor of your current batch. The best containers to use are made of glass, safe-glaze ceramic or unchipped enameled metal.
If you have an old heirloom crock, make sure it has absolutely no cracks in the glaze, or you may have not-good bacteria competing with the good ones.
You can use a gallon glass carboy with an airlock in the lid (go to your local beer-brewing supply store), or treat yourself to a lifetime fermentation crock like the ones shown above, which have weights that hold the ferment under the brine, and a lid that rests in a gutter that keeps mold spores out. Some have very handy handles inset into the bottom that make moving the crock when full much easier. If you love sauerkraut and it's amazing health benefits, treat yourself to a crock like your grandmothers had.
Do not use iodized salt, because iodine kills microbes! Celtic sea salt is excellent because it contains a variety of healthful minerals besides sodium chloride. Real brand salt is also good, but doesn’t have quite as good a spectrum of minerals. Any other brand of natural, non-iodized sea salt will work too.
Salt is not just for taste. It has three important functions in sauerkraut recipes:
If you are on a sodium-restricted or kidney strengthening diet, use a starter culture (below) and forego using salt, or use minimal salt just to augment the flavor.
You can buy a starter culture for fermenting vegetables from Cultures for Health, which will allow you to achieve very consistent results and assure you that you are getting an ideal blend of good bacteria. If you are suffering from an intestinal disorder such as Crohn’s, IBS, chronic constipation, etc., the use of a starter culture may help jumpstart your recovery by supplying a broader spectrum of helpful friendlies.
I live in Denver, and when I first started making these sauerkraut recipes, they would always pop when I opened them and liquid would shoot out all over stuff. Even when I used an airlock on the top, the liquid would pushed right up through the airlock and still ended up all over the counter and on the floor. I couldn’t figure out why the recommended air space at the top of the jar was never enough, until I realized that the lower air pressure at altitude allowed the gas produced to expand more than it would at sea level.
So now I just leave more room at the tops of the jars. Once a day or so while they are fermenting, I also tip the jars slightly, and roll them around on their edges while jiggling them a bit, which helps the gas bubbles make their way to the top and escape out of the air lock, allowing the liquid level to go down a bit. Sometimes I need to open the jar and press down on the weights to force more bubbles out and lower the level of the vegetables. A proper fermenting crock with weights made to fit it properly will prevent this problem, even at altitude.