Sauerkraut, while usually paired with bratwurst and mustard, has so much more to offer than most people realize. Not only is it delicious, nutritious, and easy to make, it has origins that can be traced through and even beyond its German name. After touching on the history and benefits of this tasty fermented vegetable, we’ll show you how to make it yourself and tell you why you shouldn’t wait for Oktoberfest to put it on your plate.
Sauerkraut is a German word that translates in English to “sour cabbage.” The food is made of finely cut raw cabbage fermented by bacteria that produce lactic acid like Lactobacillus. The extended shelf life and distinctive tangy, sour flavor come from the lactic acid produced by the bacteria when they eat the natural sugars present in the cabbage leaves. And while it is popular in German and Eastern European cuisines, the roots of the food extend much further into the past.
The dish itself is as old as the Great Wall of China; the people who built that wall ate cabbage that had been fermented in rice wine. When the Tartars, a Turkic-speaking nomadic people, later invaded Europe with Genghis Khan, they brought this fermented cabbage with them. Central Europeans fermented their cabbage in a salty brine instead of rice wine, evolving and in their eyes, improving the dish. Their sauerkraut was rich in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. When you make it yourself, yours will be, too.
Sauerkraut is an often maligned, much misunderstood food. High in fiber, rich in vitamins A, C, and K, and packed with nutrients like iron and calcium, too often people associate it with the sausage it usually accompanies instead of recognizing it for the health food it is. It also contains probiotics, the live bacteria that keep your digestive enzymes balanced and can help boost immunity.
However, if you were thinking you could just skip the whole making-it-at-home part and pick some up from aisle eight, you’ll be missing out. Most of what you buy in stores has already lost its probiotics, either through age or heat pasteurization. Store-bought sauerkraut also usually has preservatives, may contain sugar, and will cost you much more than the fantastically fresh stuff you can ferment at home. Besides, fermenting your own is fun and easy, and we’ll show you how.
You don’t need any fancy equipment or high-tech toys to make sauerkraut. This shouldn’t be surprising, it has been around for a few thousand years. To get started, here’s what you’ll need: A knife, a cutting board, an optional cabbage cutter or shredder, a fermentation crock, salt, water, and cabbage.
That salt should be non-iodized salt without anti-caking ingredients, such as sea salt or canning salt. The cabbage should be fresh and the water clean and preferably distilled or spring water. And of course, you want your crock, knives, and cutting board clean as well, so the only bacteria you have in your sauerkraut is the delicious kind that produces lactic acid.
If you don’t own a crock, you can technically get by with any large, opaque, container for fermentation. You’ll need some kind of weights to make sure the fermenting cabbage stays submerged, like our ceramic weights or in a pinch, a food-grade plastic bag of salt water. You’ll also need a lid to to keep out the light. The other (better) solution for anyone missing some equipment is to pick up one of our Fermenting Kits. It includes a water-seal crock, a traditional triple blade cabbage cutter, a wooden stomper, and our Favorite Pickles and Relishes recipe book. Basically, everything you need.
Fermentation crocks come in two types, water seal vs. traditional. Both types are large, opaque, ceramic jars with heavy half-circle ceramic weights that fit inside to hold your cabbage under the surface of the brine. The differences between the two are very subtle. A water seal crock has a lip at the top that holds water to create an air-tight seal for fermenting while allowing carbon dioxide and other fermentation gasses to escape. A traditional crock is covered with a flat lid or cloth that allows the gasses produced to escape while keeping other bacteria out. A water seal crock does a better job containing the smell of fermenting vegetables, but will require occasional refills and attention to ensure the water in the moat has not evaporated. A traditional crock is usually less expensive, but can be sturdier since their form allows for a pressed mold instead of a poured form like the water-seal type.
Both types protect your sauerkraut from the UV rays that kill the bacteria that produce lactic acid, stopping the fermentation process. Both crocks also keep fermenting cabbage in an anaerobic or oxygen-free environment while also offering a built-in vent for gas produced during fermentation to escape. Finally, the thick ceramic walls of a fermentation crock insulate the reaction happening inside, keeping the cabbage nice and warm on its journey to delicious sauerkraut.
Now that you’ve got your equipment, your ingredients, and your clean, sharp knives, let’s make some sauerkraut, (or as it was called it during World War II, Liberty Cabbage.)