Homemade Sauerkraut is Easy to Make and Fun to Customize

Homemade caraway sauerkraut.
Homemade caraway sauerkraut. (Kate Williams)

Great tasting raw sauerkraut is not hard to find in grocery stores in the Bay Area, and store-bought ‘kraut is a perfect choice for a last-minute fermented cabbage emergency. (Hey, you don’t have those?) But nothing can really compare to the simple pleasures of making your own sauerkraut at home. It’s almost criminally easy to ferment cabbage, plus DIY sauerkraut is an excellent place to get creative and experiment.

I typically make sauerkraut in smaller batches so that I can have several flavors going at once. I start with a small, 2-pound green cabbage and some kosher salt — that’s all you really need for the ‘kraut, but you can get fancy if you choose.

All you need to make homemade sauerkraut is cabbage and salt. Additional flavorings — like caraway seeds — are entirely optional.
All you need to make homemade sauerkraut is cabbage and salt. Additional flavorings — like caraway seeds — are entirely optional. (Kate Williams)

First, core and shred the cabbage. I like to cut the cabbage into relatively thick strips for a more substantial ‘kraut, but you can get crazy with your knife skills and finely shred it into extra-thin ribbons if you’d like. Transfer the cabbage to the largest bowl you can find and add a serious sprinkling of salt (for 2 pounds of cabbage, I use 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon of kosher).

Now get your hands in there and knead the cabbage. Yes, knead. Think of it like giving a kale salad a massage, but much more forcefully. The idea is that you want to wilt the cabbage until it begins to give off water. This liquid will mix with the salt to form a potent brine. The brine is the ideal environment for lactobacillus bacteria — the culture responsible for giving sauerkraut its signature tang. It will take several minutes of serious kneading to break down the cabbage. Don’t be shy and think of it as a hand and forearm workout.

Knead the cabbage until it begins to exude water.
Knead the cabbage until it begins to exude water. (Kate Williams)

Once the cabbage is wilted and watery, stir in any additional flavors you want. Here I’ve made two ‘krauts, one with just a touch of caraway seeds and another with shredded beets and a serrano chile for a pop of color and spice. You could also skip the flavorings completely and keep the sauerkraut plain or go crazy with other additions — it’s totally up to you.

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Next, pack the cabbage into as small of a jar as you can fit it in. If you’re not adding anything substantial to the ‘kraut, it should fit in a pint-sized canning jar. If you’re making the beet variation, you’ll likely need a larger vessel, like a 1-quart jar. Whatever you use, pack the cabbage tightly. It should continue to exude its water, and you’ll want to see a thin layer of brine on top of the cabbage once it is in the jar. This brine will act as a protective layer and keep the top of the sauerkraut from molding while it sits at room temperature.

Pack the cabbage firmly into a jar. Press it into the jar until you can see the brine forming a layer on top of the cabbage.
Pack the cabbage firmly into a jar. Press it into the jar until you can see the brine forming a layer on top of the cabbage. (Kate Williams)

Side note: If you do start to see discoloration or mold on the top of the cabbage, you can just scrape it off and move on. If you see the same mold or discoloration creeping down towards the bottom of the jar, you may need to discard the sauerkraut and start over.

Once the ‘kraut is packed and ready, cover the jar loosely. You’ve got options here. You can use the canning jar lid by flipping it upside down so that the gasket is facing up. Gently screw on the band to allow for gases to escape. You can also cover the jar with a triple layer of cheesecloth or a kitchen towel, but be ready for fruit flies if you’re fermenting in the summer. I also have these nifty air-lock lids I purchased just for making ferments, and those are the best option if you’ve got ‘em.

You can cover the jar with a loosely fitting canning lid; flip the lid so that the gasket side is facing up.
You can cover the jar with a loosely fitting canning lid; flip the lid so that the gasket side is facing up. (Kate Williams)
Lids with built-in airlocks (above) are an even better option, if you’ve got ‘em.
Lids with built-in airlocks (above) are an even better option, if you’ve got ‘em. (Kate Williams)

Place the jar in a cool, dark place to ferment. The length of time is up to you (and the weather). It was warm the day I started these ‘krauts, but cooled off for the following few days. I liked the flavor after four days at room temperature. If I had started fermenting in the winter, they may have taken over a week. The best judge for when the sauerkraut is finished is your own taste buds. The ‘kraut will look duller in color and will have visible bubbles inside the jar once it has begun to ferment. You can let it sit longer if you like a yeastier, funkier flavor or pull it if you prefer a subtly tangy result. Transfer it to the refrigerator when you like the taste. Keep in mind, though, that the sauerkraut will continue to ferment and develop in the fridge, albeit at a much slower pace.

The fully fermented kraut will have visible bubbles inside the jar and will have dulled in color.
The fully fermented kraut will have visible bubbles inside the jar and will have dulled in color. (Kate Williams)

At this point, the ‘kraut is ready for eating. Toss it on a hot dog, layer it into a reuben sandwich, or eat it straight-up, right out of the jar.

Homemade sauerkraut with caraway (front) and homemade beet and chile sauerkraut (rear).
Homemade sauerkraut with caraway (front) and homemade beet and chile sauerkraut (rear). (Kate Williams)

Recipe: Homemade Sauerkraut with Caraway

Makes about 2 cups

Note: You can modify this recipe by substituting another spice for the caraway. Juniper berries are a popular option. You can also, of course, skip the seasoning all together and make plain sauerkraut with only cabbage and salt.

    Ingredients:
  • 1 small (2 pound) green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
    Instructions:
  1. Combine the cabbage and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands, knead the salt into the cabbage by squeezing and and tossing the cabbage. Continue to knead the cabbage until it has wilted significantly and has begun to release liquid, about 5 minutes. Stir in the caraway seeds.
  2. Transfer the cabbage and all of its liquid to a 1-pint canning jar. Pack the cabbage tightly. There should be a thin layer of briny liquid on top of the cabbage. Cover the jar with the lid, gasket side up, and lightly close with the band. (You can also cover the jar with a lid and airlock.)
  3. Place the jar in a cool, dark location to ferment. During the summer, the sauerkraut may be ready to eat in as few as three days. In cooler months, it may take longer. The finished sauerkraut will have dulled in color and begun to bubble. It will taste tangy and a little sour. Transfer to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Recipe: Homemade Beet and Chile Sauerkraut

Makes about 3 cups

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Note: Here’s a brightly colored variation on traditional sauerkraut. The chile adds subtle heat to the final ‘kraut, but it can be omitted if you don’t want any spice.

    Ingredients:
  • 1 small (2 pound) green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 medium red beet, peeled and grated
  • 1 serrano chile, stem trimmed and sliced in half vertically
    Instructions:
  1. Combine the cabbage and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands, knead the salt into the cabbage by squeezing and and tossing the cabbage. Continue to knead the cabbage until it has wilted significantly and has begun to release liquid, about 5 minutes. Stir in the grated beet and chile until well-combined.
  2. Transfer the cabbage and beet mixture with all of its liquid to a 1-quart canning jar. Pack the mixture tightly. There should be a thin layer of briny liquid on top of the cabbage. Cover the jar with the lid, gasket side up, and lightly close with the band. (You can also cover the jar with a lid and airlock.)
  3. Place the jar in a cool, dark location to ferment. During the summer, the sauerkraut may be ready to eat in as few as three days. In cooler months, it may take longer. The finished sauerkraut will have dulled in color and begun to bubble. It will taste tangy and a little sour. Transfer to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

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