By Janine Harris Degitz, Photography by Maria Khoroshilova
The joy of making sauerkraut from scratch
In the warm summer months in southern Indiana, fermentation took a strong hold on me as I watched the apple cider and grape juice spontaneously bubble and overflow their containers. Little did I know the smells of summer’s abundant foods would stay with me and become a passion of growing, preserving, learning and sharing all about fermented foods and their health benefits, especially the centuries’ old goodness of sauerkraut.
After years of experimenting with a variety of fermented foods and fermentation vessels in my own home, brined pickles, yogurt, kombucha, cheese and kefir were stuffed and squeezed into a variety of glass jars and clay crocks. My love and appreciation for sauerkraut was born in 2012 while attending an intensive training with fermented foods revivalist and author Sandor Katz.
Twelve people from all over the country came together to learn the ins and outs of everything fermented—and the mother of vegetable fermentation—sauerkraut. We chopped and grated the abundant green heads of cabbage, carrots, daikon and dill, and communed over the beauty of the bounty of produce in southern Tennessee. Combining our vegetables in one giant bowl, we began salting the eclectic mixture to create the environment for the lactic acid fermentation to begin. We squeezed the vegetables to release the water that was trapped in their cells, and almost like magic the transformation of raw vegetables and herbs into sauerkraut had begun. The brine created would become the protective environment where lactic acid bacteria could thrive, preserve the vegetables and create beneficial digestive enzymes.
One of the oldest forms of food preservation, sauerkraut was found in cultures all around the world and as far back as thousands of years ago in ancient China. Fermentation unlocked nutrients, enhanced digestion and supported overall health and immune function for people—the importance and value of fermented foods was intuitive.
The sauerkraut from my younger days, which came from a jar, preserved with vinegar and enjoyed only after long hours of cooking with pork roast, is just a memory. The tangy, firm, sour aliveness of what I now know and appreciate as the raw simplicity of sauerkraut has taken its place. Somehow my body knows it needs this food.
Using stone vessels made by a variety of artists—Zanesville Pottery, local artist friends or traditional crocks still made in Poland—the ancient technique of using a clay, water-sealed crock to ferment sauerkraut is alive and well in my home. The benefits of the clay crocks are numerous and among them: keeping the temperature of the sauerkraut steady and enhancing the flavor.
Sauerkraut and its beneficial bacteria thrive in an anaerobic (without air) stable environment. This means a water-sealed crock is uniquely suited for creating consistent flavor and texture time and again. Stone weights are carefully crafted to fit within the clay vessel to weight down the vegetables, keeping them below the brine. The lid forms a seal that allows the gasses to rise and escape while keeping oxygen and yeasts, found in our air, from reaching the vegetables. A reminder of this simple process is the gentle sound of plop, plop, which signals the fermentation process is well on its way.
A unique, life-giving transformation occurs when fermentation meets our local food system, creating health-giving nutrition, environmental awareness, food preservation and community. Each new batch of sauerkraut I make is filled with as much adventure and curiosity as the previous batch.
Gathering seasonal vegetables from the local farmers market and from my own front-yard city garden, the simple ingredients I use are found in every season: from late spring carrots, radishes, cabbage and dill to the abundance of summer sweet peppers, onions, garlic and daikon. The fall cabbage is a favorite in my family, where the cool temperatures bring out the sweetest cabbage flavor of all the seasons.
I have found there is no “right way” to make sauerkraut, just a willingness to allow your creativity and intuition to lead, and to engage in the ordinary process of growing and preserving our food in community.
Wild Fermented Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is easy to make and fun to adapt to seasonal vegetables. Add your favorite vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. Experiment in small batches and find out what you enjoy.
Number of servings:
Approximately 3–4 quarts
5 to 6 pounds of red and/or green cabbage (2–3 medium heads)
Fine ground sea salt (approximately 1 – 3 tablespoon)—more needed in the warmer months, less in cooler months
Any other seasonal vegetables—ginger, garlic and onion, beets, carrots, daikon
Optional: herbs and spices like caraway seeds, dill seed or juniper berries
Small amount of fruit (apple or pear)
Cutting board and chef’s knife
Large mixing bowl
Vegetable peeler, grater and measuring spoons
3 – 4 -quart wide-mouth canning jar
Small weight that fits inside the jar opening – like a 4-ounce “jelly” canning jar
Wide-mouth plastic storage cap (or lid and rim that comes with jar)
Prepping and Seasoning the Vegetables
Slice cabbage in half lengthwise, so that the stem keeps each half together. Shred all cabbage into ¼-inch ribbons using a mandolin, chef’s knife or any tool that works for you, discarding the stem.
Combine shredded cabbage into a large mixing bowl. In layers, sprinkle salt throughout cabbage. Let sit while chopping the remaining vegetables. Brine will form as salt draws water from the cabbage.
Chop remaining vegetables to a size of your choice. Shredding creates a different texture than chopping. Experiment with different sizes.
Add any spices to the cabbage and vegetable mixture.
With clean hands, begin squeezing the cabbage to bruise the surface of the vegetables and speed the release of water from the cabbage, adding any remaining salt.
Add bruised and squeezed cabbage to 3-quart-size jars or larger wide-mouth glass vessel or ceramic crock.
Pack down contents into your vessel so that the brine is above the surface of the vegetables.
The Fermentation Process
Place a weight (glass jar, plate or other weight) that fits inside the container to weigh down the vegetables and keep them below the brine.
Vegetables should be completely submerged when weighted down.
Cover the container with a loose-fitting lid or a tea towel and rubber band to keep out flies and reduce mold and yeast growth.
Place the vessel on a plate (to catch any overflow of brine during the first week of fermentation) and place on the counter in the kitchen to ferment.
After one week, check on the contents, tasting and observing for mold. Scrape off any surface mold and clean the plate or weight. Repack the surface, pushing down the sauerkraut, replacing the plate and weight.
Limit the number of times you expose the surface of the sauerkraut to air as this allows yeast and molds to enter the environment.
The vegetables will begin to ferment within a few days. The length of time to ferment sauerkraut varies and is typically 1–4 weeks. However, as you observe the texture, flavor and feel of the vegetables, taste it and decide when it seems right for you.
In the winter months I may ferment my sauerkraut in a crock for 4–6 weeks. In the summer months it may be to my liking in 1 week.
When you are happy with the flavor put the kraut in containers and store them in the refrigerator. Sauerkraut will keep for several months and continue to age and transform.
Enjoy a forkful or two of sauerkraut with your meals!