Learning to like fermented cabbage has been a lengthy process for me. I never managed to clear a plate of the French version, choucroute, whilst living in France, and I remained suspicious of the sour, stringy mess for many years to come. Living in Germany, however, Sauerkraut is incredibly difficult to avoid: it’s a staple on restaurant menus, mostly as an accompaniment to pork in its various forms, and I’ve gradually become a huge fan of its sour flavour as a complement to sausages, roasted pork knuckle and cured pork chops.
However, I’ve always been intimidated by the idea of making Sauerkraut: scared of it growing mould, and horrified by the idea of it exploding in the fridge – both unnecessary fears, it transpired, having been carefully guided in my first attempt at fermenting cabbage at a German cooking and fermenting workshop in Berlin. Passionate about traditional German culinary traditions and food preservation methods, Julia Hammond taught me how simple it is to prepare the cabbage for lacto-fermentation*, and how to watch over it carefully in order to avoid any nasty growths and/or messy accidents. Following her instructions to the letter, I discovered how easy Sauerkraut is to make – and I think I may have even caught the fermenting bug myself.
There are really only two basic ingredients you need for making Sauerkraut – white cabbage and salt – but other ingredients such as wine, juniper berries, cloves and caraway seeds can be added for various regional German flavourings. I opted to keep mine plain as it makes it more flexible once it’s ready to eat: in Germany, Sauerkraut is served warm, usually braised with chopped apple, onion and/or bacon, as well as spices including bay leaves and peppercorns (as well as those listed above) depending on what you’re eating it with.
In order that your Sauerkraut-making goes to plan, there are a couple of important points to note: firstly, in order to avoid mould growing in your jar, work with washed hands and ensure the jar is squeaky clean before you start – your best bet is to put it in the dishwasher and leave it to dry naturally. Julia also recommends creating an inner lid out of a cabbage leaf, which will protect your Sauerkraut should any rogue bacteria grow on it, and prevent yeast from forming on top of it too, so you won’t have to do any skimming or scraping as the cabbage ferments.
It’s also important to store your fermenting cabbage at the correct temperature: too warm, and it could go mouldy; too cool and the fermentatin process will stop altogether. So, don’t put your Sauerkraut in the fridge until it’s ready! Finally, when it comes to the cabbage preparation, don’t be tempted to skimp on the massaging; it may be hard work, but the releasing of the cabbage juices is essential for the fermentation process.
With thanks to Julia Hammond for her recipe.
Ingredients (for one 720ml jar, yields approximately 500g Sauerkraut)
1 white cabbage (approximately 750g)
1.5 tsp sea salt
Optional: juniper berries, caraway seeds, cloves; a good glug of white wine
Equipment: 1 720ml lidded jar
Halve the cabbage and cut out and discard its solid core. Remove one leaf from the outside of the cabbage and set aside (this will serve as a lid later on). Using a sharp knife, finely shred the rest of the cabbage, put it into a large bowl and sprinkle with the salt.
Firmly massage the salted cabbage with your hands for a good 15 minutes, until the shredded leaves are becoming soft and have released some of their liquid to create a brine. Mix in any spices you wish to add.
Pack the cabbage into your clean jar, pouring any remaining liquid in on top at the end. Now cut your reserved cabbage leaf into a circle larger than the lid of the jar and tuck it on top of the shredded cabbage, tucking its edges upwards to create a flat bowl. Now place the proper lid on the jar: your cabbage is ready to start fermenting!
Store the jar somewhere cool – the ideal temperature for fermentation is around 20c (70f) – and keep a close eye on it for the first 24 hours. Gas will be building up inside the jar, and you may need to loosen the lid to release the pressure. Continue to check on it every 48 hours, loosening the lid each time before replacing it tightly. If for some reason your jar leaks, mix a little more salt water together and pour it in to ensure that the cabbage remains submerged.
After 7 days, taste your Sauerkraut to see if it’s to your liking; if you prefer a stronger flavour, you can leave it to ferment for up to 21 days. Once it’s reached the level of sourness you like, put your jar of Sauerkraut in the fridge to stop it fermenting, and start thinking about what you’d like to do with it.
Good luck, and let me know how you get on!
Have you made Sauerkraut? What do you like to eat it with?
*You can learn more about the lacto-fermentation process at Cultures for Health.