Sauerkraut is a great beginner fermentation project that you can do without any special equipment. We based our method for this distinctively sour fermented cabbage dish on that of fermentation guru Sandor Ellix Katz (read CHOW’s interview with him). Homemade sauerkraut is pleasantly crunchy and tangy, and the science-project aspect of fermenting it yourself is hard to resist. Use it to top sausages and hot dogs, stuff it into a Reuben sandwich, or braise it with spices like juniper and bay leaves for a hearty side dish.
Here’s how to make your own sauerkraut:
1. Shred five pounds of firm, fresh green cabbage (about two heads) in a food processor. It will need to be done in batches—dump each batch into a large bowl as you go, sprinkling with a total of three generous tablespoons of kosher salt, and mix it all together well. You can use a little more or a little less cabbage; just be sure to use a scant two teaspoons of kosher salt per pound of cabbage.
2. Pack the cabbage and any juices it has released into a crock a little at a time, pressing the cabbage down tightly with your fist as you go. If you don’t have a crock, you can use a food-safe plastic bucket; just be sure you have at least five inches of clearance above the cabbage to allow for foaming/bubbling during fermentation.
3. Place a clean plate over the cabbage that fits fairly snugly within the opening of the crock or bucket. Place a clean container of water (a large Mason jar works well—it should weigh a minimum of five pounds) on the plate to weight down the cabbage, and throw a clean towel over the top of the crock to keep out any dust.
4. Check back frequently during the first day to be sure the cabbage is releasing enough juices (the salt will pull water from the cabbage to create a brine). Press on the plate/weight if necessary, and/or add more weight if the liquid doesn’t start to cover the top of the cabbage. After about six to eight hours, there should be at least an inch of juice/brine above the plate. If there isn’t, you can top off your cabbage with cooled brine composed of one and a half tablespoons of kosher salt per quart of water.
5. Store the crock in a spot with a temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit—not colder than 65 degrees or hotter than 75 degrees. Check it every few days, skimming any scum off the top. The fermentation will cause natural bubbles and foam to form—that’s OK. Rinse the plate and weight off well each time before putting them back. Keep an eye on the brine level; you may have to add more if it’s evaporating (see step 4 for proportions). Keep a good inch of brine above the plate as the fermentation proceeds.
6. Start tasting the cabbage after about a week, and ferment it to the level of tanginess that you like, anywhere from one to four weeks. Some people prefer the milder cabbage-y taste of young kraut, while others like a more fermented flavor.
7. When the cabbage is fermented to your liking, transfer it and its brine to clean jars, leaving about a half inch of headspace, and refrigerate. The sauerkraut should last a few months refrigerated under brine. You can also heat-process and can your sauerkraut for storage, but that will kill the health-beneficial microorganisms.