I used to be 1000% against sauerkraut. I blame it entirely on my Dad, who regularly pulled out jars of store-bought kraut to have with his dinner when I was a kid. The smell alone was enough to make me boycott even trying the stuff for decades!
Then, a few years back, I grew a few too many cabbages in the garden and needed a way to preserve the harvest. I decided it was time to get over my sauerkraut aversion and learn this food preservation technique of my ancestors. My first few attempts were lackluster—there was a mold situation—but I finally nailed down the proper technique, and I haven’t looked back since. Turns out I LOVE sauerkraut. Well, I love my homemade sauerkraut recipe that is tangy, crunchy, and chock-full of gut-friendly probiotics. And I know you’ll love it, too!
What is sauerkraut, anyway?
If you didn’t grow up with a kraut-loving dad, you might not realize that sauerkraut is just cabbage mixed with salt and fermented. That’s really it! Of course, you can fancy it up however you like (and I provide some suggestions in a bit), but you really only need those two ingredients to make homemade sauerkraut.
Is fermented sauerkraut good for you?
Yes, my friends! Fermented homemade sauerkraut is packed full of gut-healthy probiotics. Having a healthy gut biome (the name for the population of bacteria and yeast that live in our digestive system) is linked to obvious benefits like better food digestion and and helping you poop regularly, but also things you might not think of—like lowered risk of mental health issues and a healthier immune system. Our ancestors didn’t take a probiotic pill each day, but they ate a bevy of fermented foods daily, like kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut!
Is all sauerkraut fermented? Even the store-bought stuff?
Yes, fermentation is what gives sauerkraut its distinct sour, tangy flavor (just like with fermenting yogurt) and a hefty dose of gut-friendly probiotics. HOWEVER (and this is a big caveat!), shelf-stable sauerkraut—often found in either a can or jar at the grocery store—has been heated to high temperatures during the pasteurization and canning process, thereby killing the probiotics. You still get some of the sour, tangy flavor, but the major health benefit is gone. And the process also makes for some seriously limp kraut—another reason I MUCH prefer homemade sauerkraut!
In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of fermented sauerkraut in stores that is not shelf-stable. They still have all of their probiotics intact, but unfortunately, they are pretty pricey! I’ve seen it cost as much as $7-$8 a jar! Which is really crazy when you realize you can make that size jar for pennies at home.
How long does sauerkraut take to ferment?
The amount of time you leave your sauerkraut fermenting is more of a personal preference than a rule set in stone. I recommend starting to taste your sauerkraut at the four-day mark, and then to keep tasting every day until its taste and texture are to your liking. Some people ferment sauerkraut for months—so it’s really almost impossible to overdo it! The longer you ferment, the more probiotics you’ll get in each bite, and the tangier and softer the sauerkraut will be. I tend to like my sauerkraut right around the 14-day mark—it’s nice and tangy, but still crunchy!
Do you make sauerkraut in a crock? Or in a jar?
Traditionally, sauerkraut was fermented in a large ceramic crock (similar to this one), and you absolutely can do that if you have access to one and want to do sauerkraut on that scale. I’ve found that for most smaller families (especially ones who don’t grow their own cabbage), a jar or two of kraut at a time is plenty—which is why I much prefer fermenting sauerkraut in a mason jar on my countertop. Small batch fermenting is fun and requires a low investment—if a batch doesn’t work out, you didn’t just waste five gallons of food! I use wide-mouth quart mason jars exclusively for homemade sauerkraut.
What special tools do you need to ferment sauerkraut at home?
Other than a good size jar with a lid, you don’t really need any special tools. However, there are two elements to the fermenting process that special tools can help with:
- Keeping the cabbage below the brine. The key to getting a good ferment without any mold is to make sure the cabbage stays below the level of the liquid brine—mold can’t grow in the salty, liquid environment. There are specialty sauerkraut weights and fermentation lids that help with this. You can also DIY it for free! Grab some rocks from outside, clean them well, and then seal them in a zip-top baggie. Cut a circle the width of the jar out of one of the outer leaves of the cabbage. Wedge the cabbage circle into the jar on top of the cabbage under the brine, and then place the bag full of rocks on top to hold it down.
- Allowing carbon dioxide to release from the ferment. As the bacteria multiply, the sauerkraut will release carbon dioxide. This gas needs to escape somewhere or eventually, your jar of sauerkraut will turn into a bomb of sauerkraut. You can avoid exploding kraut with a regular jar just by “burping” it (opening the jar to let some of the gas out) every day or so. There are special fermentation lids that also have airlocks that do the burping for you.
Overall, you don’t need any special equipment, but if you think you’ll be fermenting and making sauerkraut regularly, your process will be a lot simpler if you do invest in fermentation lids. I personally use these all stainless steel lids from Kraut Source. They solve both issues—they keep the cabbage below the brine and have an airlock. I’ve had them for years and am very happy with them! My kraut-loving Dad (who now makes his own sauerkraut) uses this set of weights and lids, and is very happy with them.
How is sauerkraut made?
You’ll be shocked at how easy the process is. I promise you can do this! Here is a step-by-step tutorial showing you how to make sauerkraut:
Step 1: Shred or Thinly Slice Your Cabbage
You can do this with a sharp knife, a mandolin slicer, or the shredding blade of your food processor. In general, the thinner the cabbage is shredded, the easier it is to pack it in the jar and get a good ferment going. I do tend to enjoy the texture of slightly thicker cabbage though—it’s a personal preference thing!
Step 2: Mix the cabbage with salt.
Adding enough salt to the cabbage is what creates an environment where the sauerkraut can ferment without nastiness growing. The best way to figure out how much salt to add is by weight. Add the cabbage to a large bowl, and then add 1 tablespoon of salt for every 1 3/4 pounds of cabbage (or other vegetables, if you want to do a mix in your sauerkraut). I prefer to use sea salt.
Step 3: Massage the cabbage.
Using cleaner-than-clean hands, massage the cabbage and salt together so the cabbage starts to wilt and create a lot of juice—this liquid is called the brine. How long this takes will depend a lot on the cabbage; some have more water, some have less. The cabbage should be somewhat limp and shiny, and there should be a good puddle of brine. When you grab a fistful of the cabbage, the brine should run out of your hand in a stream. This can take anywhere from just a couple of minutes to up to 15 minutes.
Step 4: Let the cabbage rest (optional).
If you’re struggling to get a good brine going, it might help to let the cabbage rest for 20-30 minutes to bring out even more of the juices.
Step 5: Pack the cabbage into a clean jar.
Grab a handful of cabbage and pack it tightly into the bottom of a wide-mouth pint mason jar. There are specialty tampers for packing cabbage, but I’ve found that my fist works just fine and fits perfectly into the jar.
Make sure that every time you add more cabbage to the jar, you’re tamping it down well with your fist. You want to remove air pockets, as well as create more brine. As you pack more in, the liquid level should naturally rise up to start to cover the cabbage. Fill the jar to where the cabbage itself fills the jar about 75-85% full.
Step 6: Top off the jar with additional brine and weigh down the cabbage under the brine.
The cornerstone rule to sauerkraut making (or any fermentation)—under the brine, everything is fine!—so your #1 goal here is to get all the cabbage under brine. If you need to add some more brine from the bowl to top off your jar, do it now. Then, weigh the cabbage down under the brine. You can do this as I do here with a special fermentation lid (mine has a plate that pushed the cabbage below the brine), sauerkraut weights, or by using a DIY solution like we talked about above.
Step 7: Close the jar.
If you’re using an airlock, now is the time to use it. These are the standard sauerkraut airlocks, but my fermentation lids have a stainless steel airlock that I really like. If you are using a regular jar lid, close the lid just fingertip tight.
Step 8: Ferment away!
Place the jar in a room temperature spot (65-70°F) out of direct sunlight to ferment. If using an airlock system, there’s no need to burp the jar, but if you’re just using a regular lid, make sure to slightly open the jar lid to release some of the carbon dioxide at least daily.
Your sauerkraut is ready when the brine is cloudy, the cabbage has softened, and the kraut tastes sufficiently tangy! This length of time depends on a lot of factors, so I recommend opening the jar to check flavor starting at day four, and tasting every day or two until it’s the perfect tang and texture for you. Store sauerkraut in the jar you made it in (with a storage lid) in the fridge for up to six months.
What are some flavors you can add to homemade sauerkraut?
Part of the fun of fermentation is sticking things in the jar to see what works and what doesn’t! I highly encourage some creative experimentation with homemade sauerkraut. Here are a few jumping-off ideas:
- Spicy garlic sauerkraut: Add in a couple of whole cloves of garlic plus a sliced cayenne pepper.
- Caraway sauerkraut: A classic! Add in a teaspoon of caraway seeds and a teaspoon of whole mustard seeds.
- Garden bounty sauerkraut: Mix the cabbage with shredded carrots, peppers, onions—whatever is coming off in the garden!
What do you eat sauerkraut with?
Uh, everything! But sauerkraut is truly at home combined with some rich, fatty meat. Put it on a brat, serve it next to pork chops, or layer it into a Reuben. Add it to a salad, put it in a dumpling, mix it into mashed potatoes—trust me, once you start making sauerkraut at home, you’ll find lots of ways to use it up!
Working on some homemade sauerkraut and now you see something funky? Don’t worry, 90% of the time, your sauerkraut is just fine. In fact, now is a good time to drop this oft-repeated (well, in fermentation circles) quote from a USDA microbiologist:
“As far as I know, there has never been a documented case of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables. Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation. It is one of the oldest and safest technologies we have.” – Fred Breidt, microbiologist, US Department of Agriculture
Feel better? Okay, good. Now let’s tackle some of the common sauerkraut fermenting issues:
Help! There is mold in my sauerkraut.
Take a breath and look closely. First up, is it mold or is harmless Kahm yeast? A lot of newbie fermenters confuse Kahm yeast for mold and toss out their precious sauerkraut! How to tell the difference between Kahm yeast and mold: Kahm yeast is a thin coating that is white to off-white in color and has a stringy texture. Mold is raised and very fuzzy. Kahm usually isn’t. Even so, white mold (which is what you’d be most likely to confuse with Kahm yeast) is usually considered safe if you remove it. With both Kahm yeast and white mold, most fermenters just scrape them off and enjoy their sauerkraut.
If you really do think it is mold, where is it located? Is there mold in your sauerkraut or is there mold on some small pieces of cabbage that are floating on the top of the brine or are stuck to the top of the jar? In most cases, you can just remove the mold and the sauerkraut is fine. If there is mold growing on the top of your brine, you can use a spoon to skim it off. But if the sauerkraut smells off or the mold growth is overwhelming, throw it in the compost (after all, that’s one of the benefits of doing small batches of sauerkraut in jars—you aren’t losing much). If you do spy mold and decide to remove it and keep fermenting, it’s best to shorten your fermentation time—mold spores will quickly turn veggies to mush.
In the end, the decision to eat or not to eat sauerkraut that had mold or Kahm yeast is entirely personal. I can’t tell you what you feel comfortable with. Here is a great, informative, exhaustive article on mold growth in fermentations, which might help you make your decision.
How to prevent mold the next time: Both mold growth and Kahm yeast growth are almost entirely avoided by using an airlock fermentation lid. If that’s not possible, make sure your equipment is very clean, ferment at a lower temperature (between 60-70°F), and make sure you’re using the right amount of salt.
There aren’t any bubbles! Aren’t there supposed to be bubbles?!
You might have heard that you know your sauerkraut is fermenting when you see bubbles escaping up to the surface of your jar. This is true—if you have a keen eye and the time to babysit your jar, you will probably see champagne-like bubbles during the first few days of fermentation. But just because you haven’t seen bubbles, doesn’t mean it isn’t fermenting. The bubbles can be very small, very sporadic, and very hard to see!
Other ways to know your sauerkraut fermentation is active: See if the color of the cabbage is changing (bright green to dull yellow or bright purple to pink), check if the brine is turning cloudy, and taste it for tanginess!
Whoa! My brine is overflowing my jar/my airlock.
Yup, that cabbage can sure release some juice! This isn’t actually an issue, it’s a good thing! This tends to be more of an inconvenient mess instead of an actual problem. The amount of brine created by the cabbage can vary between batches of sauerkraut, so you might have this happen one time and not the next. My recommendation is to place your jar in a bowl to catch the briny mess and ferment as usual. You may even eventually need to add the brine back to the jar to help keep the cabbage under cover.
How to prevent brine overflow next time: Don’t overpack your jars, and let your cabbage rest after massaging to release a lot of the liquid.
My brine is cloudy, is that right?
Yup, sure is! Cloudy brine is a great sign that your sauerkraut fermentation is rocking and rolling. Proceed!
Are you excited to go make your first batch of sauerkraut? One word of warning: once you catch the fermentation bug, it’s hard to stop. It’s a super fun (and healthy) culinary hobby that I’m sure you’re gonna love. Happy fermenting!