In recent years, consumers have become more interested in home fermentation, especially in making their own sauerkraut and kimchi for the beneficial bacteria it provides for gut health. As this trend grows, the AnswerLine team receives many questions about the fermenting process. To help answer questions with first-hand experience, the AnswerLine team rolled up their sleeves and spent an evening learning to create the digestive ‘wonder food,’ sauerkraut, from scratch.
The biggest trend in DIY sauerkraut and kimchi is making it in small batches—small amounts made regularly using quart, half-gallon or gallon jars. Kraut or kimchi made in small batches ferments more quickly than in big crocks allowing one batch to be fermenting while another is refrigerated and eaten. The market has responded to consumer demand by providing consumers with a large assortment of fermentation kits, containers, and gadgets to make fermentation easy and fun. The AnswerLine team randomly chose two different kits with which to experiment—MasonTops® and Ball®—to ferment cabbage into sauerkraut. Both of these kits used quart jars which were prepared in advanced.
Mature, firm heads of cabbage were selected from a team-member’s garden a day prior; cabbage can also be purchased at the supermarket for year-round kraut making. Both red and green cabbage varieties can be used; the team used a mix of red and green.
We used a mandolin to shred the cabbage. Cabbage can also be shredded using a sharp knife, kraut cutter, or food processor. However cut, the shreds should be long and thin. Once the cabbage was shredded, it was weighed, and salt (canning and pickling salt) added per the kit recipe.
The salt was massaged into the cabbage until the cabbage was wilted and juicy.
The wilted/juiced cabbage was firmly packed into the quart jars allowing the juice to come to the top and completely cover the cabbage.
The two kits allowed for different amounts of headspace. What is most important is that there is sufficient headspace for the brine from the cabbage/salt mix to completely cover the top of the cabbage. After the jars were filled, the jars were weighted and topped with the fermenting lid and screw band supplied with each kit. Weights can be a food grade glass disk (provided with the MasonTop® kit), stainless steel spring (provided with the Ball® kit), a freezer bag filled with brine* that fits into the jar, a smaller glass jar filled with water or brine, or a full wine bottle that sits on top of the cabbage. If using a brine bag, glass jar, or wine bottle for weight, whole cabbage leaves (discard when the kraut is done fermenting) should be packed atop the cabbage first.
Each team member left the workshop with two jars to ferment at home. At home, team members were advised to store their jars in a cooler, darker place in their home, to check it daily to make sure that the cabbage was always covered in brine, and to wait about 2 weeks to test. Fermentation time is dependent on quantity and temperature. Kraut fermented at 70º-75ºF will ferment in about 1-2 weeks; at 60º-65ºF, fermentation may take 2-3 weeks. At temperatures lower than 60ºF, kraut may not ferment and above 75ºF, kraut may become soft or mushy. The best way to determine when the kraut is ready is by smell and taste. The cabbage should be translucent but remain crunchy, not soft or slimy. The salty flavor should be diminished and replaced with a bright, tangy flavor of the lactic acid. When the kraut has reached an individual liking, it is time to stop the fermentation by refrigerating and eating it.
Here are the team takeaways from this experience:
- Small batch kits make it easy to get started, learn about the fermentation process, and build fermentation confidence. Kits are a matter of personal preference.
- Approximately 2 pounds of cabbage is needed to fill a quart jar.
- Tightly packing the cabbage into the jars is important to continue releasing the juices necessary to create the anaerobic (without oxygen) environment need for lacto-fermentation to take place while inhibiting spoil-causing bacteria.
- Work in small batches when packing the cabbage into the jars. Pack tightly after each handful addition.
- Important to keep oxygen out yet allow carbon dioxide to bubble out. Good amount of brine, weight, and lid with an air release enable this.
- Keep the cabbage submerged under the brine at all times to prevent oxidation; cabbage will brown at the top if the brine level drops. Add brine during the fermentation time, if needed.
- Monitor it daily watching for off smell or loss of brine. Watch for signs of healthy fermentation: cabbage swelling, gas pockets, color changes, bubbles or foam on the surface of the brine, some white sediment in the bottom of the jar. Bubbling activity is normal and a good sign the fermentation process is working.
- Flavor improves with age but can be customized to individual taste and probiotic level. Longer ferments give a stronger flavor and more probiotics.
Fermented foods can be a healthy and nutritious addition to your diet and a great way to preserve the harvest as well. Sauerkraut is one of the oldest and easiest of fermented food. Unlike the packaged kraut at the supermarket which may have been pasteurized to kill bacteria, small-batch sauerkraut is lacto-fermented, a fancy term for soaking uncooked cabbage in brine (salt and water), then letting nature ferment the vegetable’s own beneficial bacteria. This process was perfected by the Germans during the 16th century and still used today. (While the Germans are best known for their kraut making skills, it is believed that the first sauerkraut was made in China about 2,000 years ago, during the building of the Great Wall.)
Taking the plunge into home fermentation can be an intimidating proposition. Whether you’re a complete beginner or have some experience, small-bath fermentation with cabbage is a good place to start to build your confidence while learning about fermentation.
*Brine – ½ teaspoon salt to ½ cup water
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