Homemade Easy Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is not a new food by any extent of the imagination, but its popularity has been renewed in recent years as the health benefits of fermented food became mainstream knowledge. Making sauerkraut at home can really save some money—a jar of fermented sauerkraut can cost upwards of $7 a jar! I can make organic sauerkraut for much, much less than that. And the process of making sauerkraut is quite simple, so the work involved doesn’t mitigate the savings.
The only downside is the waiting: it takes about 4 weeks to complete the fermentation process, but it’s worth the wait.
Many people have gone to incorporate fermented food in their daily diet, much as our ancestors did eons ago. The benefits are well-known, such as the addition of probiotics to promote gut health and an increase presence of nutrients in an otherwise already healthful food.
For those of us who grow a home garden, cabbage is a staple crop. The varieties of cabbages are many and all of them can be turned into tasty and healthy sauerkraut, although some will have a higher yield than others. In the example below, I turned the last 4 heads of my Red Acre Cabbage, sown in early Spring into a colorful and delicious sauerkraut. I also love to grow a dozen heads of Fall cabbage, a mixture of Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage and Late Flat Dutch Cabbage, exclusively for sauerkraut production. The high quality ferment will last month in my cold storage and provide valuable nutrition to my family.
What is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is a pickled, tangy cabbage that can be added to many dishes or enjoyed by itself. In my house, we love to add Sauerkraut to salads, as a condiment to burgers and hot-dogs and even as a sour side to a fatty piece of meat. The possibilities are endless, but they all start with the basic method of lactic acid fermentation.
Sauerkraut is a German word translating to "Sour Cabbage" and is a traditional method for preserving the cabbage harvest by pickling its finely shredded leaves with a lactic acid fermentation process. Although we know fermented cabbage under its German name, Germany is not the origin of this dish.
Fermenting cabbage with salt was already practiced in Asia as early as the Great Wall of China’s construction. The practice was likely transmitted from China to Europe by the Tatars and then took root mostly in Central and Eastern European cuisines as an effective way to preserve the cabbage harvest for the long winters.
How does fermentation work?
Fermentation occurs when lactic acid bacteria colonize a substrate, in this case cabbage. There are four main known bacteria present in a sauerkraut ferment: Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Lactobacillus brevis, Pediococcus pentosaceus, and Lactobacillus plantarum.
Fermentation by lactobacilli is introduced naturally when using organically grown cabbage as these bacteria are naturally present on the cabbage leaves. This is ideal for home gardeners who can harvest their cabbage and process them into sauerkraut immediately as the population of those bacteria will be ideal and unaffected by transportation delays, chemical applications, etc.
The fermentation process has three phases, collectively sometimes referred to as population dynamics. In the first phase, anaerobic bacteria lead the fermentation, and begin producing an acidic environment that favors later bacteria. The second phase starts as the acid levels become too high for many bacteria, and Leuconostoc mesenteroides and other Leuconostoc species take dominance. In the third phase, various Lactobacillus species, including L. brevis and L. plantarum, ferment any remaining sugars, further lowering the pH.
Sounds too science-y for you? Don’t worry! This is just the nitty-gritty of fermentation which is interesting for sure, but not necessary to actually make the Sauerkraut in your own kitchen!
Crocks, Jars and Controversy
The good news is although sauerkraut is a definitively refined biological process of preserving and transforming cabbage, it is remarkably easy to make.
All you need to make sauerkraut is organic cabbage, salt and an airtight container that can accommodate your ferment while also allowing the release of the carbon dioxide released during the fermentation.
Sounds good? Well, it is, despite the sometimes heated debate on the merits of fermentation crocks VS the less expensive and smaller glass jars. After wasting both time and money on a number of contraptions, I have settled on the ever-popular Mason jars and the water-seal fermentation crocks as the only two viable options for home fermentations.
To make sauerkraut, you need a glass or ceramic jar large enough for the finely shredded and packed amount of cabbage you have. For my spring-grown cabbages, I generally use Quart sized Mason jars while my large heads of Fall cabbage, either Mammoth Red Rock or Late Flat Dutch fill my traditional 2 gallons ceramic crocks.
Here is a simple set-up for fermentation beginners not wishing to break the bank (and no, I do not have an affiliate link! It’s just my personal recommendations).
If you want to invest in ceramic crocks, then I do recommend buying crocks made in Germany or the US. The water seal on these crocks as well as the light excluding material make the fermentation process less chancy. The higher volume also means a slower, more stable fermentation with a deeper, more complex taste that fermentation enthusiasts will tell you is very much worth it.
My personal favorites are the Ohio Stoneware, but there are others who are of equal quality. These are the ones I bought and use for my Fall cabbages and I recommend them wholeheartedly, despite their tag price. Just make sure you whip up a few batches with the inexpensive Mason Jars beforehand. The jars will also come in handy if you want to venture into other fermented foods.
Organic cabbage, ideally 2-3 lbs, cleaned and finely shredded
Water- optional and only to top off the brine if needed.
Here’s the thing. Sauerkraut is easy, but to obtain the correct ratio, you need to weight it. It was a hard lesson to learn for me, since I don’t like to dig in my drawers to fetch the kitchen scale, but after wasting a few batches of sauerkraut – and my precious homegrown cabbage – I finally learned my lesson.
Clean your cabbage thoroughly and remove any blemished, insect-damaged or otherwise unhealthy outer leaves. Weight your resulting prepared cabbage. If you chose to add some ingredients to your ferment such as shredded carrots or onions, weight them at the same time as they need to follow the same weight to salt ratio.
Calculate the amount of salt you need. When making sauerkraut, you want a 2% salt ratio, which means that for every 100 grams of cabbage, you want to add 2 grams of salt.
In the example below, my total cabbage quantity was 2.8 lbs, or 1270 grams. At a 2% ratio, this means I need 25.4 grams of salt.
Mix the shredded cabbage and salt in batches in a large bowl, massaging quite firmly with your hands as you go. If you have children, this step will go fast as they love to dig in the wet, crunchy cabbage with their fingers. Do this for at least 5 minutes.
The process of mixing salt and massaging the cabbage releases a good amount of liquid, which will be needed to keep the ferment anaerobic in the first phase of the fermentation process.
I usually cover the massaged mixture and leave for about 30 minutes to release a maximum quantity of liquid, but you can skip and jump ahead if you don’t have the time or the patience to wait!
Using a wooden tamper or your hands, tightly pack the cabbage in your desired container, pressing down firmly to express the liquid. The goal here is the pack the cabbage as much as possible and express the liquid to cover the solids completely to create the anaerobic environment needed to prevent the bad bacteria, fungi and yeasts from ruining our sauerkraut.
At this point pour the remaining liquid on top of the packed cabbage. The liquids should completely cover the solids. Pick up any floating pieces of cabbage on top of the liquid.
If you don’t have enough liquid to cover the cabbage, add some brine with the same salt concentration of 2%, which is 1 teaspoon salt per cup of water.
Place the weighs on top of the cabbage to keep the solids down and place the airtight seal on. If you use a water-seal crock, follow the instructions (fairly easy… just cover the lid with water to create the seal).
Place your ferment in a dark, cool place. A temperature of 60-70 degrees is ideal and you certainly don’t want to go as high as 80 degrees or the ferment risks going bad, resulting in foul taste and smell that is sure to deter you from eating it!
Fermentation will take 2-4 weeks to complete. At this point, place your sauerkraut in the refrigerator where it will keep for a long time. The sauerkraut is edible at any stage, so if you prefer a less sour taste, you can stop the fermentation process earlier than 4 weeks, but we prefer to allow it to complete for a deeper, more complex flavor.
Sauerkraut made and stored in ceramic crock can be kept for months in cold storage, but you will need to maintain the water-seal to prevent mold from ruining your ferment.
TIP: you can have fun with this! I love to add spices such as cumin, black pepper, caraway ect. to my ferment. You can also shred carrots or onions and mix into the sauerkraut. Whatever you do, just be sure to weight new ingredients and adjust the salt content accordingly.
There it is! My easy way to make sauerkraut from my homegrown cabbage. Let me know in the comments below if you try and like it or if you have any other suggestions for making sauerkraut at home.
 Plengvidhya V, Breidt F Jr, Lu Z, Fleming HP. DNA fingerprinting of lactic acid bacteria in sauerkraut fermentations. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2007;73(23):7697-7702. doi:10.1128/AEM.01342-07
 The pH of completely cured sauerkraut is about 3.6; see Belitz, H.-D.; Grosch, Werner; Schieberle, Peter (2009). Food Chemistry (4th ed.). Springer. p. 803. ISBN 9783540699330.