Sauerkraut recipes are simple but far exceeds most commercial sauerkraut products. In addition, the sauerkraut recipe is flexible. You can add herbs, spices or other vegetables as caraway seeds, carrots, cilantro or hot pepper.
This basic sauerkraut recipe will help you understand how the fermenting process works. It is the same process as for many other fermented foods.
Best sauerkraut cabbage
You can use whatever cabbage you have access to. I’ve tried fresh cabbage, old cabbage, organic, non-organic, and they all ferment well. However, organic cabbage will have less harmful chemicals on them and they might contain more nutrients.
- Aim for cabbage that has tightly packed leaves
You can use both green and red cabbage, or mix both. Red cabbage adds a beautiful color to sauerkraut. But red cabbage might also have a bit stronger taste.
Avoid washing the vegetables in bleach or similar; you don’t want to kill off the natural, healthy bacteria that should start and dominate the fermentation process.
Shredding the cabbage
Place the shredded cabbage in a bowl and add salt. If you want to add some other herbs or greens, this is a good time to do it. I sometimes add one or two shredded apples, caraway seeds, a few carrots or perhaps some coriander leaves. Greens add taste and look appealing.
Try to push out more juice by squeezing the shredded cabbage. Cabbage contains fermentable sugars and other nutrients suitable for the microbial activity. You can squeeze the cabbage with you hands or use some instrument.
- It’s best to juice some cabbage to create more brine
If you use a starter culture (which I strongly suggest), dissolve it in the cabbage juice and leave it for 20 minutes or so. Then add it to the veggies and mix thoroughly.
Pack the vegetables in jars
Put the cabbage in clean jars. Pack the jars 75% full and put a whole cabbage leaf on top to keep the veggies submerged in the brine.
Don’t screw the lids on too tight as gas will form during fermentation and pressure will build in the jars. This is only important during the 5-12 days you keep the jars at room temperature.
NOTE: The vegetables should be covered in brine. Juicing some cabbage (or celery stalks) to create more brine is excellent.
Leave jars for seven days to ferment
Seven days is usually enough. However, leave the jars to ferment a few days longer in a cool climate. And perhaps a few days shorter if you live in a warm climate. The best way to know when the sauerkraut is ready is to taste the product. When you’re happy with the taste, store the jars in a cool place.
You should try to keep the temperature of sauerkraut fermentation around 70 degrees (21ºC). A few degrees more or less might not change much. But a stable temperature helps.
However, the activity of the bacteria depend on right temperature and will affect the quality. Therefore, a temperature of 64 to 72 (18º to 22º C) is most desirable for initiating fermentation since this is the optimum temperature range for the growth the right bacteria.
If you live in a warm climate, you might need to use other techniques.
After seven days, store jars in cool place
When fermentation is complete, you should store the jars in a cool place like a fridge or cellar. Correctly stored, the sauerkraut will stay fresh for many months. The sauerkraut is ready to be eaten right away, but will improve with a little more time. In fact, I think the taste becomes tarter, more complex and enjoyable.
Sauerkraut fermentation process
Healthy lactic acid bacteria are primarily involved in sauerkraut fermentation. But besides the healthy probiotic bacteria, there might be many undesirable microorganisms present on cabbage (and most other vegetables) and these can interfere with the sauerkraut process if allowed to multiply unchecked.
The quality of the final product depends largely on how well the undesirable bacteria are controlled during fermentation. Some organisms produce unpleasant odors and flavors and can completely spoil your sauerkraut.
The major steps in the sauerkraut fermentation process:
- The first micro-organisms to start working are the gas-producing cocci L. Mesenteroides. These microbes produce acids and when the acidity reaches 0.25 to 0.3%, these bacteria slow down and begin to die off, although their enzymes continue to function.
- Now the work is continued by the lactobacilli (L. plantarum and L. Cucumeris) until an acidity level of 1.5 to 2% is attained. The high salt concentration and low temperature inhibit these bacteria to some extent.
- Finally, L. pentoaceticus continues the fermentation, bringing the acidity to 2 to 2.5% thus completing the fermentation.
Traditionally salt has been very important to correctly start the sauerkraut process as it affected the quality of the sauerkraut. Salt can make the sauerkraut firmer or crispier, which is very appealing. Salt can also extract juice from the cabbage (or other vegetables), thus creating a favorable environment for the desired bacteria. However, too much salt may prevent the good bacteria to grow.
Traditionally a salt concentration of 2.0 to 2.5% is used as the lactobacilli are slightly inhibited, but cocci strains are not affected.
After a few days fermenting, the sauerkraut will slowly turn more acidic, courtesy of the lactobacilli bacteria. The acidity helps keep the bad bacteria at bay.
Using a starter culture
A culture starter can…
- speed up the fermentation process
- produce sauerkraut of consistent quality
- greatly increase the number of probiotic bacteria
NOTE: Be careful of using old juice from an earlier batch
The success of using old juice depends on the types of organisms present in the juice and its acidity. If the starter juice has an acidity of 0.3% or more, it results in poor quality sauerkraut. This is because the cocci strain which normally initiates fermentation is suppressed by the high acidity. Therefore, the batch might not ferment correctly.
Often, the use of old juice produces sauerkraut which has a softer texture than normal. Use a culture starter.
What does the final sauerkraut product contain?
- lactic acid
- large amounts of probiotic bacteria (if you use a starter culture like Body Ecology, you can have trillions of probiotic CFU in a few tablespoons of sauerkraut; that’s like a whole probiotics supplement container in one tablespoon!)
- small amounts of acetic and propionic acids
- a mixture of gasses, mostly carbon dioxide
- small amounts of alcohol
- a mixture of aromatic esters
- most fermented nutrients, vitamins, and enzymes become easy for your body to assimilate
All these substances together contribute to the characteristic flavor of sauerkraut. The acidity contributes to a long shelf life.
Sauerkraut too mushy
Main reasons for problems in the sauerkraut process are three:
- Oxygen has entered the jars and affected the vegetables
- Too little salt (usually not a problem if you use a starter culture)
- Jars were kept too warm during fermentation (very common problem)