How to make sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is a German word for fermented cabbage, literally meaning “sour cabbage”. This food has had a very long history, especially in Germanic and Eastern European cuisines but also in France and some North European countries. It is believed that sauerkraut was brought to Europe from China 1,000 years ago. In the past, sauerkraut was a regular part of the winter diet. Cabbage was an easy-to-grow and relatively cheap food, so it often used to be the main food for poor people. That is why so many recipes have been created using sauerkraut either as a main or additional ingredient.

In the modern industrial world of today, this food is almost forgotten. However, due to its important role in the traditional diet, in some European countries sauerkraut is still regularly prepared in many households but also in restaurants which serve traditional food. 


Homemade Sauerkraut


Sauerkraut dishes can be prepared in many ways. Sauerkraut can be cooked or baked - as part of main course or as a side dish. It is usually cooked with meat or sausages and can be alternatively served raw as a salad.  

Sauerkraut is a great source of vitamin C and dietary fibers. This is why it is considered a very healthy food, especially because it is served in wintertime when sources of fresh vegetables are limited.

Sauerkraut can be prepared from shredded cabbage or from whole cabbage heads, and sometimes by combining of these two. As with any fermented food, the basic requirements for making sauerkraut of good taste and quality are related to good hygiene during preparation and suitable temperature during fermentation.

Cabbage ferments by various lactic acid bacteria in anaerobic conditions. These are naturally occurring bacteria present on cabbage leaves.


The traditional process of making sauerkraut


The traditional batch of sauerkraut is usually made of 50 or more kilograms (110 pounds) of cabbage. It often occurs that several families make and use it together. Large batches enable easier maintenance and preserving quality during several months. Here is a recipe based on 10kg of fresh cabbage, so you can adjust it to suit your needs.


Fresh cabbage heads     Salt black pepper caraway bay leaf


Ingredients and equipment:

10 kg (22 pounds) fresh cabbage
100-150 g (3.5-5 oz) salt (1-1.5%), 
6g peppercorns, 6-8g caraway and 2-3g bay leaf
Container (wooden or plastic barrel), capacity at least 15-20lit (4-5 gallons)
Cotton cloth, wooden planks, weight


First, you need to make sure that all the tools that come into contact with the cabbage are sanitized. This is important because we need to avoid unwanted microbial contamination of cabbage because it could disrupt the fermentation process. In case the cabbage was contaminated, however, it would soon begin to spoil and smell unpleasantly, which would significantly shorten its shelf life.


Cabbage preparation: 

Cabbage should be fresh, so that the leaves are still firm and full of sap. There are even varieties of cabbage which are, due to their large, well-formed leaves and high water content, particularly suitable for fermentation. All dirty and damaged outer leaves found on cabbage heads should be removed. If necessary, the heads can be rinsed. You should cut them in halves, remove the cores (hard, callous stems) and then chop or shred.  Leave the most beautiful cabbage heads whole; after fermentation they will serve for preparation of dishes like sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls).


Grating small batch of cabbage     Grating large batch of cabbage


Loading the barrel:

In a clean wooden or plastic barrel (big enough to be filled with cabbage to no more than 70-80% - for 10kg of fresh cabbage you need 15-20l barrel capacity) first put a cabbage layer of several kilograms and then sprinkle part of the prepared spices - for 10kg of cabbage: 100-150 g salt, 6g peppercorns, 6-8g caraway and 2-3g bay leaf. 


Spices for traditional sauerkraut     Spices sprinkled over shredded cabbage


Between the layers of shredded cabbage, you may put cabbage heads, whole or cut to your liking. To complement the whole procedure, additionally fill the gaps between the heads with shredded cabbage so as to minimize air pockets in the barrel. 


Loading the barrel with cabbage for making sauerkraut     Packed and leveled cabbage shreds


Fermentation is an anaerobic process, so it is necessary to pack the cabbage tightly and make sure there is no air remaining. This is achieved by pressing with the cabbage stomper/tamper, punching the liquids out, or simply by punching down with your fist. In the past, this used to be done by "trampling" – with their feet thoroughly washed, children got inside barrels to trample down the cabbage.


Tamping the cabbage to release its juice     Cabbage sap released by tamping and added salt


Due to the effects of compaction and the added salt, shredded cabbage very quickly begins to release sap. The sap runs down to the bottom and squeezes out the air, thus creating an anaerobic environment. It is very important that at the end of the procedure the liquid level is completely above the shredded cabbage and that no air pockets remain. This is because otherwise the cabbage would start to spoil, which would subsequently affect the entire content in the barrel.

Finally, cover with a sterilized cotton cloth, put on top of it clean wooden planks weighted by a heavy object, e.g. a rock. The planks should be arranged in such a way to form a grid over the cabbage surface in the barrel, transmitting pressure evenly to the entire surface. 


Cotton cloth cover at the top of cabbage     Wooden planks weighed by large bottle of water


Fermentation of the cabbage

The “weight“ for this amount of cabbage should be at least 5kg (11 pounds) and its function is to prevent the cabbage to come to the surface and in contact with air. Ideally, the liquid should be at least 2-3 cm (1 inch) above the cabbage level. As fermentation progresses, more and more liquid is to occur. If, however, there is not enough liquid, add some boiled and cooled water. Cover the barrel with a clean sheet or tablecloth for protection against fruit flies and other insects. Keep in a warm place to ferment for 2-3 weeks at a temperature of about 21-24oC (70-75oF): the cabbage will take on a pleasant, “tangy” smell and taste.

A sure sign of the beginning of proper fermentation is the appearance of white foam on the surface. The liquid in which cabbage ferments is called brine. There is an interesting fact in connection to it - it has long been used as a hangover cure in folk medicine. 


Sauerkraut fermentation     Foam on the surface of sauerkraut during fermentation


How to preserve quality of sauerkraut

Maintain hygiene in the barrel so that, when mold occurs on the surface, the planks and cloth are removed, well rinsed and disinfected by boiling; then cover again and press the cabbage. This is necessary because aerobic microorganisms start to develop at the places where the liquid comes in contact with air, which causes the cabbage to spoil.

When the fermentation is completed, cabbage should be stored in a cool place to slow down any further microbiological processes leading to spoilage of cabbage. It is best to keep it at a temperature just a few degrees above freezing point. Thus the cabbage can be stored for several months, usually until it is fully consumed or until spring arrives when there are no more natural conditions for keeping it any longer. This is also the time of year when fresh vegetables start to be served instead. 

In case some of the sauerkraut is left, put it in the freezer; its quality is perfectly preserved in the freezer. Therefore, this great food can be used all year round.

Traditional cabbage shredder


Traditionally, cabbage is shredded with a special “cabbage shredder”. This kind of shredder is designed for easy handling of bulky cabbage heads and it is usually used exclusively for cabbage shredding.