I should perhaps begin by saying why I make sauerkraut at home. It all started when I went to a rummage sale where a lovely senior citizen was selling her home-made sauerkraut out of a cooler for $5 a bag. Yes, she was scooping it out of the cooler into ziplock bags on a per-sale basis. She had free tasting going on and I noticed that a lot of people who took a taste bought some. I too, was addicted at first bite. I just couldn't believe it was so good. I bought a bag, and once home the contents seemed to be vanishing in thin air. I knew I had to have more of that good stuff, but seriously, at the rate of speed that we were gobbling it down, I knew that I couldn't afford to keep buying it from that nice woman. The other thing is that were on vacation at our summer place, and I was already thinking "What are we going to do come winter?" We would be 500 miles away from this sauerkraut.
So here are the reasons I decided to learn to make my own:
1) Better tasting by far!
2) The price!
The more I learned about raw fermented foods online when I started studying the process of making them, the more I realized that this was not ony going to be an affordable and delicious addiction, but that home-made sauerkraut is also very healthy.
After much reading and thinking, I ordered a set of inexpensive 3-piece fermentation airlocks that were mounted in white wide mouth mason jar lids and some glass weights. I already had the jars. But while I was waiting for these items to be shipped, I decided to make my own airlock, using new fish tank tubing, and a flip-topped bottled that vitamins had come in. All the recipes I read where people advocated using the airlocks said to pour water in them, but I decided to use vodka as the filter medium, too, as although I don't drink the stuff I did have some around for use as a disinfectant. I knew that I would be putting my possible unfinished jars of sauerkraut in the refrigerator because we were going on a short trip, and as much as I love this sauerkraut I didn't want the refrigerator to smell of it when I got back. Here is what my contraption looked like:
I drilled a hole in the top of a white wide-mouth mason jar lid and another hole in the top of the vitamin bottle. Then I ran a short piece of clean tubing from the wide-mouth lid up and down through the bottle lid and then down into the vodka.
As I did not have weights yet, for the first batch I put a 4-ounce jelly jar on top of the cabbage and used it to push the cabbage down into the quart mason jar far enough so that the liquid came above the bottom of the jelly jar, but not as high as the top. The home-made airlock worked great and my first batch was delicious, but for subsequent batches I used manufactured ones. There was no difference in the sauerkraut, but the store-bought locks were affordable and, of course, more convenient to use. I do not understand why anyone would not use an airlock when home fermenting, however, whether it is home-made or not. The fermentation airlocks ensure perfect product every time and they completely prevent any odors while the lid remains on the jar.
I decided that 1 tablespoon of natural sea salt would be about right for one head of cabbage, so I added that to the little bit of sauerkraut juice from the rummage sale lady''s product which I used as my first starter.
Many recipes that you will see online say that it is necessary to mix the sliced cabbage in a large bowl to smash the salt into it. My first batch was chopped in the blender instead of sliced, so I reasoned that was not necessary. As it turned out, it was not necessary on my next batch either, which I sliced by hand. I don't know what they say you have to do that if you are making sauerkraut in a mason jar because you can just put it in the jar with the salt and a little water and smash it down with a tall juice glass. I use a favorite glass that I saved when POM first started selling their wonderful tea. It is narrow and tall enough to fit inside the quart mason jar, and sturdy enough not to break.
After a few hourse of sitting, the smashed down cabbage starts interacting with the salt, which pulls moisture out and then I smash it down some more and make sure that the liquid is above all of the cabbage so that no air touches the food. I am surprised that many people who write these articles are careful to tell everyone to sterilize their utensils and then they show themselves putting their hands on the food. I rinse my utensils with filtered water after taking them out of the dishwasher, but I don't boil them. I also do not touch the food with my hands, so I do always use a glass for pushing the cabbage down into the jars and never my fist as I have seen that some people do.
I think that using at least a tablespoon of salt per head of cabbage is a good idea to keep bad bacteria from forming, but I also rinse a lot of the salt off from the sauerkraut before eating it.
OK, here is my drill:
1) I assemble what I will need and make sure it is clean to start. Quart canning jars, weights, airlock lids, a canning funnel, salt, and a head of cabbage, which I take out of the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature before starting, only because it is more pleasant to handle when it is room temperature. I also put out a couple of clean plastic bags which I use over my hands to pick up the cabbage during and after the slicing, as I am rather particular about not touching food, especially if other people are going to eat it. These bags are also handy, when I have finished for wrapping around the outside leaves and cores that I have trimmed off to throw away. This does not have to be a messy job.
2) I slice the cabbage very thin using my colorful resin coated Santoku knife. I do that because I enjoy playing with my food and because I like the strandy texture. It is faster to just chop it all up in a blender, and the flavor comes out the same. If you are going to chop it fine, then please save a leaf to put over the top so that none of the particles come up into the air.
3) Push as much cabbage as will fit into each of two quart mason jars, pour the brine over each and compress the mixture with a long glass. At first the pressing reduces the volume of the cabbage by about half, so then I refill each jar to the top and press again until the lids can be put on. Except for the very first time, the brine is made of 1 tablespoon salt plus some juice from my previous batch. After much experimentation, I still like plain sauerkraut best, but if you want to add other vegetables and/or spices, just dump them in while filling each jar. Sometimes I add sweet onion, celery, and shedded carrot.
Some people pour olive or coconut oil over the top instead of using a leaf. That would probably keep the air out, but I have not tried it because I mainly ferment sliced cabbage and what I am already doing works,. There is also some controversy over whether using oil with fermenting food is a good idea or not. I am also picky about the taste and texture that might result. It is cheaper not to add oil, and without it I am confident that my sauerkraut juice can be used over and over as a starter for future batches.
4) Check the jars after a few hours to make sure there is enough liquid to cover all of the cabbage. If not, I don't have any issues with adding more water. Some people use larger jars and add lots of water and then drink the extra juice.
5) Now just leave it alone. After 3 days if your home is warm, or 3 weeks if it is cool, or whatever time period seems right, the jars can be checked and put in the refrigerator where, it is rumored, the sauerkraut will stay fresh for months. However, my issue is not how long it could in theory keep, but how soon it is going to be eaten all up and a new batch should be started in order not to run out.
I went nutso over my home-made sauerkraut from the first quart that I fermented, and each day I am wondering if I will ever get tired of this food.