Tim “Blind Muscat” Patterson of Subterranean Cellars has called another bottling party. This time, there’ll be home-stuffed sausages on the grill. What was I going to bring? Hmmmm…I do believe there’s a little voice whispering “sauerkraut” into my ear….

It’s ridiculously easy to make, so if you plan to throw some bratwurst or beef franks on the grill this summer, I encourage you to try your hand at making homemade sauerkraut. All you need is a head of cabbage, a sprinkling of salt and a big jar. I promise that your first bite will be a revelatory experience and that your friends will be duly impressed.

This will be the first of two posts, as the souring will take over two weeks. I actually need closer to four weeks, but the wine bottling is happening in a couple of weekends, so I’m going to accelerate the bacterial action by placing it near my stove, where the gas pilot light will give a touch of warmth. Half of the lightly fermented sauerkraut will come out for Tim and Nancy’s bacchanalia, then I’ll slow the rest of the batch for more mellow fermentation.

The formula
I’m following a recipe adapted from the Cooperative Extension of the University of Wisconsin, where I figure the German influence is dependably strong. It’s super simple:
1 kg thinly sliced cabbage + 25 grams kosher or sea salt.

That’s roughly 2 1/4 pounds and 2 tablespoons. If you don’t have a scale at home, be sure to weigh your cabbage at the grocery store. Volume measures don’t work well for grated cabbage, as there’s just too much variety in the size of the shreds and how much they compact.

The cabbage
When you buy cabbage, heft one head after another using just one hand. Buy tightly layered heads that are the heaviest in the lot for their size, and be sure to avoid any with outer leaves that are browned or wilted. I think 3 pounds is the minimum worth making, with 5 pounds yielding enough for a couple of big BBQ’s plus one nice pork chop dinner thrown in.

The container
If you don’t have a big nonreactive container (stainless steel, ceramic, glass or unchipped enamelware) with a wide mouth to hold all the cabbage, then buy 3 half-gallon Mason jars while you’re at the grocery store. Or dig up the biggest jar you can find — check your favorite local restaurant for any big jars they’re going to recycle. If you’re lucky enough to have snagged an old pickling crock at a flea market, this is the time to empty out all the umbrellas and put it to proper use. You can find new crocks for $15 to $30, while the antique ones in good condition can go for $100 or more. A 6-quart crock will hold 5 pounds of cabbage with just enough space left for a nice, heavy weight. Old wine barrels, food-safe Cambro or Lexan containers, and glazed ceramic tea or soy sauce containers all work well, too.

You can make plain sauerkraut or you can add flavorings to mellow with the cabbage while it’s fermenting. This time around, I’m going to layer in thin slices of a cored apple and a few juniper berries for just a hint of woodsy sweetness. Caraway seeds, celery seeds, whole chiles or chile flakes, and big chunks of crushed ginger are other aromatics that add a nice flavor that complements sausages, pork chops and other yummy grilled meats.


How to Make Sauerkraut

1. Slice or grate the cabbage into thin shreds with the sharpest implement you have. I have a hand-hammered slaw cutter from Bluffton, Ohio, that I love very much. Notice the $2 glove that I appropriated from the bath and beauty aisle of my local drug store. It’s the best thing ever for protecting tender fingertips and knobby knuckles without losing dexterity or wasting big bits of food. I don’t like using the food processor for preparing sauerkraut because the whole feeder tube thing makes for awkward, inelegant cabbage tatters. (For anyone who’s planning to make lots of sauerkraut every year, here are handy instructions for making your own cabbage slicer.)

2. Weigh your cabbage. For every pound, measure out 2 heaping tablespoons of kosher or sea salt. Avoid iodine salt, as the additive can scare off all the good bacteria that you’re trying to recruit.

3. Gather your cabbage confetti into a nonreactive bowl. While you’re stirring the cabbage with one hand, sprinkle the salt evenly over the cabbage. Continue stirring and tossing to coat the cabbage evenly. Set aside for 1 hour, tossing again once or twice.

4. You should see a fair amount of liquid weep off the cabbage. Keep it — that’s the brine that will help transform these humble strips of cabbage into ribbons of sauerkraut. With a stainless steel potato masher or a wooden or stone pestle, crush the cabbage to bring out even more brine.

5. Transfer the cabbage to the crock. If you’re adding aromatics, sprinkle them in between even layers of the cabbage. Pour in any liquid left in the bowl. There should be enough brine to cover the cabbage. If not, keep crushing the cabbage until there is.


6. Since the bacteria you want thrive in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) while some of the undesired critters need air, you’ll now need to seal off the cabbage as close to its surface as possible. The easiest way to do this: fill a plastic freezer bag or turkey bag with water, and then set it right on top of the cabbage. It will also provide the weight needed to keep the cabbage submerged beneath its brine. I drape a towel over the bag, just to keep things neat and insect-free.

7. For the best flavor, leave your crock in a place that just below room temperature (say 68 to 72 degrees) for at least 4 weeks. Check in on it once in a while, especially during the first few days, to be sure the brine level is good. After a while, you may notice a bit of mold growing on the cabbage where there’s any air coming in. No big deal; just scoop it away. Slightly warmer conditions will mean faster fermentation, but the flavor won’t be as complex. If the temperature dips below 60 for too long, your sauerkraut might not ferment properly.

8. Like kimchi, there’s a specific window of Best Enjoyment that varies according to the weather, the vegetable, how it’s prepped, and your own taste preferences. After the 4th week, check its flavor regularly and then transfer to a cooler place to stop the fermentation once you’ve hit the level of sourness you like. Or, if you want, process the sauerkraut in large Mason jars to preserve it even longer. Whatever you do, be sure to share with friends.

Check back in two weeks to see the results of today’s pickling session….


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