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
Get whatever cabbage you have access to. I’ve tried fresh cabbage, old cabbage, organic, non-organic; they all seem to 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.
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 apples, caraway seeds, a few carrots or perhaps some coriander leaves. Greens add taste and makes your sauerkraut look appealing.
Try to push out more juice by squeezing the cabbage which contains fermentable sugars and other nutrients suitable for microbial activity. You can squeeze the cabbage with you hands or use some instrument.
- Juice some cabbage to create more brine
If you use a starter culture, add it to the cabbage juice and leave it for 20 minutes. 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 in room temperature.
NOTE: The vegetables must be emerged in brine at all times.
Leave jars for seven days to ferment
Leave the jars some days longer if you have a cool room and shorter if you live in a warm climate. The best way to know when they are ready is to taste the product. When you’re happy with the taste, put the jars in a cool place.
You should try to keep the temperature for 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 is dependent 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 to keep the jars cool.
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. In fact, I think the taste improves over time and becomes more tart, complex and enjoyable.
The sauerkraut is ready to be eaten right away, but will improve with a little more time.
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. However, too much salt may prevent the good bacteria to grow. Salt can also extract juice from the cabbage (or other vegetables), thus creating a favorable environment for the desired bacteria.
Traditionally a salt concentration of 2.0 to 2.5% is used as the lactobacilli are slightly inhibited, but cocci are not affected.
After a few days fermenting, the sauerkraut will become more acidic. This is created by the lactobacilli bacteria and will keep the bad bacteria at bay.
Using a starter culture
A culture starter can…
- produce sauerkraut of consistent quality
- speed up the fermentation process
- greatly increase the amount of probiotic bacteria
- omit the need of salt at the start of the process (you can add salt when fermentation is done, just before you eat)
What kind of starters can be used?
- Starters traditionally used for milk fermentation, such as streptococcus lactis are OK
- You can also use some juice from previous sauerkraut fermentations as a starter culture, even though this is a little risky (see note below)
- Use a starter containing several healthy bacteria strains. This is one of the best ways since it greatly increases the amount 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 which would normally initiate fermentation are suppressed by the high acidity, leaving the bacilli with sole responsibility for fermentation.
If the starter juice has an acidity of 0.25% or less, the kraut produced is normal, but there do not appear to be any beneficial effects of adding this juice. Often, the use of old juice produces sauerkraut which has a softer texture than normal.
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 gases, 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 helps to control the growth of spoilage and putrefactive organisms and contributes to a very 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 main problem if you use a starter culture)
- Jars were kept too warm during fermentation (very common problem)