Making sauerkraut: You only need two ingredients

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

Because cabbage is one of those vegetables that can withstand light frost, I often leave part of my crop in the garden until the very end. By that time, most of my largest and best heads of cabbage have long since been harvested and used for slaw, stuffed cabbage, other recipes or given away.

I had several smaller heads left over this week and decided it was time to make them into sauerkraut.

Fresh cabbage makes the best kraut so leave your cabbage in the garden until you are ready to make your sauerkraut. Light frost will not harm cabbage.

Sauerkraut is a fermented food and does wonders for the support of your digestive system’s good bacteria population. It just so happens it is one of the easiest fermented foods to make and contains only two ingredients, cabbage and salt. Only simple kitchen tools and supplies that most homes already have are needed: a way to slice the cabbage and a container to pack the kraut into.

I had about 10 pounds of cabbage left in my garden.

Although there are plenty of gadgets out there that entrepreneurs have invented to make it more convenient, there’s really no need to buy fancy, expensive fermentation kits. On the other hand, they are great Christmas presents to introduce someone to the art of food fermentation.

My first batch of sauerkraut decades ago was made in an antique 10 gallon crock and  turned out so well that I’ve been making it ever since.

For that first batch, I cut the cabbage entirely by hand using a kitchen knife. Believe me, to get about 8 gallons of kraut, that was a lot of cutting to do considering each slice needed to be between the thickness of no greater than a quarter and no less than a dime. I have since graduated to more time-saving ways of cutting my cabbage.

After using a knife, then a mandolin, I now use a vegetable shredding attachment on our KitchenAid to shred my cabbage.

The proper amount of salt is critical for success. Salt is what inhibits bad bacteria but still allows the good fermentation bacteria to flourish. Never try to make a low-salt sauerkraut, all you’ll end up with is a crock of inedible rotten cabbage and you sure don’t want that stinky mess anywhere near your kitchen.

When searching online for a sauerkraut recipe, make sure it is from a reliable source such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation. I came across many attractive looking, popular websites that presented some iffy recipes, a few of them seemed to be simply “cut and paste” from each other. A couple sites gave recipes for low-salt kraut and one even said the amount of salt didn’t matter, “just salt to taste.”

Many of the recipes that are duplicated are given in metric measurements, which is not very helpful to us using pounds and tablespoons. The correct ratio of salt to cabbage is 3 tablespoons of salt to 5 pounds of cabbage -- adjust the volume of salt if you have less cabbage.

Five pounds of cabbage at a time is a good amount that can be easily handled in the kitchen to allow the salt to be evenly mixed in.

This time around I used a food-safe, 2 gallon pickle bucket from a restaurant as my fermentation container. Ten pounds of cabbage fit in nicely with room to spare.

Place the salted cabbage in the container and crush it down firmly with your fists. If fresh cabbage is used, juice will be released quickly, covering the shredded cabbage.

Continue layering and pressing down until your container is nearly full. Some headroom is needed to allow for a dinner plate and weight to hold the cabbage under the juice. Any cabbage exposed to the air will spoil so be careful at  this stage.

Temperatures between 60 degrees and 70 degrees  are ideal for fermenting. Any lower and the fermentation will be very slow or might even stop, while higher temperatures will turn into low quality mushy kraut.

The fresher the cabbage you use, the better your kraut will turn out, so it’s best to leave the cabbage in your garden until you’re ready to make your sauerkraut.

Some people can sauerkraut; I never have. I like to leave it in the crock and take out just what I need for that day, always making sure I replace the dinner plate and weight to keep the fermented cabbage under the brine. That way I’m always able to have the living food that real sauerkraut is meant to be.

Properly made raw, homemade sauerkraut can last for many weeks or even months in the crock. It's a real treat that can be used in cooked recipes or enjoyed without cooking, much like pickles or other fermented foods.