I enjoy sauerkraut and I almost always have a jar in the fridge to use on sausages, or with pork, or what-have-you. Unfortunately, most recipes for the home cook usually suggest you begin with 5 or 10 pounds of cabbage and then ferment the stuff in a large bucket but, much as I like it, that sort of amount is far more than I could consume in any reasonable period. The commercial varieties I buy are actually pretty good and not that expensive but I like making things myself and I decided to try producing a batch small enough to just fill a medium sized mason jar…
To begin, I shredded half a small head of cabbage very finely.
Sauerkraut is produced by a lactic acid fermentation in brine. Many recipes call for you to liberally salt a large amount of cabbage and then employ weight to allow the shreds to be submerged under the water expelled by the action of the salt but I have borrowed a technique that is probably more familiar to makers of Kimchi, the Korean equivalent of Sauerkraut.
Here, I sprinkled my shreds with about a tablespoon of coarse pickling salt (it is important to use the non-iodized kind to avoid discoloration). The amount is not terribly critical as long as you don’t use too little, and you really don’t need to worry too much about over-salting as most will be rinsed away.
Allow the cabbage to wilt and soften for about an hour or so. You will see that a good deal of water will be thrown off during this period. When complete, drain the salty water away and give the shreds a very quick rinse… Don’t overdo this as you just want to remove the excess salt, not all of it.
Finally, pack the cabbage loosely into a suitable jar and fill with just enough water to cover. For the first fermentation, just cover the mouth of your jar with cloth or paper towel to keep the surface clean but still allowing air to circulate. You want to keep it in a cool and fairly dark place (a cellar is ideal) but anywhere that is a few degrees cooler than room temperature will do fairly well. I put my jar in the window above my kitchen sink… that side of the house doesn’t get any sun and it is always quite cool there.
Sometimes, a batch just won’t ‘take’ but, if you do get a ferment going, you will see a bit of bubbling going on after a day or three (depending on temperature etc.). You won’t get the furious ferment as you do with beer (for example) but it should be fairly obvious once things get started properly.
The length of fermentation will (again) depend on temperature and other factors, but generally anywhere from 3 to 10 days will be right for very small amounts, and up to 20 days for larger batches. Each batch will be different, and how long you leave it will also depend on how ‘sour’ you want your pickle to get. If you stick it in the fridge after three or four days (thus stopping or slowing the fermentation quite early on), the product will be quite mild, whereas a longer ferment will yield a stronger pickle with a more of a lactic acid ‘bite’.
For this batch, my ferment appeared to stall after just a few days. I was testing the smell and taste every other day or so and, though the bubbling appeared to stop quite early, I couldn’t detect the classic sauerkraut taste or aroma. The taste at day four was a little like seaweed, actually, but, while it was pleasant to my taste-buds, just wasn’t… well … sauerkraut. After 5 or 6 days, I was beginning to think I had caught the wrong sort of bacteria but then… by day 9, the unique sauerkraut smell and taste was apparent and I knew that it had worked, if a little slowly.
Anyway, at day twelve (I think it was) the pickle had faded to the typical straw-colored sauerkraut color you see in the first picture and the taste had developed wonderfully. My batch is now in the fridge for use in sandwiches and the like.
If you wish to make your own, you can also play around with the final taste by adding spices to the ferment (juniper berries, black pepper, dill seed, etc.). I often buy a product that is called ‘Wine Sauerkraut’ and one of my next projects is to try and reproduce that in my own kitchen… Have fun…