Making Sauerkraut

Here on the East Coast we are all hunkered down waiting for Hurricane Sandy to pass through. In Western Massachusetts we’re far from the risk of storm surge that’s threatening the coast, but the winds are creeping closer. With Hurricane Irene and last Halloween’s blizzard still very fresh in our minds around here, it’s nice to have a pantry that’s well stocked with tasty homemade treats.

Last weekend we started a big batch of sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is probably the simplest kind of fermented pickle to make, and the homemade kind is a million times better than anything you can buy in a can. All you need is some cabbage and salt, and a big jar or crock to ferment it in.

Peel off and discard the outer leaves of your cabbage if they are wilted or ragged looking, and then cut the cabbage into quarters. Cut out and discard the core, and then weigh the remaining cabbage. Sauerkraut recipes tend to range from 1/2 tablespoon salt per pound of cabbage to 1 full tablespoon per pound. I follow the recommendation in The Joy of Pickling, 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of cabbage. You don’t have to measure the salt precisely, it’s really a matter of personal taste.

Working with a quarter of a cabbage at a time, finely shred the cabbage and mix it with a little of the salt in a bowl. Use your hands mix and squeeze the cabbage and work the salt into it. It will quickly begin to soften and release some water.

Once the cabbage has softened up a bit, begin packing it into a large jar or crock. 5 to 7 pounds of cabbage will fit in a 1 gallon jar. Pack the cabbage down into the jar as firmly as you can. You can use the bottom of a glass or pint jar to help pack it down. It will compress quite a bit. Continue shredding the rest of the cabbage, mixing with salt, and packing it into the jar. It will seem like it’s not going to fit in the jar, but it really shrinks down as it begins to soften.

We managed to cram 7 pounds of cabbage into a 1-gallon crock. Once all your cabbage is in the jar, take a zip-top freezer bag and fill it with a brine solution, about a tablespoon of salt per quart of water. Seal the bag and place it in the crock so that it covers the surface of the cabbage. The brine bag will help weigh down the cabbage. The cabbage should release enough of its own liquid to completely submerge the cabbage. If after 24 hours it has not released enough water to cover the cabbage, mix up a batch of brine, 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of water, and pour enough into the crock to cover the cabbage. Cover the crock with a clean dish towel (or a lid if the crock has one) and set it aside in a cool place. The sauerkraut will take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to ferment, depending on the temperature. Check on it every couple of days, and skim off any scum that forms on the surface. Once the sauerkraut stops bubbling, it’s done. At this point you can transfer it to smaller jars and refrigerate it, or you can water bath can it.