My first attempt at sauerkraut several years ago was an overly salted and under-fermented quart of complete mush. But at the time I was living in Brooklyn, knew no one else who would even attempt such a thing, and was ultimately proud of my questionable kraut creation. Fast forward many years, many teachers, and many experiments later, and I'd love to demystify some of the very simple lessons I've learned along the way for those who are just starting out or need a little assurance that it's all going to be okay.
Don't focus too much on a “recipe”
Sauerkraut is as much of an art as it is a science. Even Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, has told me that there isn’t an exact amount of salt, best seasoning to add, or a right/wrong way to cut your cabbage. When cutting, you can do big chunks, paper-thin slices, and anything in between and they will all be great. For flavor, it really all depends on your personal preference. The general rule is to taste-test the cabbage before putting it in the jar and adjust accordingly. It should be slightly too salty to eat raw.
I recommend keeping your kraut simple at first then experimenting with adding more flavors. Some common add-ins are caraway seeds, ginger, garlic, horseradish, and hot peppers. Adding 1 TBSP per quart is a good rule of thumb. Keep in mind that leafy greens, like kale, dissolve into mush and sugary roots, like carrots, can give your brine a more viscous texture. Keep your kraut to 80% cabbage and it will be in good shape!
If you are brand new to fermentation and want a basic recipe, I recommend the recipe on the Cultures for Health Website.
The right supplies make a big difference
When starting out, most people cobble together a kit using a quart size Ball jar and a variety of other items to weigh down the vegetables under their salty brine. Most commonly people use the discarded cabbage core and exterior leaves to submerge and weigh down the vegetables. You then want to put on a solid lid, not cloth, to keep out bugs, dust, etc. With this method, you need to open the jar every day to release the CO2 that is a natural byproduct of fermentation. We call this process "burping" the kraut.
What I have found to be the ultimate, foolproof tool is the Kraut Source lid. The design includes a spring-loaded weight in the lid to hold down your vegetables and a moat that gets filled with water to create an airlock so you don't need to worry about the burping process. The airlock allows CO2 to escape through the water, yet nothing can get in. These lids fit on all wide mouth ball jars and are one of our biggest sellers. I can't sing their praises enough!
Other handy tools are a wide mouth funnel to get the cabbage neatly in the jar and a tamper (aka kraut pounder) to get the kraut sufficiently compressed with no air bubbles. Though I tend to just use my hands for both because I'm no frills.
Fresh cabbage is key for the brine and texture
This ideally means local cabbage purchased from a farmer who you value. At the very least this means a cabbage that has been sitting in your fridge for less than 5 days. Freshness matters because over time the cabbage dries out. Even though it may still be perfectly edible, the water content will be lower and it will be much harder to get the juice out of the cabbage, which is needed to create the brine. If it’s too dry you will need to massage your cabbage a lot to get the juices out and your end product will be mushy.
Your fermentation time frame depends on your taste and the room temperature
Heat speeds up the process, so you might find your summer krauts getting where you want them in 5-7 days, whereas in the cold winter months it will likely take upwards of 2 weeks for all the beneficial bacteria to fully populate your creation. That being said, it is not recommended to put your kraut near a heat source. Keep it at ambient room temperature (anywhere between 65-75 F) for best results. In regards to flavor, the longer it ferments the more acidic and tangy it will taste. Treat yourself to samples along the way to determine your preferred flavor profile.
What if it looks funky?
Depending on the tempurature and if some of your veggies happen to float above the liquid level, you might end up with some white scum on top. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, just carefully scrape that off. Everything underneath that’s submerged in the salt brine should be fine! White mold can't permeate the liquid. I used to get white scum every time I made kraut and just always factored in that some of my creation was bound for the compost pile, but haven't had to toss anything since using the Kraut Source lid.
How to stay in the flow
As soon as a batch is "done" I put it in the fridge and chop up another cabbage and start the process all over again. I find that I usually go through a quart every 2 weeks because I eat about 1-2 tablespoons per day.
More kraut doesn't give you "more" gut health. It's high in salt, so this is a situation where too much of a good thing can turn into a not such a good thing. Having a variety of ferments in your diet is the best way to populate your digestive tract with beneficial bacteria. For a mix of different ferments, you could try sourdough toast with a fried egg, aged cheese, and kraut with a side of black tea.