I know that sauerkraut can be an acquired taste for some, but I've loved that stinky, fermented cabbage since the first time I laid eyes on it, way back in elementary school (seriously). Though its smell might have put me off at first, its briny, funky flavor immediately won me over. While other kids were eating Fruit by the Foot, I was knocking back jars of the stuff like there was no tomorrow, and this was all before I even knew it was healthy, so you know I wasn't faking it.
Needless to say, I was definitely a weird kid, but I was also clearly onto something. Sauerkraut is full of probiotics, which some research has shown can help improve gut health. Even if probiotics are all hype, sauerkraut is still worth eating because it's basically just cabbage, which means it's packed with vitamins B and C. Plus, it's easier to digest than raw cabbage, because fermentation breaks down its naturally occurring sugars. And if that weren't enough, it's also freakin' delicious.
As a lifelong lover of sauerkraut, I figured it was high time for me to try to start making my own. I thought it would be difficult, seeing as it's fermented and all, but it's actually incredibly simple—so simple, you only need two ingredients and a few common household items to do it. Before I gave it a shot for the first time, I asked Jennifer Berg, clinical associate professor at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture and director of graduate food studies, all about what to do and what not to do, plus some of the science behind what makes sauerkraut special. Here's everything she told me, plus what I learned from making it myself.
Before we get to the step by step, this is how the process works.
Berg says that preparing sauerkraut employs fermentation, not pickling. Pickling is a process that relies on salt and vinegar to preserve fruits and vegetables. Fermentation is different because it instead uses salt, time, and lactobacillus (the bacteria that's naturally present on the surface of most produce) to break down and preserve the cabbage. Basically, the lactobacillus is pre-digesting the sugar in the cabbage for you. The breakdown produces lactic acid, which naturally preserves and prevents the growth of harmful bacteria in the cabbage. It also gives sauerkraut its famous sour flavor and makes it easier for you to digest.
To get started, gather your supplies and make sure everything is super clean.
All you need to start making homemade sauerkraut is cabbage, salt, a large jar, a tea towel, and some rocks or pebbles (this sounds weird, but it'll make sense in a bit, I promise).
To give your healthy bacteria the best shot of succeeding, you'll want to make sure all of your tools are super clean before you get started, says Berg. She recommends running all your tools through the dishwasher beforehand, but I simply washed my tools by hand with hot water and dish soap and I didn't have any problems. With all that being said, she says it's important to note that making sauerkraut is extremely safe, because the lactic acid and salt create an environment that makes it nearly impossible for harmful bacteria to grow in. Even if you wind up with a little mold on the top of your kraut, you can simply remove it and enjoy the kraut below, which will be safe to eat because it will have been preserved in the lactic acid.
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and hold onto them, then slice the rest of the cabbage into thin ribbons and massage it with salt.
Be sure to hold onto those exterior cabbage leaves, because you're going to need them for the next step. Then, massage your cabbage for about five to 10 minutes with coarse salt. It's a bit of an arm workout, so be prepared. You'll know the cabbage is ready when it looks more like coleslaw than cabbage. You should end up with a decent amount of liquid and the leaves should have become slightly translucent. You can also add spices (caraway is one that's commonly used), but I decided to keep mine plain this first time around.
Pack the cabbage into a large jar and press it down with a weight to keep it submerged in liquid.
After you've massaged your cabbage, transfer it to a large jar (along with any liquids), pack it down tightly with your fist, and cover the cabbage with a leftover cabbage leaf. The secret to making sauerkraut is that you have to keep it submerged under its liquid for it to properly ferment. Shredded bits of kraut have a tendency to float to the top, and covering them with a cabbage leaf will prevent that from happening.
To really ensure the cabbage stays submerged in its liquid, set a few clean rocks, pebbles, or marbles on top to keep it pressed down. You can also use a fermentation weight (like this one here), but if you don't feel like buying special equipment, regular old rocks will work just fine. I used whatever I was able to find in my apartment and didn't have any problems.
Cover the jar with a clean cloth and a lid, leave it in a cool, dark spot, and check on it periodically for the next 24 hours to make sure it's still submerged in liquid.
If you notice the cabbage rising above the liquid, gently press the weight down until it's submerged again. At the end of the 24 hours, if the cabbage has not completely fallen beneath the liquid, mix up a bit of salt water and use it to top off your jar.
Let it sit in that cool, dark spot for three days to two weeks.
Check on your sauerkraut every couple of days and pop it open and release the gas build-up from fermentation. You can also taste the kraut throughout the process and pack it up whenever it suits your taste, even if that's only three days in. Keep in mind, white cabbage tends to ferment faster than red cabbage, so you may not need much time at all if that's what you're using. Once it's ready, transfer it to the fridge to halt the fermentation process, and that's it! So far I've found that my homemade stuff is crunchier, zestier, and fresher than what I'd usually get at the store. Enjoy it on hot dogs, or, if you're like me, straight from the jar.