Sauerkraut, and fermented foods in general, are experiencing a revival in recent years, with a great amount of thanks to Sandor Katz who helped bring fermentation to the mainstream with his book Wild Fermentation. But there’s sound reason for sauerkraut’s new hipster status: it’s awesomely good for you, and it’s really tasty (albeit an acquired taste for some).
Sauerkraut (directly translated from German as “sour cabbage”) is made by lactic acid fermentation, a process by which glucose and other sugars are converted into cellular energy and lactic acid by naturally occurring bacteria found on cabbage leaves. One of those bacteria is lactobacillus which you’ve probably seen on your containers of “bio-live” yogurt.
This happy bacteria is the crux of why sauerkraut is so good for you. Good bacteria is the stuff that happy intestinal flora is made of, and sauerkraut contains a whole lot more of it than live yogurt. And lets not forget cabbage itself, which contain natural compounds known to have cancer-fighting properties. In fact, studies have indicated that short-cooked and raw cabbage are the only types of cabbage to show such cancer-preventative benefits, upping the ante for sauerkraut (and coleslaw for that matter!).
Note that all of the above health benefits apply only to naturally fermented sauerkraut; most of the stuff you buy in the shops will have been pasteurised, thus killing any beneficial bacteria that may have once been present in the kraut. There are some brands such as Raw Health that now sell “raw sauerkraut” but you’ll be spending over £3 for a tiny jar; it’s far better to pick up a 99p cabbage and make your own. Making sauerkraut is inexpensive, easy, and you can adapt the sauerkraut to suit your tastes (by adding spices like caraway or Juniper berries, or mixing it up with purple cabbage, carrots and more!).
How to Make Sauerkraut
What you will need:
- Cabbage (green, red or a mix; use at least one head of cabbage to make this worthwhile)
- A container such as a wide-mouthed mason jar, an old-fashioned purpose-built ceramic “crock”, or a large food-grade plastic container (that’s what I use)
- A plate or other flat object that will fit inside of the container above (I used the lid from another food-grade plastic container)
- Something heavy like a scrubbed and boiled rock or a large jug filled with water (or other liquid – see my contraptions here and here)
- A cloth cover – a tea towel will do the trick
First, weigh your cabbage. For every 2kg of cabbage you’ll need about 3 tablespoons of salt.
Slice up your cabbage. I used a food processor fitted with a fine blade, but you could also use a mandolin or a knife.
Pack the cabbage into your container, pushing it down into the container as you go. You want the cabbage packed super tight – this helps force water out of the cabbage.
Put your plate or lid on top of the cabbage, then put your clean heavy thing on top. The weight will continue to force water out of the cabbage. Always cover it with a cloth when left unattended.
The goal now is to expel enough water from the cabbage so that the cabbage is totally submerged in brine. So every few hours, visit your kraut and push down on the weight. If after 24 hours the cabbage isn’t submerged, add some salt water to just above the level of your plate (about 1 tablespoon of salt to 250ml water).
Leave the cabbage to ferment. Check it every day or two, then start tasting. There’s no minimum or maximum fermentation time – I let mine go for about a week. After a few days it will start tasting sour, but you can leave it to keep fermenting for a stronger sour taste. (Sauerkraut is safe to eat throughout the process, so you’re not risking anything by trying it!) When the sauerkraut tastes good to you, pack it up into a smaller jar and store it in the fridge.
The sauerkraut will keep for at least two months.
Favourite Uses for Sauerkraut
I must say, one of my fond memories from my pre-vegetarian days is Reuben Sandwiches. In light of that, I make a killer Reuben-esque omelette with sautéed mushrooms, onions, sauerkraut, caraway and swiss cheese (or avocado). Or more simply, sauerkraut mixed in with scrambled eggs is fantastic. I’ve also been mixing sauerkraut into salads; it goes especially well with beetroot. Going back to my German and Polish roots, I have a soft spot for sauerkraut pierogi and sauerkraut soup (hold the kielbasa), both of which really make me miss home!
It’s worth picking up one of Sandor Katz’s book (I have Wild Fermentation but he put out an extended version The Art of Fermentation in 2012 that gets great reviews). The book also offers suggestions for add-ins to your sauerkraut, including onions, garlic, seaweed, turnips, beetroot, caraway, dill and even apples. Also keep an eye on Charlotte Pike who is releasing a book on fermentation this year.