Sauerkraut – A Fermented Super Food
This post has been a long time in the making. I’ve had requests for a step-by-step demonstration of making sauerkraut; I make sauerkraut on a regular basis, so one of the last times that I made it I took pictures of every step, planning it all out in my head how I would write it … and then it seems like 10,000 other things to do got in my way of actually writing in down keyboard-style and posting it here. So, while it seems like a simple process, writing about kraut really takes some effort!
Sauerkraut is not a new idea to most of us. Here in the Midwest, most of us have German roots in one way or another (my background includes some Muellers and Dunkers), and so we’ve grown up around such things as sauerkraut, sausage, German fests, and many have visited Milwaukee (the beer capital of the USA).
My first exposure to sauerkraut was through my dad, who loved to add it to his hot dogs and Reuben sandwiches. Of course, he used the canned variety, which didn’t appeal much to us girls. And so, I didn’t eat sauerkraut as a kid and rarely ate it as an adult (I did like it in Reuben sandwiches when I grew up!)
The first demonstration I saw of making homemade sauerkraut was at an Autism One conference in Chicago, IL, in May of 2011. There was a presentation on “culinary day” by Sherrin Ross Ingram of how she makes sauerkraut for her family; it seemed very simple, and the sauerkraut that we were able to sample tasted nothing like the canned sauerkraut I remembered as a child. It wasn’t sure how much I really liked it, but it was definitely a lot tastier than its processed alternative.
However, this did not start me making sauerkraut at home. We gave our boys probiotics as instructed by our biomedical doctor but really didn’t start to explore the benefits of fermented food until the spring of 2012, when I obtained water kefir grains at another Autism One conference. Using water kefir grains, I was able to make a variety of tasty probiotic drinks that my boys loved. I saw once again a demonstration of how to make kraut at that conference, but again, didn’t try it yet!
In February 2013, out of sheer desperation as my boys were getting sicker and sicker, we started the GAPS Diet. Literally, I was THROWN into making sauerkraut. Even as I was reading the GAPS book, the thought that sauerkraut could be SO beneficial and was so important to digestive healing seemed a bit farfetched to me. However, if that’s what it took, I was willing to try it.
And thus began our love affair with sauerkraut.
The thing that surprised me first was my youngest son, who was 3 at the time and a VERY picky eater. He LOVED sauerkraut!! He would eat spoons and spoons of it. I also came to find that if we had a meal where we didn’t have sauerkraut (such as when Mom forgot to make it, and it was fermenting away in the pantry but not ready yet), I actually missed it. And there are days when I feel a little “off”, and my body CRAVES sauerkraut, so I sit down and eat a small bowl of it.
Sauerkraut helps our body to be ready to digest our meal; it increases stomach acid production and aids in bile production, so that we can digest our food better; it contains much more vitamin C than in just regular cabbage, so it also helps boost our immune system and keeps us healthier, even through the winter. We experienced this the first year we were on GAPS. The prior year the boys had been sick for 7 months straight (from October to April) with one serious bug after another. The first winter on GAPS, they had the sniffles a couple of times and that was it. I really do feel that sauerkraut, along with other things, was a big contributor to this. So, let’s learn a little more about it … time for science!!!
The Benefits of Sauerkraut
Before cabbage is fermented, it already has a host of health benefits. It is high in many vitamins and minerals, rich in antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, and studies have shown that it may help lower cholesterol levels and help to combat certain cancers. However, these health benefits are nothing compared to what happens to raw cabbage when it is lacto-fermented.
Some nutritional benefits of fermented sauerkraut:
- Raw cabbage contains moderate amounts of vitamin C (around 30mg per cup). When you ferment cabbage (sauerkraut), the levels of vitamin C and antioxidants increase drastically. Studies have shown that levels of antioxidants and vitamin C in a cup of sauerkraut range from 57 to 695mg per cup (with raw, fermented red cabbage having the most vitamin C: almost 700mg per cup!)
- It is a good source of calcium and magnesium
- It is a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin K, vitamin B6, folate, iron, potassium, copper and manganese.
History shows that fermented cabbage has been around for centuries. It seems to have originated in China, with workers of the Great Wall consuming it. When it travelled to Europe, Roman soldiers ate sauerkraut to help prevent intestinal problems during long military excursions. Soldiers ate fermented cabbage to help prevent disease while on long voyages: in the 1770s, Captain James Cook sailed around the world without losing a single sailor to scurvy, thanks to the dozens of barrels of sauerkraut on board.
Our colon contains many species of beneficial bacteria which feed on what’s left over (waste) from the digestive process. As they do this, they create lactic acid. Without a good balance of these beneficial bacteria, our digestive tract becomes overrun by pathogenic bacteria, parasites and yeasts, leading to digestive disorders and more.
Sauerkraut provides a wide range of beneficial bacteria which can help us to digest our food. It contains many, many more living bacteria than a commercial probiotic that you can buy could provide. Dr. Mercola sent his sauerkraut to a lab to have it analyzed and found that one 4-6 oz. serving had literally TEN TRILLION bacteria in it. This means that 2 oz. of fermented cabbage had more probiotics in it than a bottle of 100 count probiotic capsules! Besides the huge difference in the amount of probiotics contained per serving, fermented cabbage also has the advantage of being able to travel the entire distance of the digestive tract and help with the balance of flora, while probiotics tend to only reach the stomach or the upper part of the colon.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, the founder of the GAPS Diet, states: “With every mouthful of sauerkraut you’re consuming billions of beneficial microbes which will be killing the pathogens in your gut driving them out and replenishing the beneficial flora in your digestive tract.”
“Great!” you may say. “I’ll go buy some sauerkraut right now!” The problem is, most of the sauerkraut you can purchase from the store (for example: ALL of the sauerkraut that’s available at your local supermarket, like Woodman’s) contains very little in the way of beneficial bacteria. The kraut has been processed and pasteurized to meet FDA standards, thus killing many of its beneficial properties in the process. To really get the full benefits of sauerkraut, it should be made at home.
The good news is: it’s an easy process!
What you’ll need to make one quart of sauerkraut:
One medium head cabbage (preferably organic or from a local Farmer’s market)
1 Tbs. sea salt
1 glass Mason jar with lid
Wooden spoon or mallet
Food processor for shredding
For some reason, despite how easy the process is, I tend to really procrastinate when it comes to making sauerkraut. I don’t know if it’s because I make so many jars at one time, or because it makes a mess on my countertop with little cabbage shreds everywhere, or because it’s just another task … but it’s actually one of the things on the bottom (if not THE bottom) of my kitchen must-do list.
So, how do I get through making sauerkraut? I usually make something yummy to drink or eat (think chocolate … or today, I made up some tea) and I also usually call my mom, to distract me from the task at hand (because really, you barely need to think to make sauerkraut).
OK – ready!
First, if my cabbage has been in the fridge for a while, I leave the heads out at room temp for a few hours. My hands are very sensitive to cold, and as I will be massaging the shredded cabbage, I like it if it’s a few degrees warmer than fridge temp.
Before I shred my cabbage, I save a leaf at least the size of the diameter of my Mason jar. This will help me pack the shredded cabbage down so it won’t float above the brine as it ferments.
To core my cabbage, I cut it in half, then cut out the core in a triangle shape. There’s many different ways to do this, but I’ve found this to be easiest for me.
Next, I shred the cabbage in my food processor. You can experiment with different sized shreds. This time, I did the “small shred” in the processor. You can do a bigger shred, or even slice the cabbage into long strips. Each way you do it results in a different tasting sauerkraut; our family likes the finely shredded cabbage, but if you like things a little crispier, you could also just slice your cabbage.
After the cabbage is shredded, I pour it all into a large bowl. I sprinkle 1 Tbs. of sea salt over it, mix it in it loosely with my hands and let it sit for about 10 minutes. This allows the salt to start to work on the cabbage, getting it ready to release its juices.
After the 10 minutes are up, I begin to massage the cabbage with my hands. It is kind of like kneading, but also I’m squeezing the cabbage in my hands. This helps release the juices that will form the brine that the kraut will sit in while it ferments.
After about 5-10 minutes, you will see juice in the bottom of your bowl, and your cabbage will become softer.
Now you can spoon the cabbage (or use your hands) into your glass Mason jar. PACK IT TIGHTLY as this is an anaerobic process (meaning “no oxygen”) and you don’t want big air bubbles remaining in your jar. Some people will use a wooden mallet or tool specifically made for this purpose to pack their cabbage in tightly. Being the fancy fermenter that I am, I just use a wooden spoon 😉
When the cabbage is packed into the jar (leaving at least an inch of “head room” at the top of the jar), I place the saved cabbage leaf on top of the shredded kraut and press it down firmly until it is submerged under the liquid and no solid cabbage is left floating above the liquid line. This is an important step, as any cabbage left above the liquid has the tendency to mold. Also, leaving at least an inch of room in the jar is also important, as the kraut will start to expand as it ferments.
Now, place a tight lid on your jar. I also like to label my jar with the date that I made the kraut so that I know approximately when to start eating it.
Place it in the pantry or another dark place with good ventilation. I usually place a paper bag or piece of cardboard under my jars, as the first few days they are fermenting they tend to get bubbly and liquid sometimes spills over and will leak out onto whatever is below it. Also, for the first 5 days or so, check your kraut often, as excess gases will build up and place a lot of pressure on your jar. When I notice that a jar is under too much pressure, I take it to the sink and SLOWLY loosen the lid a little. Expect a small volcanic explosion. I then wipe whatever juices escaped from off the jar, tighten the lid again, and put it back in the pantry. This usually only happens the first week, and then your jars can sit in peace without you having to worry that they will explode.
Now comes the hardest part: waiting for it to be ready!!!!
The interesting thing about cabbage fermentation is that the longer you ferment your cabbage, the more beneficial it can be in terms of bacteria it contains. During different stages of fermentation, different species of bacteria become the dominant strain.
If you are interested in learning more about fermentation, an excellent resource for you would be Sandor Katz’s book “Wild Fermentation”. In his book, he describes the following process that fermenting cabbage takes:
- First, bacteria called Coliform start the fermentation process.
- As they produce acid, the environment is more favorable for the Leuconostoc bacteria (within the first week of fermentation). This causes the Coliform bacteria to decline as the numbers of Leuconostoc bacteria increase.
- As the acids continue to build and the pH continues to drop (become more acidic), Lactobacillus follow the Leuconostoc bacteria.
An interesting study can be found at the link below, describing the process of lacto-fermentation in sauerkraut. Obviously the bacteria present in sauerkraut will be slightly different depending on the bacteria on the cabbage you use and the bacteria and yeasts present in your home as you ferment, but this study shows the species of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) that are present in sauerkraut, specifically: Lactobacillus curvatus, Lactobacillus sakei, Lactococcus lactis (subsp. Lactis) and Leuconostoc fallax. Per this study, the fermentation is essentially complete within 2 weeks, with the most acid-tolerant species, L. plantarum, predominating at that point. (See the full study: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2168044/#!po=0.284091)
What I like to do with our sauerkraut is to eat it at different intervals: for example, we may start to eat our first jar of kraut after it ferments for 1-2 weeks; I leave the remaining jars at room temp to continue to ferment. When we finish with the first jar of kraut, I’ll bring out the second jar, and so on. So by the time I get to the last jar of kraut, it may have fermented for a couple of months or so (or more), and thus this way we get varying forms of dominant bacteria in our kraut. (It also varies the taste slightly, as sauerkraut fermented for longer periods of time gets softer).
There are many other ways to make sauerkraut at home; my method tends to be the simplest, with no fancy equipment. There are jars that create a better anaerobic environment, like Pickl-it Jars; some persons with difficulty handling histamines such as those present in sauerkraut may need to ferment their sauerkraut for a longer period of time, such as a few months up to 6 months. They also may find that using special jars like Pickl-it jars helps them to tolerate the sauerkraut better as well.
Some also state that they have had trouble with kraut molding in Mason jars and thus advocate buying special equipment to make it. Definitely feel free to use special fermenting equipment and jars if you feel that you would like to use them or if it makes you more likely to ferment food; however, I have made hundreds of jars of fermented foods, and I have NEVER had my sauerkraut mold; a few vegetables here and there have molded if the vegetable was bad, but never my kraut.
“How will I know if it’s bad”? you may ask. When a fermented product molds, usually you will see something white or black and “fuzzy” floating on top. This is mold. There are some who feel comfortable just skimming this mold off the top and continuing to eat the fermented vegetable (I’m not one of those people, however, as mold can grow “roots” and reach deeper than it appears to). However, what you will often notice on the top of your fermented veggies is a fine white layer (NOT fuzzy) that just coats the top, or sometimes grows on the bottom of your jar. This is OK, actually, it’s what you want! This would be some of the lacto-fermented probiotics that you have been trying to grow in your foods. The lack of this white film in your fermented product, however, does NOT mean that it didn’t ferment. A fermented vegetable should taste slightly salty with a sour taste. If it tastes super salty, leave it to ferment a little longer.
The best way to learn is to experiment by making sauerkraut yourself! And you don’t just have to make just plain ol’ sauerkraut using nothing but green cabbage, but you can experiment adding in different veggies or herbs, like carrots, Brussels sprouts, dill, coriander, and so, so much more; you can also make kraut using red cabbage instead of green. Google different recipes and go crazy! While we like just plain kraut from green cabbage, we also love a recipe that is similar to kimchi (but not spicy) using peppers, radishes, ginger, garlic … yum!
Many people don’t start fermenting at home because they’re afraid of making a mistake: but really, this is the biggest mistake you can make! Fermented foods are literally teeming with health benefits for you and your family. I hope that this article helps you to start experiencing these benefits firsthand!
And may making this simple fermented vegetable introduce you into a whole world of lacto-fermented wonderfulness!