Homemade Fermented Sauerkraut is a crunchy and tangy topping that will keep your family salivating.
As an American of Eastern European descent, I spent a lot of time with my family eating and cooking with sauerkraut. The sour smell of homemade fermented sauerkraut fills me with memories of Mothers Day brunches and pierogi dinners. I hope you love sauerkraut as much as I do, and find this to be an easy recipe for sauerkraut.
I love this method of making sauerkraut because the kraut always comes out crisp and crunchy. The raw kraut works great as a side dish or topping for my brats, hot dogs, and Eastern European meals. This fermented sauerkraut can also be slow cooked to create a tender and aromatic base for kielbasa or other hot meals.
What is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut consists of thinly sliced cabbage that is fermented in a salty brine. This fermentation gives the kraut a sour taste and a long shelf life. Before the advent of refrigeration it was a primary method to preserve and store cabbage.
What kinds of sauerkraut are there?
While Germany is the country most commonly associated with sauerkraut, you’ll find that it’s popular in most Eastern European countries. There are some regional variants that use different spices or secondary vegetables. For example:
- Bavarian sauerkraut involves adding juniper berries and caraway seeds during the fermentation process for a distinct flavor.
- Polish and Ukrainian sauerkraut includes grated carrots which can add a bit of sweetness.
- Apple or pear sauerkraut involves grating fruit into the kraut for added sweetness.
- Countless other regional twists or flavors, like dill kraut, kraut with shredded beats, etc.
How is homemade sauerkraut fermented?
Cabbage is fermented into sauerkraut by a process called lacto-fermentation. This is the same type of fermentation that will show up in yogurt production. When you hear about products containing probiotics, they’re talking about the bacteria used in lacto-fermentation.
Homemade Sauerkraut fermentation works because lactic acid bacteria tend to survive and thrive in salty brine while harmful bacteria tend to not survive in salty brine. Hence, we soak our cabbage in salt water so that lactic acid bacteria can multiply and grow, while other bacteria die off or never take hold.
As the lactic acid bacteria grow, they begin to feed on sugars from the cabbage and create lactic acid. This acid helps raise the PH of the sauerkraut, which helps further preserve it and keeps out bad bacteria.
What kind of cabbage should you use for sauerkraut?
You can use any type of cabbage you like to ferment homemade sauerkraut. Personally, I like to grow breeds of early cabbage. They grow well in a Michigan climate, and typically are ready for harvest before butterflies and other critters try to lay eggs on them.
Since the cabbage gets thin sliced, the difference between early, late, and savoy cabbages are minimal. Red cabbage also works well for sauerkraut and will create a very fun red colored kraut.
How long does it take to ferment fresh sauerkraut?
You can produce homemade fermented sauerkraut in as little as a week. One of the neat things about making sauerkraut though is that you can control the flavor of the kraut by how long it ferments. Generally I start tasting the sauerkraut after 3 days of fermenting, and package it up when it gets to a level of sourness I like. I wouldn’t go more than two weeks of fermenting, and generally always pull mine after 7-10 days.
In complete contrast with this view, the MSU extension school recommends fermenting up to four weeks. I couldn’t possibly imagine how strong the sauerkraut would taste after four weeks. If you try it, leave a comment below and let me know how it went.
An interesting side note is that if you just keep your sauerkraut in jars on the shelf, it will continue to ferment and increase the sour flavor. I prefer to lock in my sauerkraut, and freeze jars and bags of it when I’m done fermenting.
How long does fermented sauerkraut last?
Frozen sauerkraut will last forever, and thaw out into crispy delicious kraut whenever you need it. Freezing also more or less stops the fermentation process, so your kraut won’t end up too sour.
In the fridge, I trust my sauerkraut for 1-2 months. I typically pull a jar or bag out of the freezer and use it until it’s gone. You can give the jar a smell test and look for any signs of odd growth before using it.
I never just leave my homemade fermented sauerkraut on the shelf at room temperature. In the olden days this would have been the only way to store sauerkraut, but I figure there’s no point in risking it. Freezing is better for preserving the flavor and texture, so that’s my preferred way to store sauerkraut.
What can you use to ferment homemade sauerkraut?
The process of fermenting homemade sauerkraut creates lactic acid, which means we have to avoid reactive materials. Most food grade plastics, glasses, and ceramics are good to use for sauerkraut fermentation. Avoid using metal containers wherever possible because the lactic acid could react with the metal to create harmful chemicals. While some types of stainless steel claim to be non reactive, I wouldn’t take the risk.
For this recipe, I use a large food-grade mixing bowl to hold my cabbage and brine, and a large, heavy, glass pyrex bowl to weigh the cabbage down. If you need additional weight, you can add water or ceramic to the pyrex. I threw a couple towels over the top of it to keep the light out.
Is making Homemade Fermented Sauerkraut safe? Yes, trust the science!
I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but I love to rely on the Michigan State Extension school for gardening related tips and tricks. Most parts of the US have local extension schools that can give you region specific tips for gardening, harvesting, and processing vegetables. They tend to be authoritative, well written, and highly recommended.
So I also recommend you go through the MSU extension school’s guide on preserving sauerkraut.
Don’t stop at fermentation… smoke your sauerkraut!
I recently wrote a recipe on how to smoke your sauerkraut. Smoked sauerkraut has a deep, complex flavor that I guarantee will be unlike any other sauerkraut you’ve ever had. It will amp up any meal you normally use sauerkraut for. Instead of sauerkraut with brats, kielbasa, or perogies, give smoked sauerkraut a try!
Some ideas for how to use your homemade fermented sauerkraut
If you’re looking for meals you can use sauerkraut with, have no fear. As mentioned at the start of the article, I /love/ cooking with sauerkraut and have a ton of recipes you can serve it with. Try out some of these recipes with your newly fermented homemade sauerkraut:
Recipe for Smoked Pot Roast
Homemade Fermented Sauerkraut
- 1 Large food safe bowl with weight
- 5 lb Cabbage
- 3 tbsp salt
- 1 quart water
- 1.5 tbsp salt
- Start by preparing your head of cabbage. Remove any loose or damaged exterior leaves, and cut out the core of the cabbage. It may be easier to first slice the head in half through the core, and then cut out each half of the core.
- Next, cut the head into strips about a quarter inch to a third inch wide. Then cross cut the strips every inch or two, so that you get long thin strips of cabbage.
- Rinse and wash your chopped cabbage in a colander.
- In a large food safe bowl or crock, begin massaging the cabbage. This should involve a series of crushing motions with your hand mixed with stirring and crushing the cabbage. The goal here is to get the cabbage slices to release some of their liquid. By the end of processing all of the cabbage, your bowl should have a fair amount of liquid, possibly even enough to submerge the cabbage.
- Add the salt to the cabbage and mix well.
- If you do not have at least an inch of liquid over the top of your cabbage leaves, prepare a brine per the ingredients above and add it to the bowl.
- Place your lid/weight on top of the cabbage, and store in a cool dark location. Make sure the weight on top keeps the cabbage below the liquid. Use only food safe weights (I used a heavy glass bowl.) I used a towel to keep light out.
- Check on the taste of your sauerkraut after a few days. Between 1-2 weeks of fermentation your sauerkraut should reach a desirable flavor. Remove any scum from the top of the sauerkraut, and then bag or jar it. It will hold in the freezer indefinitely and in the fridge for about a month.