Fermenting Cabbage aka Making Sauerkraut

I began my foray into fermenting cabbage four years ago.  The results were spectacular and we were immediately hooked on making our own sauerkraut.  Once you've tasted genuine homemade sauerkraut you will never want the store bought variety again.  With each batch we learn something new and this year has been no exception so I thought I'd share.

As summer winds down I put in a call to a local farmer to see when cabbage will be ready.  Our reserves are low so  I definitely want to make a full large crock of kraut this year.

Deciding how much cabbage to buy is a guess.  You can fit a remarkable number of heads in a crock as they compact during stomping. 

 I attribute our sauerkraut success to using a  fermentation crock.  I have two sizes, a 15 liter and a 10 liter.  (To use the crocks you will also need  stone weights to keep your cabbage submerged in the brine.  In addition to regular kitchen equipment, a wooden sauerkraut stomper is helpful.)  I opted for two crocks over a single, larger crock for a couple of reasons.  First, the crocks are pretty heavy empty and when full are difficult to move.  Second, I can make two different varieties of sauerkraut
at the same time or make pickles or other fermented veggies in one and sauerkraut in the other.  I remembered writing in a previous blog post that I could have fit a couple more heads in my crock but neglected to go back and see exactly how many that would be.  Since our reserves were low I planned to use both crocks.  At the farm I decided that fifteen heads of cabbage was the magic number.  As we were washing, slicing, salting and stomping we seemed to have an awful lot of cabbage.  My husband asked, "How many heads did we have the last time?"  This is when I decided to look at my earlier post to discover that we bought seven heads and estimated that we could have added two more to the crock.  Hmmm, fifteen isn't that far off from seven plus two, right?  Anyway, I wanted to use the small crock too this time so really, it's not so much.  Some of the heads were quite large weighing well over seven pounds.  Those seven heads from our previous venture averaged five pounds each.  We had roughly ninety pounds of cabbage to wash, peel, slice and stomp!  Here's how it went:  He said:  I don't know, it's getting pretty full.  She said:  I think we can fit a couple more.  Repeat this a few times and you get the gist.  In the end we ended up with two very full crocks with just enough room to fit the weights in under the rim and one very large head of cabbage left over.  

Note to self:  Read your old post as a reminder of how many heads of cabbage to buy before trekking out to the farm.

At this point all seemed well.  The two crocks were happily gurgling along.  At the (pre) dawn of the second day we discovered water covering a large area of the kitchen floor and were puzzled as to the source.  It seems that our very full crocks were overflowing with the brine from the cabbage.  This is not an aroma you want permeating your living space.  To get things under control I ladled about 24 ounces of brine out of each crock leaving plenty of brine covering the cabbage.  We wiped the outside of the crocks and set them on a towel then proceeded to wipe up the kitchen floor.  All this at four A.M.  Not my favorite way to start the day.

Note to self:  Maybe it is possible to overfill your crocks.  Perhaps twelve is the magic number.

With two crocks to fill I decided that the larger crock would be filled with our original sauerkraut recipe using sweet onions plus caraway seeds and juniper berries for seasoning.  It is important to know the weight of the heads of cabbage you are using so that you can adjust your salt accordingly.

In the smaller crock I decided to experiment with a different combination of seasonings.  

My recipe for a 10 liter crock: 
  • 5 heads of cabbage (roughly25 pounds)
  • 2 Tbsp salt per head-Important: do not use iodized (table) salt.  Kosher (I use this), sea or canning and pickling salt are all acceptable.
  • 2 small sweet onions
  • Seasonings are optional. I decided to use 1 Tbsp. each of Coriander seeds and Black Peppercorns per head (5#) of cabbage.  After the cabbage had been stomped I added five large home grown and dried bay leaves.  I note home grown because the freshness of these probably makes them a little stronger than store bought.  If using commercial bay leaves you may want to add a couple more.
Before you start, you need to make sure everything is absolutely clean.  This includes your crock and weights of course but also the work surface, and any bowls, knives or slicers that you will be using.  I mixed up some food grade, no-rinse sanitizer to clean all of my surfaces and tools. You can find this at home brewer/wine making supply stores if you choose to go this route.

Begin by removing the loose outer leaves and then quarter the cabbage with a sharp knife.  Cut the core from the cabbage quarters and shred the head of cabbage.  To do this you can use a sharp knife, a mandolin slicer, a cutter specifically designed for cabbage or a vegetable slicer. After shredding 35 pounds of cabbage on a mandolin slicer during our inaugural sauerkraut event I decided to invest in a Nemco vegetable slicer and it was worth every penny.  This commercial hand-crank slicer requires no electricity and will breeze through a head of cabbage in a minute or less.  

When one head is finished add it to the crock and top with a layer of thinly sliced onions, 1 Tbsp. of coriander  seeds, 1 Tbsp. of black peppercorns and 2 Tbsp. of salt.  Stomp the cabbage with the wooden stomper to break it down and release the juices.  The cabbage will compact considerably.

Continue the process of shredding the cabbage and adding the salt (plus seasoning and onion) then stomp aggressively to compress the cabbage.  The salt will pull the moisture from the cabbage to create the brine. 

After the final addition has been stomped down you should have enough brine to cover the cabbage and the weights.  

Make sure all of the cabbage is off the sides of the crock and below the brine.  Add the weights
and press down so that the brine rises to cover the weights completely.

Place the lid on the crock and fill the air lock with water.  Within 24 hours you should hear the "bloop" of air bubbles being released through the water in the rim of the crock. Remember to top off the water in the airlock periodically so that you retain the seal.

The temperature at which you ferment the cabbage will affect the speed of the process.  At temps below 60 degrees the cabbage may not ferment; above 75 and it may become soft.  When fermenting the cabbage at 60-65 degrees it will take 5 to 6 weeks while storing the crock at 70-75 degrees your cabbage should be fully fermented in 3-4 weeks.  

My other sauerkraut recipes:

Homemade Sauerkraut

Homemade Sauerkraut: Sweet & Sour Beet Kraut
Homemade Sauerkraut Using Red Cabbage
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