Saturday, 15 January 2011


Cabbage has come a long way from its origins as a little beach-weed called sea kale – over centuries, our species has bred it into an amazing variety of different vegetables. We’ve bred it for its head of leaves – green cabbage, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kale, bok choy, mustard, rocket, mizuna and others. We’ve bred it for its flowers – broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco. We’ve bred it for its buds -- Brussels sprouts – and we’ve bred it for its roots, kohlrabi.

In all its forms, it remains one of the best crops for the Irish climate, as for similar climates like the Pacific Northwest, but it grows in a wide variety of climates. It’s a famous staple here in many of its forms, the basic vegetable of many dishes. Amazingly, though, few people we know here make sauerkraut or kimchi, methods used in other parts of the world to preserve cabbage, make it easier to digest and to give it flavour. You can make sauerkraut very easily at home, and it will be much tastier and more nutritious than the canned variety.

The biggest trick is to find 1.) a cylindrical container, not made of metal or plastic, and 2.) a lid slightly smaller than the top of the container, so that it slides down the interior with little air in-between. The cabbage has to be pressed down in salt water away from oxygen, you see, but not sealed off completely. We have a ceramic pot and lid; you could hold it down with a plate slightly smaller than the pot and hold the sauerkraut down with a stone. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar and use a glass or ceramic candle-holder as a stopper. Use your imagination, but of course wash and sterilise everything well beforehand.

First cut a cabbage into quarters and chop it finely with a knife or through a mandolin. Mix up a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage, put it in the container, and pound it down for a few minutes with something heavy like a rolling pin. Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about three tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of cabbage – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full.

Then fill the container with water – from the cold tap, but heated on the stove until lukewarm – until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment at room temperature – about 20 degrees Centigrade is ideal, so try near the heater or stove.

The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and one of the great things about this recipe is that you don’t have to wait until it’s “done.” It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to top it up with more salt water if you need to – about a tablespoon per litre of water – as you have to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Your sauerkraut might develop a slight scum on top as it ferments. Just skim it off and clean the plate when you take some out -- it’s just the result of contact with the air, and not very dangerous. Also, don’t worry if the kraut has a faint yeasty smell – it’s fermenting, after all. If it starts to go pink on top or smell genuinely bad, something has probably gone wrong.

My mother-in-law says that only green cabbage was ever used for sauerkraut in Germany, although she’s not sure why – perhaps the pinkness that indicates harmful bacteria was more difficult to see on red cabbage. We read of people online who use red cabbage, however, and we plan to try it soon – if you have, let us know how it goes.

After about a month, take out the sauerkraut and eat it straight, put it in the refrigerator or cook it, as you like. You can also add other vegetables into the mix, like onions, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot, or spices – juniper berries and bay leaf are the classics, but you can also experiment with ginger, chilli peppers or other things.

This is a great way to preserve cabbage through the winter without refrigeration, also, and to give vitamin C during the months when it’s most needed and least available.

Photo: Our sauerkraut pot.


Andy Brown said...

Mmmm. I made sauerkraut and then kimchi for the first time this fall, and it was a delicious experience. The difference was, however, that I never added any water. Adding the salt to the cabbage caused it to leach out enough water to make a perfect brine - even with the kimchi, where I added carrots, garlic, turnips, etc. to the mix. I'm scheduled to make another kimchi this weekend, since we snarfed down the last batch.

Lynnet said...

Umm, I think your proportions of salt and cabbage are off. Shouldn't it be 3 Tablespoons per 5 lbs cabbage, not 3 lbs? I've made plenty of sauerkraut in 1/2 gallon Mason jars; works very well at letting gases out but not letting microbes in.

Brian Kaller said...

We didn't need to add much water, as the cabbage was pretty packed down and the juice comes out by itself. We can try adding no water and see what happens.

Sorry, three tablespoons. That's changed now - thanks.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget brassica seeds for mustard and medicine. In all, a most remarkable and versatile family.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget brassica seeds for sprouts, mustard and medicine. In all, a most remarkable and versatile family.

Robert C. Guy said...

I appreciate your thoughts and experiences of sauerkraut. I have wanted to try it but the powers of habit and distraction have kept my ambitions at bay in that regard. You inspire me to revive that ambition and strike out into that personally unexplored area of food delight (delightful for someone who enjoys sauerkraut as much as I do). I have only a week or two ago discovered how simple it can be to raise your own sourdough starter and now I look forward to finding a suitable container for this adventure.

Sal from SRF said...

The reason, I am guessing, that people don't do sauerkraut where you live is that cabbage stays well in the field for most of the winter. No one needed to learn. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where winter cabbage everwinters well. When I want cabbage, I cut a head, peel off the outer leaves and feed them to my chickens. Aside from a few slugs, the head is so wonderfully good, it doesn't compare with supermarket stuff.

Sauerkraut evolved as a way to eat greens when the climate wasn't conducive to growing them in the winter.

Shivani said...

I lactoferment quite a few vegetables. I was surprised to discover that though cabbage and cucumbers "don't agree with me" when raw or cooked are both delicious and digestible when fermented.
For all fermenting I use a brine of 2 teaspoons of natural salt per cup of pure water. Cucumbers are ready in 3-4 days, depending on room temperature. Cabbage takes longer, but is still ready in days, not weeks. The reason most sauerkraut takes so long is the high salt content, which slows down the process. Less salt also means the brine, which is full of good-guy organisms, can be drunk or used in salad dressings.

don bates said...

I "discovered" sauerkraut and other ferments a few year ago, and have become a huge fan. I grow many vegetables for the express purpose of fermenting them. A couple of comments: 1) Ceramic crocks can be hard to come by. I mostly use used plastic buckets (food grade polyethylene) that you can usually get free for the asking at restaurants, bakeries, etc. The best way I have found to cover the stuff is to cut a thick (1-1/2") wooden disc about 3/8" dia smaller than the bucket. Then cut a square of plastic sheeting about 5" larger than the bucket dia. Set the wooden disc on top of the plastic sheet, then place the both of them in the loaded bucket. Weight the disc with a mason jar filled with enough water to cause the brine in the veggies to rise to the top of the disc. Works great every time! 2) I have never "sterilized" anything. Face it, the vegetables themselves are full of microbes. 3)Pay attention to temperature. Higher temperatures will allow more rapid fermentation, but lower ones will keep things crispier, and allow longer storage. I try to start my ferments as late in the season as possible, so that temps will be cool. 4)Kraut does not need any extra water, not do beets and carrots, but some vegetables, such as green beans and cucumbers, will.

don bates said...

To reinforce Shivani's comment: Most kraut recipes call for far too much salt. (I first got this idea from reading the Gartopf manual). I use 8gms/kg cabbage, which is about 1/3 of what you will typically see a recommended, and have never had a problem. And the product is much tastier.

Brian Kaller said...

Anonymous, how could I have forgotten mustard?

Robert, enjoy your experiments!

Sal, I suspect you're right. After the last couple of winters, though, I hope people here learn fast.

Shivani, we prepare cucumbers for salad by salting them, but only for a few hours -- for me, the taste turns from bitter to brilliant in that short time. We haven't tried them for longer, but now maybe we will.

Don, what you recommend sounds like it works for you, and will probably work for others. I cautioned against metal and plastic, and recommended sterilizing your equipment first, because I'm a bit paranoid about chemicals and the wrong microbes in my food.

Along the same lines, you could well be right about the salt -- I simply measured, as best I could, the handfuls my German mother-in-law uses. My concern would be that too little salt could result in the wrong biota rotting the vegetable matter, but this sounds like it works for you -- I'll try less next time and see what happens.

gloria said...

Thanks for the information. I made sauerkraut for the first time this fall and it was a rousing success. I used savoy cabbage for one batch and red cabbage with carrots for the second. I didn't measure the salt, just sprinkled some mixed with mustard seeds, coriander and pink peppercorns over each layer. Both types are remarkably good. Next season I'll be expanding/experimenting with burdock and other root crops. Also, for those who live in cold climates like Montana, you can pickle your corn that does not mature. If you use Indian corn varieties, they turn a lovely rose color.

Christophe Mouze said...

I've been doing ~Sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables for a few years, and we absolutely love them. We use a method very similar to the one you describe, but for Sauerkraut, I have found that there's no need to add water (although this is necessary for some vegetables, like carrots and French beans, who don't give much water when pressed). If you press the cabbage down hard enough and have enough salt in the mix (about 10g for every litter of finished produce), the juice will eventually overflow. Also, I wouldn't recommend using tap water, as the chlorine in it might interfere with the bacteria that cause fermentation.
We have sucessfully fermented the following vegetables: various type of beans (my favorite being French beans), beetroot (absolutely delicious, the acidity of the fermentation balances the natural sweetness of the vegetable), carrots (makes a wonderful Kimchi), celeriac, courgettes, cucumber and Jerusalem artichoke. It is important that the vegetables are very fresh and preferably organic.
Christophe Mouze
Macalla farm