Backroads: Homemade Sauerkraut

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Cutting cabbage on a kraut cutter

Sauerkraut is in my DNA. I am of German descent and kraut was a big part of my family’s culinary expertise. But with all the years of eating it, I never knew how to actually make it. I credit Johnny Coffey, my first neighbor here in Love, with teaching me the fine art of making sauerkraut in a crock and letting it ferment to perfection. One taste of homemade and you will never be satisfied with the canned variety you buy at the grocery store. Kraut is easy to make, especially if you have a garden and grow your own cabbage. If not, cabbage is inexpensive, and the only other ingredient required is salt.

Start with a crock without any cracks in it. Any size will do, depending on how much you want to make. We typically use a five-gallon crock that makes around thirteen quarts of kraut after discarding the waste. For that amount, we use eight large heads of cabbage. 

A wooden mallet and a kraut cutter help to make the job easier. You can thinly slice the cabbage with a knife but the cutter makes for a uniform cut and can be placed on the rim of the crock, letting the cabbage fall directly into the crock. A wooden mallet can be found at an online sustainable living site, antique shops, or make your own out of a small hickory tree.

Once a layer of cut cabbage is in the crock, use the mallet to begin mashing it. Don’t use a heavy hand or you may crack the crock. A steady thump-thumping will do the trick. When juice starts to come, add salt to taste. When the first layer is “slushy,” put in another layer of cabbage and begin mashing it into the existing juice, adding salt as you go. Salt to individual taste. We like ours milder so we taste as we go along. Make sure there’s plenty of juice, because you’ll need it later for canning.

Cutting cabbage on a kraut cutter

When the crock is as full as you want it, place a few wild grape leaves on top of the last layer, shiny side down. Grape leaves contain tannin which will promote crispness. Invert a wooden top or ceramic plate on the leaves and put some type of weight on it. We use a large washed rock on ours—just heavy enough to submerge the cabbage under the juice. Do not use any type of metal for the cover as it reacts to the acidic nature of the sauerkraut. Cover the crock with a damp dishtowel to keep the gnats and flies away and put the crock in a dark, cool place. If you don’t have a root cellar, a basement or crawl space will do fine. Resist the urge to peek at the kraut once the crock is in place because any activity disturbs the fermentation process. Let sit for at least fourteen days before removing the crock.

Placing grape leaves on top

Do not be grossed out by the mold and scum that may have formed on the top. Gently put your hand down a few inches below the mold and lift off the bad part and discard. Then plunge your hand to the bottom of the crock and pull out a pinch to try. Ambrosia!

Transfer the cured kraut from the crock to a large container and bring it in the kitchen for canning.

You can pack it in clean, hot Mason jars in two ways. For the hot-pack method, heat all the kraut at once, bringing it just to the boiling pint, then pack it into hot pint or quart jars and cover with juice. You can leave it plain or add your own spices. I usually put in two heads of fresh dill and a light sprinkle of caraway seeds to flavor mine. Wipe off the jar edges and put on hot lids with screw tops. The jars will seal by themselves with no need to put them in a boiling water bath. For the cold-pack method, fill each hot jar with kraut and juice and put on hot lids and screw tops and place them in a boiling water bath for about fifteen minutes. Remove the jars and they should seal themselves a short time after you take them off the stove. If a jar does not seal for some reason just put it in the refrigerator and eat the kraut within a few days.

It’s true that anything homemade tastes better, but sauerkraut turns out exceptionally well. I’m sure there are more complicated methods and longer fermenting times shown in canning books, but Johnny Coffey’s way has always worked for me and it’s the simplest recipe I’ve found. Why not try it yourself? 

Canned kraut ready for the pantry

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