How To Make Sauerkraut - Crock Style!

We’ve had several failed attempts at making sauerkraut over the years. 

Nothing so horrifying as the mind might come up with when contemplating room-temperature open-air cabbage fermentation, but failures all the same: the first attempt was waaay too salty, salty to make you gag; second try resulted in a cloudy jar of brown shreds that my survival instinct strictly vetoed any sampling of; and most recently we almost had it, but still on the salty side and without that living fermented sour tang of real ‘kraut.  It was like a whale had barfed up a bunch of half-digested sea cabbage: not as bad as you’d expect, but definitely not good. 

SO.  We decided to switch methods.  You see, I’d been squarely in the camp of “do it in the jar” sauerkraut.  Meaning, you slice, salt, crush, and jar the cabbage all in the same go, leave it at room temp for a few days, then supposedly it’s done and you just pop it in the fridge and eat at leisure.  Clean, easy, simple, quick!  Sadly also, an apparent rural legend.

The other camp, which I’d been apprehensive to try, is the “crock” method.  Do a quick net search on “make your own sauerkraut” and the majority of what you’ll get back concerns the crock method.  Why was I apprehensive?  For one, doing it crock-style means having a vat of rotting cabbage under your sink for several weeks.  For two, I quote  “... every day or two, be sure to scrape off the scum that grows on top of the brine...”  Right.  So, we gave the jar method several stubborn attempts. 

But we’re older now, and wiser, and have borne the shame of those failed ‘krauts.  It’s time to crock this stuff.  Aprons on. Big stiff drink.  Let’s look at our ingredients and supplies:

 

One cabbage, fresh as you can get.  Almost every sauerkraut recipe I've come across calls for cabbage either (A) by some arbitrary size measurement e.g. "medium", or (B) by weight after shredding e.g. "5 pounds shredded cabbage".  Now, we (A) have no idea what the median cabbage girth is, and (B) don’t keep enough cabbages on hand to core them and shred them and THEN weigh out the results to 5 pounds.  So here’s what we did.  Go to the market.  Buy a cabbage about the size of a volleyball.  This will yield, after you remove the outer skank leaf and core, somewhere around 4 pounds, which is the right ratio for 2Tbs salt that we’ll use. We hope.  The fresher the cabbage is, the more liquid it will contain, and hence the more brine you'll end up with - more is better! 

Two tablespoons salt.  Check around and you’ll find a lot of agreement on 3Tbsp salt to 5lbs cabbage.  However you want to work that out, fine, but we used 2 tablespoons since we thought we probably had 4 pounds of cabbage, maybe less.  See above.  End result seems a little on the salty side, but not inedible.  Use good sea salt if you can.

One Stoneware Crock, 1-Gallon or Greater.  We got ours at Sur La Table for fifteen bucks.  It was actually one of the things they were displaying spatulas in.  We boiled ours in a big old kettle to sterilize it, but as long it’s freshly washed and clean things should be fine. 

One Plate That Fits In The Crock Without Too Much Wiggle Room.  This key component will allow the brine to squeeze out around its edges while keeping the shredded cabbage safely submerged.  So look for a maximum gap of less that a quarter inch if possible.  Some places online sell special fermenting crocks that have wood plates that fit nice and snug – we kinda got lucky with one of our salad plates.  Think ahead!  Again, we sterilized this plate with boiling water.

One Big Sharp-Ass Knife.  Something to slice up the cabbage, or at least cut it into manageable chunks for your food processor or mandolin, if you should be so lucky.  Really, a nice sharp 8” or 10” chef’s knife will work fine for the whole procedure if that’s all you’ve got.  

One Thing To Mash Cabbage With.  The last couple times I used a potato masher, and that worked OK, but when we were crock shopping I found a good dowel at Sur La Table.  We’ve read of folks using baseball bats, two-by-fours (mind any lumber treatments, though!), coffee table legs, on and on.  You just need something to pound down on a crock full of cabbage.  Dowel works great, was 12 bucks.  

One Thing To Weigh It Down.  Like a big rock or in our case a 2-quart jar that we’ll fill with molten lead, or water.  Whatever will really pack it down – again, wash thoroughly and sterilize with a boiling water rinse.  Did you know that the curvature of spacetime is affected not only by mass, but also by pressure?  Look it up.

One Cloth To Bind Them.  A large cloth that will be draped over the crock to keep out flies, dust, cats, etc.  A bandana or kerchief or whatever will work. 


Components collected, it’s time to begin.  

First - S terilize Things!  We use boiling water - a huge stock pot of it, actually.  Boil the crock, boil the compressor plate, boil the weight jar, boil a pair of tongs.  If you don't have a kettle big enough, you can probably get away with just pouring boiling water in the crock and dunking the jar in - the goal is just to get anything that will be under the brine with the cabbage as sterile as you can get it.  

Next - Prep The Cabbage.  Remove the outer leaf of the cabbage - it's meaty but probably damaged and scuzzy.  No need to wash the cabbage after this outer leaf is off, nice.  Now, halve the cabbage with your knife.  One great thing about making sauerkraut is that every part of it is physically enjoyable.  For me, there is nothing so singularly satisfying as chopping a fresh cabbage in half with a large razor-sharp German chef’s knife while Bach’s “Toccata and fugue in d BWV 565” emerges as blue magma from the floorboards.  

Once halved, remove the core, like this:

 Then, cut each half into quarters, and eighths, and into the processor if you have one; otherwise slice carefully, reducing the cabbage into fine shreds maybe the thickness of a poker chip's edge.  Your preference really.  If you're using a food processor, be sure to pull the shredded cabbage out of the processor before it's full - you don't want to comress the cabbage quite yet - and put it in stages into the crock....

 

NEXT, Crock it and Salt it.  Layer your shredded cabbage into the crock - a few inches then a dash of salt, a few inches then a dash of salt – until the crock is nearly full.  

 

Now it’s time to pound cabbage.  You’ll be surprised how much it will compress as you vigroously tamp it down – surprised to equal, I’d say, your amazement at the bulk of shredded cabbage so far produced from a single volleyball-sized head!

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At any rate, shred, salt, and pound down the cabbage until you have it all in the crock as a moist slaw that sounds like galoshes stomping through the mud. You want it wet enough that pressing down on a mass of it will submerge it in its own brine.  


---> SCIENCE CORNER <---

Here’s what’s really going on:  We are taking the shredded cabbage, which is surprisingly high-moisture, and lightly salting it to draw out the liquid through osmosis (or perhaps, homeostatis?) and aiding this extraction by pounding it. The resulting slaw will then be compressed in the vessel, via the plate and weight, so that all the cabbage is submerged in its own brine – ah, that’s a very important part there, for the good bacteria (lactus basilicas, which is anaerobic: it hates air!) will do its stuff underwater while any bad bacteria will be kept safely at the surface (this is what you may need to skim off).  This process is - you guessed it - our old friend Fermentation!  Pretty simple eh?   


So far so good?  Let's close it up and let the magic happen.

 

Plate, Weight, Cloth, and Store

Take your little salad plate or other just-fits-inside-the-crock piece, and settle it snug onto the slaw, thus:

Plate in the crock - good fit, yeah?

 Try to remove any little bits of cabbage from the walls of the crock.  Next, in goes the jar, and into that goes the water, thus:

Plate in the crock - good fit, yeah?

 

Cap the jar once it's full, then press it down so you get that all-important bacteria barrier of brine.  Believe it or not, someday weeks from now, we will drink that.  

Pressing out the bubbles.

Press it down pretty hard, but don't break the plate - goal here is to get as much air out of the cabbage below as possible - you should see some bubbles coming up around the edges.  As the cabbage ferments in the coming days, we'll be pressing on it like this regularly to get the fermentation gasses out from under the plate. 

 

Final Steps!  Time to button this up - get your cloth and a rubber band, and secure it to keep flies and dust out:

Cover and let rest.

Now, under the sink or somewhere else out of the way.  

 

Kraut Watch.  Now we play the waiting game - though it's not entirely just sitting around.  For the first week or so, every day you should press down firmly on the weight, to help release the fermentation gasses that are building up under the plate and in the cabbage.  They will really take off for the first couple days, then taper off after a while.  Every couple days, peek under the cloth and scrape off any floating cabbage shreds or - yep - scum that may be growing.  I've read into this very thoroughly, being a food-paranoid kind of guy, and it's fine. Just don't let mushrooms grow on there or anything.   

Importantly, temperature has a huge effect on how long it will take for your cabbage crock to become saeurkraut.  At an even 70 degrees, you should have very tasty and well-fermented saeurkraut in 2-3 weeks.  At 80 degrees, probably more like a week, and at 60 degrees it could take a month or more before you get the full fermentation flavor.  Don't get too obsessive about this, though - basically just press on it every day and look under the cloth every few days.  Trust your instincts, and try it when you think it's ready.  Unless it smells *really* bad or has turned bright orange or something, it will be fine to eat.  

 

And that's it!  At the time of this writing, we're well into our second batch of crock-style kraut, having eaten the first with gusto and much gastronomical benefit.  Check back for a short article on our de-crocking of the first batch - and our first taste of successful honest-to-god home made saeurkraut.