Fermented foods, like sauerkraut, are known to contain beneficial lactic acid bacteria that boost digestive health. However, commercially sold sauerkraut is generally required to be pasteurized, which effectively destroys all of the beneficial bacteria it contains (source). Probiotics sold over the counter aren’t much better, often containing no more than a few different strains of bacteria that are considered useful to the human body (source).
Our knowledge of probiotics and the contribution they make to healthy gut flora is increasing all the time, but we do know that healthy gut flora helps with our digestion and balances our immune system which in turn helps us to fight off infections.
Homemade sauerkraut that isn’t subjected to heat during the fermentation process can contain in excess of 13 different species of gut-friendly bacteria (source), which is key because diversity of microbiota is a vital component in furnishing and maintaining human health. Furthermore, strains of bacteria are found in different proportions in each batch of homemade sauerkraut, which can also help to increase the diversity of intestinal flora. So, fermented foods give you far more units and strains of probiotics than a supplement ever will, but there is a microbial advantage to making and consuming homemade, raw sauerkraut.
Any type of cabbage can be used to make sauerkraut but the photos below show sauerkraut made with the most common green and red cabbages you find at the grocery store – the kind that are round and heavy with with tight leaves and a shiny, smooth surface. They come in shades of green, ranging from pale to darker green, and red (or purple).
There are only 2 ingredients required to make sauerkraut so this recipe is more about the method.
- 1 large red or green cabbage, (about 5 lbs.)
- 1 – 1 1/2 Tbs. Celtic or pink Himalayan sea salt (see Notes)
- 1 Tbs. of dried juniper berries
- 1-2 tsp. caraway seeds
Peel a couple of the cleaner outer leaves away from the cabbage and reserve.
Cut the cabbage lengthwise into 4 quarters. Remove and discard some of the tough core. At this point, the cabbage can be diced or sliced any way you want – it does not have to be shredded into thin strands; it’s just that it usually is, and that’s the way I chose to prepare it here.
Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the quartered cabbage into even-sized strands and place them in a large bowl, sprinkling with some of the salt as you go. Alternatively, you can shred the cabbage in a food processor.
Add in any of the flavourings you want. Juniper berries and caraway seeds are the most common choices but I am not particularly fond of either. I rarely flavour the cabbage with anything other than the salt, although I have occasionally added a couple of minced cloves of garlic. Once all of your ingredients are in the bowl, give the mixture a toss to evenly distribute the flavours and salt. Cover the bowl and let the mixture rest for about an hour. Don’t skip this step. The cabbage will begin to release its juices during this hour without you putting in any effort at all – which is what you want.
After an hour, start massaging the cabbage with your hands and continue squeezing the juices out of the cabbage. I generally massage the cabbage off and on for 30 minutes to an hour. The process of massaging the cabbage can be quite hard on the arms – especially if you’ve doubled or tripled the recipe. It is ok to take breaks in between massaging to give your arms a rest. But massaging really is the best method to draw out a sufficient volume of liquid from the cabbage.
Once the cabbage has released sufficient liquid, transfer the mixture, in small increments, into a large, wide-mouth mason jar (about 1-quart) or any other container, as long as it has a tight fitting lid. Press the cabbage down using your fist until the liquid rises above the cabbage after each addition. Don’t worry if some of the cabbage tries to rise above the level of the liquid at this stage. Continue adding cabbage and submerging until either you’ve filled your far 3/4 full or used up all of your cabbage.
Place the reserved outer leaves over the top of the sauerkraut mixture, making a nice seal. This is to prevent individual stands of cabbage from floating above the level of the liquid in the jar. Compress the cabbage again until everything is completely submerged. (Leave at least a couple of inches of head space at the top of the jar to allow the cabbage to rise as it ferments).
Place a weight on top of the cabbage leaves and cover the entire jar with a tea towel. Secure the towel with a rubber band to prevent anything from getting inside the jar.
Place the jar in a draught proof, warm-ish place for 7 – 21 days to ferment.
The sauerkraut will start fermenting almost immediately and you may begin to smell it on the second day or so. You may also see bubbles gently moving upwards in the jar, which is a good indication that fermentation is taking place. The bubbles usually subside in about a week and at this point it is more or less ready. Times provided are dependent on temperature – if you leave the cabbage to ferment in a warm place (65 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), you can be enjoying your homemade sauerkraut in about a week. If your house is cold, it may take a little longer. I actually prefer sauerkraut that has been allowed to ferment longer as I find that the longer it stands, the more delicate the flavour becomes.
When the sauerkraut is ready, remove weights and reserved cabbage leaves. Discard the leaves. Compress the cabbage again until it is completely submerged, then close the lid to seal tightly and refrigerate. Sauerkraut will keep for months as long as it is stored in a tightly sealed container.
Many recipes on the web double the amount of salt that I use. That much salt is not necessary, and I happen to prefer sauerkraut with less salt. I start with one tablespoon and only add more if I think it needs it.
To weigh the cabbage down, I used a plastic bag, half-filled with cold water and released of air. Because the bag is a bit floppy, it takes on the shape of the jar and keeps the sauerkraut submerged while restricting the air supply. You could also place something heavy on top of a small flat plate to weigh the mixture down.
I have read on some blogs and websites that people have seen mold growing or the formation of scum during the fermentation process. I have never seen mold but a batch I made recently did produce some scum. Neither the mold or scum should harm the batch. Just remove them from the jar and allow the fermentation process to continue.
Whether you believe that food is medicine, or just want a tasty side to go with your meals, this homemade, raw sauerkraut is delicious. Taking just a couple of tablespoons a day is an excellent way to get a healthy dose of probiotics into your diet. By the way, this sauerkraut is excellent on Carrot Hot Dogs!